Rep. Steve King’s recent racist tweet followed by the Anti-Defamation League’s announcement hours later that they will build a state-of-the-art command center in Silicon Valley to combat the growing threat of cyberhate, bookend a larger, unavoidable national discussion about who is welcome in America.
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Will America under U.S President Donald Trump and Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon continue its slide toward becoming a me-first white nation ruled by an obsession with racial purity and maintained by demographic engineering? Or will it pivot back to being a democracy where citizenship is defined by certain standards of character, principles, and conduct, as well as status? The answer depends on whether our nation’s practices cleave more closely to King’s tweet or the ADL’s new initiative, which will help companies in the digital space create a safer and more tolerant online atmosphere.
For anyone who’s missed the last few days of wall-to-all media coverage, King sent Twitter roiling early Sunday afternoon by extolling the virtues of Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who recently referred to Moroccan immigrants as “scum.” King’s infamous Tweet, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies,” drew an understandably enthusiastic response (“GOD BLESS STEVE KING!! #TruthRISING”) from David Duke, the Holocaust denier and former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who Trump pretended not to know while running for president and whose support he was so hesitant to disavow.
Duke no doubt recognized King’s reference to the best-known slogan of the U.S. white supremacist movement. The so-called "14 Words" – "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children” – were penned by David Lane, one of the founders of the terrorist group The Order, which was responsible for the 1984 assassination of Jewish radio host Alan Berg. So much for all of King’s ducking and weaving as he tries to convince a variety of pundits that he’s merely talking about preserving “Western Civilization.”
Numerous Democratic officials and a sparse handful of Republicans, almost all of them people of color, condemned King’s tweet. But the least racist guy you’ll ever meet, our Tweeter-in-Chief, said not a peep for over 48 hours, and then only in the mildest of terms and through Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
As a reminder, the Donald first rose to fame as a leader of the Birther movement that tried to undermine the legitimacy of America’s first black president.
As for Bannon, when journalist Sarah Seltzer interviewed him at the Republican National Convention just weeks before Trump tapped the then-executive chairman of Breitbart Media to lead his campaign, Bannon proudly told her that Breitbart News was “the platform for the alt-right.” That’s the rebranded name for white supremacists popularized by Richard Spencer – the guy expelled from the Conservative Political Action Conference last month for being “alt-right,” just hours before the man he has repeatedly lauded, Bannon, was led to the main stage as a key presenter.
Unsurprisingly, online hate has spiked in the Trump era. The ADL’s October report titled “Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign,” while strenuously non-partisan, notes “a significant uptick in anti-Semitic tweets as coverage of the presidential campaign intensified.” The words that appear most frequently in Twitter attackers’ bios are “Trump,” “nationalist,” “conservative,” and “white.”
Long story short, Center Director Brittan Heller is in for some steep hours. A smart, worldly First Amendment devotee fresh from investigating and prosecuting cyber-crime and human rights violations at the U.S. Department of Justice, Heller will collaborate directly with companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, especially as they establish the terms of service that govern their forums.
She describes the work as being about “ending the reinforcement and normalization of online hate speech” – no small feat when the 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets the ADL tracked between August 2015 and July 2016 had an estimated 10 billion impressions (reach).
The center's mission covers cyberhate directed at groups including but not limited to anti-Semitism. (Heller assured me that the center would also focus on anti-Muslim hate and racism). Center staff will also track and address cyber harassment and bullying, work to understand and anticipate the cybersecurity needs of 21st century communities, and ensure that as new technologies crop up, they're built with tolerance in mind.
Mahatma Gandhi, when asked by a smug journalist what he thought of Western Civilization, famously quipped, “I think it would be a good idea.” Nearly a century later, Heller says, “You know how people used to burn crosses on your lawn? I’m trying to keep that from happening on Twitter.”
Nancy Goldstein’s work has appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the Nation. Follow her on Twitter at @nancygoldstein