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As Americans are staying home to stem the spread of the coronavirus, online searches for white supremacist content have increased, according to a London-based company that uses technology to disrupt violent extremism.
In states that have had local stay-at-home orders in place for 10 or more days, there has been a 21 percent average increase in engagement with violent extremist content, Moonshot CVE said in a report released last week. In states with local stay-at-home directives in place for less than 10 days, the average increase in engagement was 1 percent.
Nationwide, the company found a 13 percent increase in engagement with white supremacist content online.
“Moonshot CVE has been monitoring engagement with white supremacist extremist content on search engines across the United States over the past three years,” the company said in releasing the figures. “In moments of crisis, we have often recorded shifts in engagement with white supremacist extremist content on Google.”
Those who monitor the right-wing extremist movement have expressed concern in recent weeks that anger and fear over the global coronavirus pandemic and the government’s response to it could spur someone to commit violence.
On March 16, President Donald Trump announced a 15-day plan to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The plan, which called on Americans to engage in schooling from home if possible and to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people as well as eating or drinking in bars and restaurants, was later extended to April 30. In addition to Trump’s directive, many states put in place more restrictive measures ranging from the closing of “nonessential” businesses to statewide stay-at-home orders.
“As millions of people are working from home, and children attending school remotely, there are increasing concerns that this may shift patterns of engagement with violent extremist and terrorist content online,” the Moonshot CVE report said.
The findings were based on an assessment of white supremacist search traffic on Google from March 30 to April 5 compared to national and state averages for the eight months prior to March.
States experiencing the greatest increase in engagement with white supremacist content on Google, according to Moonshot CVE, were Connecticut, 66 percent; Idaho, 56 percent; Kentucky, 48 percent; Massachusetts, 45 percent; South Dakota, 43 percent; New Jersey, 41 percent; Michigan, 39 percent; Hawaii, 38 percent; Utah, 35 percent; and Wisconsin, 29 percent.
States that saw the biggest decreases were Rhode Island, 38 percent; Iowa, 30 percent; Montana, Maine and Wyoming, 27 percent; Arkansas and New Hampshire, 17 percent; and Alaska and Colorado, 12 percent.
Washington, D.C., which the report said typically records the highest rates because of the cluster of government employees and researchers studying the issue, saw a 42 percent decrease in engagement with white supremacist content.
“As government employees have moved to remote working and are focused on other priorities at the moment, D.C. has experienced the largest drop in engagement,” it said.
And in New York City — the U.S. city hardest hit by COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus — Manhattan was the only borough with a decrease, at 44 percent, according to the report. Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island had an average 28 percent increase in white supremacist traffic.
Deadly white supremacist violence has been on the rise in recent years, and experts say the cases show a clear progression from violent rhetoric to online radicalization to actually committing the acts.
As federal authorities ramp up their scrutiny of online white supremacist activity, Moonshot CVE — the initials stand for “countering violent extremism” — recently partnered with the Anti-Defamation League and Gen Next Foundation on what they call the Redirect Method.
When people searched for certain extremist content on Google, they were presented with an ad that, if clicked, would redirect them toward alternative content that discredited or promoted views against extremism. Those searching for extremist content would not find their access to it blocked, but would instead find the alternative material. The procedure was not aimed at censoring the search results, Moonshot CVE and the ADL said, but to offer an alternative.
The ADL said the pilot project offered valuable insight into how those interested in white supremacist and Islamist-inspired extremism engaged with online content, as well as how advertising technology can be adapted to fight hate online.
“With perpetrators of horrific violence taking inspiration from online forums, leveraging the anonymity and connectivity of the internet, and developing sophisticated strategies to spread their messages, the stakes couldn’t be higher in tackling online extremism,” the ADL said in a recent news release.
Moonshot CVE said it plans to update its findings on the online white supremacist searches over the coming months to assess trends that occur throughout the coronavirus pandemic.