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“Let’s colonise MySpace!”: inside the alt-right’s internet

An echo chamber of hate is being created as the far-right flee Facebook and Twitter.

On 8 January 2018, the alternative social network Gab set its 300,000 users a challenge. “Write a haiku!” prompted the year-old site, and many merrily responded with poems about cats, university and snow. The most popular haikus, however, were a little different. “Saving refugees/Is like helping rattlesnakes/enter a daycare,” read one of the most shared haikus on the site. Another user, seemingly misunderstanding the ancient Japanese art form, began their poem: “While attending a torch lit rally/I walked by a kike and a tranny…”

Gab is a social media platform just like Facebook or Twitter – except in the crucial ways it is not. Founded to take on “the left-leaning Big Social monopoly”, Gab prides itself on its dedication to free speech. As a result, much of the far-right is attracted to the site, with many migrating there after Twitter banned neo-Nazis from its platform in December.

On Gab, anything goes. Unlike traditional social media sites, Gab has no policies against hate speech, meaning both Google and Apple have banned the app from their phones. Particularly fond of this free-speech premise are the alt-right and the British National Party’s Nottingham branch (“ability to talk with other nats is vital to the Resistance. Numbers will follow as libtard intolerance grows”, it tweeted about its move to Gab in December). Although the social network is ostensibly more than just a home for extremist views – one of its selling points is that it is free of advertisements – again and again Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist content is the most popular on the site.

 “We are not alt-right,” retorts Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba, when I contact him. Since it was founded in August 2016, Gab’s logo has been the cartoon face of a green frog. In September 2016, the Anti-Defamation League declared a green cartoon frog named Pepe to be a hate symbol, thanks to its association with the alt-right.

A 29-year-old male Gab user tells me, over an online messaging service, why he was attracted to the site. “I heard about Gab as a place where lots of conservatives were moving to as an alternative to Twitter,” he says, explaining that he is a “politically right-leaning person”. Yet this user left the site after just a few months. “I got tired of the endless Jew-bashing,” he explains. “A lot of the anti-Semitism stems from conspiracy theories – of which there are plenty on Gab – of Jews ruling the world.”

Gab isn’t the only newly founded website offering a safe space for the far right. Over the past year, traditional social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have banned many extreme right-wing users, particularly after August’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville resulted in the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer. The alt-right’s internet is now made up of pun-based, hate-filled websites. Instead of Patreon, the mainstream crowdfunding website that allows fans to pay creatives money, they have Hatreon (one creator earning £100 a month promises to make “pro-white music for a better future”).

A censorship-free alternative to YouTube also exists in the form of “PewTube”, although critics note the site’s fifth most viewed video in August – an audiobook of The Communist Manifesto – was deleted by those who run the site. WASP Love is a US dating site for people who are any combination of Christian, confederate, home-schooled, white-nationalist and alt-right. Most amusingly of all, after Twitter’s December purge, far-right users decided to “colonise Myspace”, the early Noughties social media platform once popular with teen goths. “It’ll be great once we turn it into Meinspace,” one user confidently stated online.

Some may be thrilled that the far right have carved out their own online spaces, where angry voices can echo around in dark corners undetectable to innocent ears. Yet Jacob Davey of counter-extremism think-tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), tells me users of these new platforms can engage in “mutual radicalisation”.

“Using these sites, they can wage raids on other platforms,” he says, explaining how Gab and others allow the extreme right to plan online and offline attacks. Many mock these new platforms for being slow, ugly, and difficult to use – for example, when I click on one of PewTube’s most popular videos, “A Word To The Criminal Migrant”, it refuses to play – but Davey says mockery is misguided. “It doesn’t matter whether the sites are any good, it’s whether or not new users are going to them. And they are.”

Perhaps the most troubling of these new social networks is Voat, an online forum that hosts an abundance of conspiracy theories, most notably “Pizzagate”. The Pizzagate conspiracy posits that Hillary Clinton is at the centre of a paedophile ring run out of a Washington DC pizzeria. In December 2016, a man attempting to “self-investigate” the conspiracy fired three shots inside the restaurant.

In less immediate ways, the fragmentation of social networks also damages the left. Davey warns that the exodus of the far right from Twitter and Facebook allows the online left to engage in so-called cumulative radicalisation. “The more insular you are, the less you listen to opposing voices,” he says. “There’s a danger people become more closeted and only engage with people who tacitly confirm their world view. ”

The alternating silliness and scariness of the new alt-right internet can make it difficult to comprehend. In many ways, it is summarised best by another of Gab’s most popular haikus. “Sitting all alone,” begins user Tommy L, “Reading Haikus made by you/I am pretty sad.” 

Amelia Tait’s Digital Native column will feature fortnightly.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist