Hate groups using similar online recruiting methods as ISIS, experts say

PHOTO: White nationalists and white supremacists carrying torches marched in a parade through the University of Virginia campus.Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
White nationalists and white supremacists carrying torches marched in a parade through the University of Virginia campus.

Some alt-right and white supremacist groups are using the same online recruiting tactics pioneered by ISIS, al Qaeda and other foreign-based extremist groups to grow their ranks.

John Cohen, an ABC News consultant and former acting Homeland Security undersecretary, notes that many of these groups – both foreign and domestic – appeal to the same type of person in the same type of way.

"All of these extremist groups promote an agenda that focuses on fighting those who are victimizing them and that resonates with these individuals who all believe that they have personally been victimized in their own lives," Cohen said in an interview.

The most recent possible example is the Parkland, Florida, school rampage. After the deadly Feb. 14 shooting, it was reported that shooter Nikolas Cruz had a swastika on one of the ammunition magazines found at the school, a law enforcement source told ABC News. Cruz’s public defender, Howard Finkelstein, later said anti-Semitic postings made by Cruz were discovered by investigators after the shooting, which left 17 students and staff from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School dead.

"When you see someone falling off the grid, what happens is they have less and less connection to what you and I know as reality. They become more and more connected to other people who fall off the grid. And that’s why it’s not a surprise that when you got nothing you end up in some, you know, skinhead Aryan Nazi hate-Jew group. So it fits the picture that everybody should have seen here," Finkelstein said.

Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s center on extremism, reiterated that the online propaganda for hate groups mirrors the way that ISIS and other extremist groups, who, he says "were sort of early adopters to technology," have been trying to approach Americans for years.

"What we have seen in, I’d say the last two years, is the white supremacists and in particular the alt-right finding new ways to exploit social media platforms [and] recruit adherents to make use of the tools that are pretty much available to anyone," Segal said.

The Internet "has never been the sole domain of ISIS or al Qaeda. White supremacist propaganda has been available the way that ISIS and al Qaeda propaganda has been available online for years," Segal said, noting "there’s more accessibility … than ever before."

Cohen pointed to slickly produced videos, almost like music videos or movie trailers, that ISIS and similar groups create with the "underlying message [of] 'join our cause, you will be a part of our family and your life will have meaning.'" Cohen said that thematically similar videos featuring footage of protesters carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville were "posted throughout the white supremacist social media world" after the August protest.

PHOTO: Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions scuffled with counter-demonstrators near Emancipation Park (Formerly Lee Park) in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia.Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions scuffled with counter-demonstrators near Emancipation Park (Formerly "Lee Park") in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia.

Ryan Lenz, a spokesperson for hate group watchdog organization the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, told ABC News "the Internet is a place of both passive and active radicalization."

"ISIS as an organization has a very deliberate and systematic means of reaching out to people online. The alt-right does so in a very different fashion. More often than not, people stumble into an ideology on the far right," Lenz said.

Both Segal and Lenz pointed to Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter who killed nine people in 2015, as another example of a young American man who became fascinated with racist ideologies. During a police interview that was later shown in court, Roof said that he was reading about the Trayvon Martin case online and "for some reason I typed in ‘black on white crime’ and ever since then" he had looked into race issues.

The SPLC released its annual report called "The Year in Hate & Extremism" last month and noted how large online audiences for white supremacist groups had grown. Specifically looking at The Daily Stormer, which the SPLC called "rabidly racist and anti-Semitic," the report stated that the site averaged 140,000 unique page views a month in the summer of 2016 but had reached 750,000 unique monthly views in August of 2017, before the violent rally in Charlottesville.

"When you look at how the white nationalist movement has evolved in the United States in the last, say five years, there is no doubt that the Internet has become a principle grounds for recruit and radicalization," Lenz said.

Some technology companies took action to curb the spread of hate groups online. Web hosting service GoDaddy gave The Daily Stormer 24 hours to find a new provider after the Charlottesville rally and when it switched to Google Domains the site was rejected based on the company’s terms of service. Similarly, certain crowdfunding sites have rejected campaigns that raise money based around hateful beliefs.

Cohen said young male attackers can be easily influenced by whatever material they see first online.

"In some cases, they find material posted by ISIS and that's what resonates with them and they connect with that cause. In other cases, these individuals come upon materials posted by white supremacists, anti-government militia or other extremists groups and they self-connect with that cause instead, but the result is the same," Cohen said.