White Supremacist Movements Are Exploding
Has Your Company Assessed the Possible Risk to Its Brand and Leadership?
Violent white supremacist movements have been undergoing a strong resurgence since 2013. Does your company have eyes on this emerging threat? If not, Nisos has the experience and proprietary tools to help.
Three trends suggest that the white supremacist movement is picking up steam in the United States and could pose a bigger threat than previously imagined.
- White nationalist hate groups have seen a marked (55%) increase in membership over the past four years.
- From 2013 onward, there has been a significant uptick in violent white supremacist attacks in the United States, far above Islamic extremist and far-left extremist activity.
- In the online world, white supremacist activity has both exploded and become concentrated in newly created social media sites that act as echo chambers – and potentially as breeding grounds for the type of radicalization that leads to mass casualties.
While these groups may not directly target companies for violent attacks, there is still the possibility that they could inflict brand reputation damage or even single out a particular CEO for hate crimes. Companies that collaborate closely with the government – or whose products or services touch on the sensitive issues of gun rights or free speech (particularly perceived censorship of far-right opinions) – may also experience a backlash. Surveillance tech may also be a sensitive area insofar it could feed into QAnon conspiracy theories about the “deep state” apparatus that some groups believe has taken over the US government.
Most brand protection vendors are not conversant in the newer social media sites, nor in the dark web and deep web forums (not to mention private groups on Telegram, WhatsApp, or servers on Discord) where far-right groups have moved their conversation. In essence, these sites are a blind spot. At the same time, they are a breeding ground for one of the most rapidly growing threat ecosystems in the United States.
Threats to a company can feel like they are coming from out of nowhere when there are blind spots in the threat landscape. If your company has not yet done an assessment of brand mentions – or C-suite executive mentions – in this ecosystem, now is a good time to start.
Three Trends in the Offline and Online Worlds White Supremacist Group Memberships Have Grown Significantly
White nationalist hate groups have grown by 55% over the past four years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which provides expert assessments of a wide range of far-right groups. As of early 2020, there were 155 white nationalist groups nationwide, and they were present in most states.
In February 2020, the FBI “upgraded its assessment” of white nationalist groups to a “national threat priority,” placing it on the same level as the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS. FBI director Christopher Wray noted that perpetrators are often “lone actors” who self-radicalized online and aim to attack soft targets of civilian gatherings.
Recent Spikes in Violent Activity in the US
In the past decade or so, there has been a disturbing uptick in the number of white supremacist attacks. The graphic below, from Google’s Jigsaw “Violent White Supremacy” report, provides a visual comparison of the escalating trend line of white supremacist activity in the United States. (Data source: the Global Terrorism Database.)
Figure 1: Violent white supremacist attacks in the United States.
Uptick in White Supremacist Online Activity
In the online world as well, trend lines point to a concentration of white extremist activity. The recent creation of far-right-friendly social media sites Bitchute (2017), Gab (2016), and Voat (2014) could accentuate the existing echo chamber effect.
- Bitchute, which allows extremist video content that YouTube bans, grew exponentially after YouTube banned a COVID-19 conspiracy theory video called Plandemic. Traffic to the site also spiked in the wake of the 2020 election, making it the 1,667th most visited website in the world – more popular than Gab and (briefly) drawing more visitors than the more mainstream conservative site Parler.
- Gab, the far-right alternative to Twitter, saw its website traffic grow by almost 200% from January to July 2020. Unique visitors to the site increased by 180% over the same time period and the network now has over 1 million accounts.
- Voat, which is an uncensored version of Reddit, has struggled more than the other sites to remain afloat but has also benefited from user migrations following Reddit’s ban on conspiracy theory topics. The site is smaller than the others but is often described as “highly toxic,” with a flourishing QAnon community and recent FBI attention due to the death threats posted on the site.
This upsurge in white supremacist online content – and its concentration in new echo chambers amenable to hate speech – is a trend to watch just as carefully as the uptick in violent activity. In fact, the two are often connected. Radicalization frequently grows online before the person undertakes violent action. And in some cases, as in Brenton Tarrant’s deadly New Zealand shooting, the attack is live streamed back to a willing audience that shares and propagates it, thus closing the circle. Threats to Companies: A Risk Worth Assessing Far-right groups do not usually target specific companies, preferring instead to focus on soft targets from racial, religious, or social groups that fall into their “enemy” category. However, the risk cannot be entirely discounted in the post-2020 political and economic climate.
Threats to companies can take on various forms, some of which may be unexpected. The far-right extremist world is known for “hatejacking” specific brands by appropriating its logos or clothing for its own purposes. For example, the Fred Perry brand’s striped-collar polo shirts have become an outward symbol of membership in the far-right militia group Proud Boys. The company’s brand reputation suffered by association. In some cases, far-right groups may target a specific CEO or c-suite executive because of his or her outspoken stance on sensitive issues. For example, a CEO who is vocal about supporting LGBTQ rights may become a target for the many far-right groups that view gay or trans people as enemies. Nisos uncovered several doxing attacks on a far-right dark web forum against a c-suite executive due to his sexual orientation. Finally, given the contested results of the 2020 presidential election, many far-right groups that have a strong suspicion of government may begin to turn a more hostile eye toward companies that support specific government clients. Corporations that support the government’s law enforcement efforts may be a topic of discussion on far-right forums, which often spin conspiracy theories around high-tech products or services. Threat landscapes are often complex, with social changes shifting the puzzle pieces around. Companies also need to adapt to ensure there are no blind spots in their brand reputation monitoring and in their security practices. Nisos has the tools and the experience to dig into forums and social media sites that are still mostly unexplored by traditional vendors. If you are at all uncertain about where your brand or company stands in these circles, it’s best to get ahead of the curve and assess the risk now.