The “Unite the Right” rally that turned violent last year in Charlottesville, N.C., had its own Facebook page for a time. Social media posts spurred nationalists in India to vandalize statues of activists and leaders in March.
In the world’s largest democracies and across the globe, social media is enabling the rise in nationalism — both in government and on the extreme fringes of society.
Harry Hughes belongs to the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement, which has a Missouri unit. The organization describes itself as “America’s Premier White Civil Rights Organization," but the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it a neo-Nazi hate group.
"Social media allowed our membership to explode. It is a very useful tool for us,” said Hughes, the group’s public relations director. “Social media is basically the key to our ability to get our message out. We don't have TV stations, we don't have radio stations, we're not mainstream. So like any third party out there, we rely on social media."
The ease by which groups like NSM can spread their ideas raises concern among social media experts. Posts on popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter, they say, can promote a sense of false equivalency between hate messages and civilized discourse.
“[Social media] allowed people to express their views, but with this comes some of the chaos inherent in a discussion in which both sides are given equal value,” said Skye Montgomery, a Kinder Research Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Missouri who studies nationalism in American history. “And at the moment, there's not really a mechanism for sifting through the value [of these] different positions.”
Pritak Sinha, co-founder of AltNews, an Indian fact-checking website, said the landscape is similar in India, with political parties and nationalist groups taking advantage of people’s inability to distinguish between fake and real information.
“We are talking about about a demographic that is divided hugely in terms of education capabilities,” Sinha said. “You have multiple factions of our population where they're not educated, and they still have access to tools like WhatsApp through which they get information. But they have no facilities to go and look up ... whether the information they have received is authentic or not.”
Recruiting made easier
In many ways, Montgomery said, nationalists’ recruitment and promotion techniques on social media echo methods of the past.
“The basic process by which we sort of define a national identity and enact it on social media hasn't actually changed from the same process that we interacted with print media like newspapers and magazines 50 years earlier,” Montgomery said. “The big difference is that with social media it's a lot easier to find a sense of community over a broader area. So it's possible for people who might not otherwise have come into contact with one another to find sort of the sense of common ground.”
Unlike today’s recruits, who can find nationalist groups instantly on social media, it took Hughes years of searching before he found the group he felt he belonged to. He looked into several nationalist movements and attended small gatherings of nationalists at his local library. It wasn’t until he hosted an after-party following a rally that he was connected with the NSM.
Hughes may very well have found the group sooner had it been on Twitter when he joined in 2009. A 2016 study conducted at George Washington University found major American white nationalist movements collectively gained about 22,000 Twitter followers since 2012.
“Our primary role on social media is to let people know we're out here,” Hughes said. “For the longest time I actually underestimated Twitter, and then I learned that with the links and hashtags, you can really explode your reach.”
Realizing their role in the spread of such groups, some social media platforms have taken a more active role in policing content. NSM found several Twitter accounts were banned over time, and recently, YouTube removed NSM’s channel from its site. Lately NSM has been turning to alternative social media platforms.
“VK, which is based out of Russia, their terms of service are quite a bit more lenient than Facebook or Twitter or anyone,” Hughes said. “We found ourselves able to reach out to a completely different audience, in different parts of the world.”
A political tool
While social media fuels the growth of extreme groups worldwide, experts say it’s also stoking the overall rise of nationalism — spreading nationalist ideas put forward by political parties and world leaders.
In America, President Donald Trump has often been criticized for his nationalistic posts on Twitter. In November, Trump retweeted three inflammatory anti-Muslim videos from Britain First, an ultra-nationalist political group in Britain. His tweets seem to resonate with white nationalists. The George Washington University study found white nationalists referenced Trump on Twitter more than almost any other topic.
The only Twitter hashtag more popular than hashtags relating to Trump amongst white nationalists was #whitegenocide.
In India, the federal government is currently led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which originates from Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization. Political commentator Paranjoy Thakurta said the BJP and Hindu nationalists, like Trump, have taken advantage of the opportunities social media has to offer.
Social media posts calling for the destruction of statues in March came from supporters of India’s ruling party. Even Parliament member H. Raja put up — and eventually deleted — a Facebook post some viewed as a call to destroy statues.
“The BJP, more than others, have been able to use the internet and social media to propagate its viewpoint and its ideology, with [a] great degree of effectiveness,” Thakurta said. “While others are learning, the BJP took the lead. It has also been in the forefront of using trolls. Many of the purveyors of fake news are followed by the Prime Minister [on social media].”
So are other controversial social media accounts. Within the last year, accounts followed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have mocked the death of a female journalist and suggested dropping an atomic bomb on Pakistan. When Modi follows such nationalist accounts, it can give them undue legitimacy, which only makes it more difficult to identify what’s accurate and what’s not, Sinha said.
Other political parties have followed the BJP’s lead in social media.
“During the election cycle, all parties do it. There was a time when ... the right-wing parties indulged in the social media kind of fake information, more than the non-right wing parties,” Sinha said. “Because this issue has not been addressed and people find it a convenient way to influence people through this kind of propaganda, I think both parties are doing it.”
Sinha said this allows for critical discussions that don’t take place elsewhere, especially since “there are multiple channels that are dedicated to the government and act as mouthpieces to the government.”
But while social media has its advantages, he said, it also has the potential to spread dangerous ideas — unimpeded.
"People find it more comfortable to express hate on social media than (they) used to before,” Sinha said. “Before, they would put more thought before hating on social. But now, that has gone.”
Avishek Mitra contributed to this report.
As part of a University of Missouri journalism class last semester, six teams of students worked on story projects that connected India and Missouri. The students worked under the direction of Laura Ungar, investigative and enterprise reporter for USA Today and The Courier-Journal, and journalist Sujoy Dhar, a former Reuters correspondent and founder of the Indian news agency India Blooms, based in Kolkata, India. Students reported and wrote material from their home countries, communicating and collaborating through Skype and email.
Editor's note: The name of Stephen Graves, a post-doctoral fellow in the departments of Political Science and Black Studies, was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.