On July 19, the Anti-Defamation League kicked the pro-Trump media hornet’s nest with the publication of a new report cataloging the factions of the alt-right and their key voices. It also prompted the question: How do you classify a hate group in 2017?
Titled “From Alt Right to Alt Lite: Naming The Hate," the ADL report attempts to define those movements, noting the meaningful differences between the two and listing 36 personalities closely associated with them. For example, the moniker alt-lite was coined by the alt-right in order to differentiate itself from those in the pro-Trump world who denounce white supremacist ideology.
The report's publication sparked near-immediate outrage from some of those who were included. New Right personality Mike Cernovich lambasted the ADL’s report as a “hit list of political opponents," alleging that by including him on a list of hate leaders, the organization had made him and his family targets of an intolerant and violent left that “murder[s] those the ADL disagrees with politically." Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump Twitter personality, took an equally combative stance. On vacation in Poland, he tweeted a short video from Auschwitz. "It would be wise of the ADL to remember the history of what happened the last time people started going around making lists of undesirables," he said, panning the camera across the concentration camp.
Over the next few days, the controversy gathered considerable momentum on Twitter. Cernovich’s followers tweeted prayers for the safety of him and his family, and condemned the ADL. Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft called the organization’s report a “death list,” while his White House reporter, Lucian Wintrich, decried the ADL as a “liberal terrorist organization.” Rebel Media’s Gavin McInnes — named on the list along with Wintrich — threatened to “sue the living shit out of everyone even remotely involved.” The hashtag #ADLterror trended for a few hours. Last week, Republican Senate candidate and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel jumped into the controversy, siding with Cernovich and chastising the ADL.
But beneath all the murk and outrage and alt-right/alt-lite/New Right semantics was a reasonable question: In the Trump era, where is the line between hate speech and the extremist, often outlandish, conspiracy-propagating messaging of those movements?
For Cernovich — who played a role in the Twitter propagation of the #Pizzagate conspiracy and has a history of tweeting incendiary opinions from everything from date rape and immigration (much of which he has argued was clear satire) — the line doesn't fall anywhere near him. He argues that, while his statements might not be politically correct or always in good taste, they aren't hate speech, and certainly don’t make him a member of a hate group.
“What does the ADL have on me? Some satirical tweets, hell, even some mean tweets and stuff I'm not proud of?” Cernovich told BuzzFeed News in response to the report. “I have a lot of liberal friends. Many of them in high places. They think I'm an asshole, but 'hate group' has them livid.”
Cernovich insists he’s being unfairly targeted for his pro-Trump views. "This tweet mining bullshit is only used on the right," he argued. In his view, the New Right is a movement defined not by discrimination or hateful rhetoric, but by pugnacious political commentary and debate. It is nothing, he says, like the alt-right of Richard Spencer, which hews toward a race-based white nationalism. As with Trump himself, the New Right’s true ideology isn’t always clear, and the group tends to behave more as a pro-Trump media arm than as an ideological group. Its main target isn’t a protected race or religion, but the mainstream media. It doesn’t behave quite like any traditional hate group. So can it be called one?
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, the ADL argued that it most certainly can. “I don't think irony and self-promotion is an excuse for bigotry of any kind, whether it’s misogyny or any other form of bigotry,” said Oren Segal, who runs the ADL's Center on Extremism. “Doing it in a way that's more modern or tech-y doesn't make it OK — nor does it make it any less difficult for those who've been impacted.”
Segal noted that the alt-lite or New Right — while not particularly well-defined as a movement — includes individuals with extremist views. "These are people who are on the record with anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred and misogyny — people who support trolling,” he said in defense of the ADL’s report.
Jeff Giesea, an entrepreneur and consultant who helped organize the pro-Trump DeploraBall — an inaugural ball to celebrate the work of the pro-Trump internet — sees the ADL’s decision to categorize the New Right as hate group personalities as a bridge too far. “Based on the ADL's logic, all 63 million Americans who voted for Trump should be on their hate list. If everyone is an extremist, no one is,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Giesea argues that, historically, Cernovich’s views are quite moderate. Perhaps more importantly, he contends that the New Right’s strategy — to promote a pro-Trump agenda via an ongoing, meme-fueled assault on the mainstream media — is a new kind of political discourse.
"By being so quick to label something 'bigotry,' the ADL is getting in the way of the healthy exchange of ideas,” Giesea said. “It pushes people further right by pathologizing common sense. It is a mode of social control that simply doesn't work in the age of social media."
Since the beginning of the 2016 election our political discourse has become increasingly fraught, muddied by misinformation and trolling from the fringes of both sides of the aisle. And within this morass, a reflex has emerged on both sides to reflexively label political disagreements as signs of hate. Back in April, the internet erupted over Cernovich and another pro-Trump reporter flashing the "OK" sign at the podium in the White House Briefing Room. A number of news outlets misidentified the sign as a white power symbol, falling for a trap laid by pro-Trump trolls who had been trying to trick the media into thinking the meaningless symbol had nefarious origins. The incident sparked a defamation lawsuit filed by one of the pro-Trump reporters, as well as an existential argument around when exactly a symbol morphs from an ironic troll to a real sign of hate.
Giesea has run this over in his mind frequently, and argues that there’s more nuance and craft to the pro-Trump movement’s tactics. "Memetics is a form of art," he said. “Shock and controversy is what makes memes effective. They push moral boundaries. Sometimes this is healthy and can challenge certain narratives, other times it can feel toxic and juvenile. Think about it - what memes would Voltaire share?" Giesea concedes that there are moral considerations to social media behavior, but suggests that “the ADL list feels like an act of political warfare, rather than a good faith attempt to discuss these issues."
Ultimately, the problem appears to be definitional. For Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, the alt-right and alt-lite movements may be fluid, but the definition of hate is not. Beirich says the SPLC follows roughly the same standards for defining hate groups as the FBI uses for hate crimes. In a recent op-ed for Huffington Post, SPLC President Richard Cohen defined a hate group as “those that have ‘beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.’”
“We don't care as much about the pro-Trump stuff,” Beirich told BuzzFeed News. “It's the specific policies we're worried about — whether it's anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant.” For example, she noted that despite articles with anti-immigrant sentiment, “we're not going to list a publication like Breitbart as a hate group unless they publish much more stuff that’s much further over the line.”
In trying to categorize the Cernoviches and Posobiecs of the world, Beirich said it’s best to categorize them on a case-by-case basis, remembering that hate speech isn't necessarily the only (or most) relevant category. “Take Pizzagate,” she said. “We've written about anti-government conspiracy theorists since the 1990s and that's a different thing than our hate lists — it doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it’s different.”
The ADL sees no such difference and, on its Naming the Hate report, is standing its ground. To Segal, the fact that the behavior of the New Right doesn’t follow the established patterns of other fringe movements is reason enough to worry about its evolution and growth. “In a sense this rhetoric is potentially more harmful because it's not so clearly being promoted as hate,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I think we can see through that. If they call it a joke, we're not laughing.”
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at email@example.com.
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