Today marks the two-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, the white supremacist gathering that murdered one of our citizens, Heather Heyer, and wounded 19 others. Ostensibly, the rally was organized to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, but truly the event was an unmasking of hate: open and unashamed displays of Swastikas and sieg-hiel salutes on the streets of an American town.
Charlottesville is our home. We walk past Heather's memorial everyday on our way to the office. As an organization that specializes in social media security, it's worth looking at the role social media played leading up to August 12th and the way it has been weaponized by malevolent forces both within and outside our country's borders.
Normalization of Hate Online
Racism and fringe groups have organized online since the web's first white supremacist site, Stormfront, was launched in 1996. Before that, the Ku Klux Klan used bulletin boards to support David Duke's Louisiana senate run in the early 1990s. In short, the proliferation of hate groups online is nothing new. However, the infection rate of racist ideologies happens by degrees.
Social media played a significant role in extending the reach of racist propaganda, from fringe sub-culture corners of the internet into the mainstream. The scale and speed of the technology gave groups a more accessible and powerful means to organize, share materials, and radicalize new members. Radicalization, in particular, was possible through mediation of language, wrapping previously abhorrent ideas in different language.
The clearest example of this shift is the switch in nomenclature from "white supremacist" to "white nationalist." As racist ideas were calibrated for new audiences, and normalized, their entry into the mainstream conversation opened a new front in the information space, one open to foreign exploitation.
Exacerbating Divisions on Social Media
During and after August 12th, we saw evidence of foreign social media accounts posting as both members of the alt-right and antifa counter-protestors. To be clear, we are not alt-right apologists. Any signs of foreign influence do not exonerate the violence visited upon our town or others. However, the same technology that connects communities across the globe also empowers foreign adversaries to pose as American citizens with the intent of exacerbating existing social fissures. We have seen Russian bots manipulate the public consciousness, but there are also domestic actors borrowing ideas from that playbook.
As a country -- and even as Charlottesville city -- we must confront our brutal history of racist violence. That is our struggle, and it is very far from over. But we must also acknowledge that not all we see online is true. Every American must heed this: when you read something on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, something so outrageous you share it with like-minded friends in anger or even to poke fun at the "other," you must consider that the post isn't even real.
The outrage, the very hate you feel toward your fellow citizen can be created, coaxed, and encouraged by a foreign power. Know that.
Whitepaper: Learn more on how Russian Twitter bots weaponize social media
The Struggle Requires a Whole Society Effort
Whatever your political inclination, the struggle to heal and progress as a nation will require effort on the part of every American. This is a whole society problem. It will require education about cyber risks, threats, and building the skills to recognize bots and disinformation. Countries that have long suffered assaults against the information sphere know that a society's defense starts in the schools. The American populace can no longer accept content online at face value. Not all cyber attacks target systems. The most potent ones can also hack minds.
Domestically, we must continue to organize against the rising tide of hate. In the short term, Virginia's senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have introduced legislation to address the rise in hate crimes. But more organization is required. It will require cooperation with social media platforms. As a society, we are up to the task. We have marshalled resources against these threats before.
Two years after our town became a hashtag and shorthand for national tragedy, we look to the future without fear.