Lone Wolves in the Age of the Internet: Do Hate Crimes Happen More Because of Broadband Internet Access?
In an ideal world, the Internet would be a place of inclusivity and democracy. Instead, it’s just the opposite.
A new research study led by Jason Chan, Ph.D., shows a positive relationship between broadband Internet access and incidence of hate crimes. Specifically, race-driven hate crimes committed by individuals, rather than those committed in groups, increased.
Chan, an assistant professor of Information and Decision Science for the Carson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, discovered the correlation using official FBI data on hate-crime incidents, compared to that of broadband provider access taken from FCC documents. Between 2001 and 2008, access to just one broadband ISP showed a 20 percent rise in hate crimes, particularly in areas of high racial tension.
“We see this from two different perspectives,” Chan tells The Daily Beast, “the consumers of hate content, and the producers of it. Hate content refers to Internet posts that bring about skewed ideologies and advocating for a supremacy of one race over other races.”
The first perspective has to do with selective exposure, wherein readers intentionally seek out information that galvanizes their fringe beliefs.
“When readers go online,” Chan says, “there is a specialization of interest. This magnifies or amplifies the messages posted on it. This is contrary to what we believe. We believe, instead of making things more narrow, the Internet should make things more inclusive and democratic. However, people tend to search out things relevant to existing interests, which amplifies such narrow thoughts.”
Chan says developing online recruitment techniques for hate peddlers contributes to this rise as well.
“Content providers,” Chan says, “have changed the way in which they have to execute their propaganda. They use a strategy known as leaderless resistance. Whenever they put up propaganda to have content to provide the motivation, encouragement, and justification to people on the edge. It gives them reason why they should be outside normal thought.”
After yet another mass shooting, this one leaving 10 people dead at Umpqua Community College last Thursday, digital traces of the lone gunman in the attack are again left to the examination of law enforcement officials and reporters. Just hours after the shooter, Chris Harper Mercer, was killed in a standoff with police, several online accounts tracing back to Mercer expressed hate for organized religion. What’s worse, one witness said Mercer forced his victims to state their beliefs before heartlessly killing them, specifically targeting Christians.
It’s a pattern becoming tragically more common: a mass shooting takes place, and we later discover how blatantly the perpetrators expressed hate for their victims online. In this case, clear connections emerge between recent shootings: Mercer referred, in one post, to Vester Flanagan, the man who killed two people on live television in Virginia in August. Flanagan himself made specific reference to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who gunned down nine inside a Charleston, North Carolina, church in June.
“In Dylann’s case,” Chan says, “he happened to chance upon one of these hate sites. And slowly but surely he was convinced. Through half truths and misrepresented facts, he believed individuals of his race should be doing something to serve justice back to the people. In some cases this hate content provides instructions. This type of grooming process takes time. But people see more, there are more opticals, one event tips them over and they commit the crime.”
The paper, titled “The Internet and Racial Hate Crime: Offline Spillovers from Online Access,” published in the forthcoming issue of MIS Quarterly, also offers solutions to combat this online surge. The paper suggests that, instead of engaging in a technological race with producers of hate content, policy should be implemented to educate youth on digital media, racial and social justice, stereotypical messages, and how to interpret multiple meanings.
Another plan of attack would increase the amount of anti-hate content on the Net. But even an attempt to right the skewed beliefs presented across the Web would be somewhat futile.
“The chance of such content being seen by the one who needs to see it are small,” says Chan. “And technological advances are moving so quickly we believe there could be newer assets in searching for digital traces of those who are likely, or at risk, of committing crimes. Such lone wolfs, before they do something, we can see some patterns.”
Unfortunately, Chan says, problems of free speech get wrapped up in who posts what online.
“This can reach a certain threshold. We’d need to tell apart those who intend to commit hate crimes and those who have those ideologies but stay within the law.”
That line, between inaction and tragedy, is one that seems increasingly thin.