The Shortlist: Three New Books Illuminate the Rise of Violent White Extremism

He got expelled from school multiple times, once after beating a black kid who refused to move and hurling racial epithets at the principal. He presided over street fights and began to stockpile weapons for the race war he believed was looming.

He also grew up: He got married, had two sons and opened a record store that sold some white supremacist music, but also attracted anti-racist and nonwhite customers who turned out to be real human beings. A friend, a fellow band frontman and father, was killed in a fight. Picciolini began to realize that the movement was no longer for him.

But in the end, there is something unsatisfying about this redemption checklist. In Christian Picciolini’s story, the only character is Christian Picciolini. We don’t hear from anyone he hurt — other than a chance encounter with the former security guard at his high school, to whom he apologizes, he does not seek any of them out. By this time his wife has left him, and though Picciolini worries about what his new girlfriend, who “saw beyond my mistakes to the man I had become,” will have to say about his old tattoos, we don’t actually find out. When a tragedy befalls his family, Picciolini goes so far as to wonder if it isn’t divine payback for his own mistakes.

HEALING FROM HATE
How Young Men Get Into — and
Out of — Violent Extremism
By Michael Kimmel
288 pp. University of California. $29.95.

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There is a vintage piece of neo-Nazi propaganda that is a racist take on an old Charles Atlas ad. After the whiny young protagonist bulks up and punches out a black man who bullied him, beachgoers in bikinis coo and pat his biceps. The cartoon makes Kimmel’s point perfectly: Extremism is fueled by wounded masculinity.

In Kimmel’s astute and, yes, empathetic analysis, he argues that without understanding the gendered aspect of extremism (he looks mostly at white supremacist groups, but also jihadists), we will not be able to defuse it. The young men in this book are enticed not by ideology, but by the powerful draw of camaraderie, belonging and a moral code, not to mention access to women and sex (even if, in the case of jihadis, it’s in the afterlife). Having suffered trauma, abuse, the need to keep homosexuality closeted, loneliness, economic insult or more mundane indignities, they turn to violence to ward off shame, coming to the table with what Kimmel, a sociologist who has spent his career focused on masculinity, calls “aggrieved entitlement.” The racist framework that comes to explain their woes usually arrives later.

Kimmel looks at recovering extremists in four countries — Germany, Sweden, the United States and Britain — and the organizations that help them escape when they become disillusioned. Those groups — EXIT in Germany and Sweden, Life After Hate in America and Quilliam, which works with British jihadis — offer not just safety, as many “formers” face violence when they try to leave, but also counseling, job training and the rudiments of an alternative form of manhood. (Life After Hate was given a $400,000 grant by the Obama administration, but it was later rescinded by Trump.)

Kimmel makes it clear that any approach to recovery lacking in empathy will fail. These men, he argues, have in fact lost something — they have been passed by and overlooked. But, Kimmel writes, they have been delivering their hate mail to the wrong address.

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Anti-Semitic Incidents Surged 57 Percent in 2017, Report Finds

“The diminishment of civility in society creates an environment in which intolerance really can flourish,” Mr. Greenblatt said. And the platforms of social media, he added, have “allowed the kind of poison of prejudice to grow at a velocity and to expand in ways that really are unprecedented.”

The count by the A.D.L., an international organization that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, includes three categories: harassment (1,015 incidents in 2017, up 41 percent from 2016), vandalism (952 incidents, up 86 percent) and assault (19 incidents, down 47 percent). The decrease in assaults was “the one piece of good news in this report,” Mr. Greenblatt said.

For the first time in at least a decade, incidents were reported in all 50 states. And, unusually, K-12 schools had more reports than any other location. (Typically, public areas have the most.) Incidents at those schools nearly doubled, to 457 from 235; those on college campuses increased 89 percent, to 204 from 108.

Many of the incidents involved swastikas etched on school property or drawn on Jewish students’ belongings.

The increase in expressions of anti-Semitism among students is “astounding” in its size, Mr. Greenblatt said, but also not entirely surprising.

“Kids repeat what they hear,” he said. “And so in an environment in which prejudice isn’t called out by public figures, figures of authority, we shouldn’t be surprised when we see young people repeat these same kind of tropes.”

The count is based on reports from victims, law enforcement and the news media. The Anti-Defamation League’s 26 field offices in the United States often receive reports directly from victims or their loved ones. Other times, employees will see a post on social media and follow up with the poster.

In each case, the group confirms the information independently and assesses its credibility. Reports deemed not credible are not included in the tally.

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State of the Art: How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth

In a 2008 book, I argued that the internet would usher in a “post-fact” age. Eight years later, in the death throes of an election that features a candidate who once led the campaign to lie about President Obama’s birth, there is more reason to despair about truth in the online age.

Why? Because if you study the dynamics of how information moves online today, pretty much everything conspires against truth.

You’re Not Rational

The root of the problem with online news is something that initially sounds great: We have a lot more media to choose from.

In the last 20 years, the internet has overrun your morning paper and evening newscast with a smorgasbord of information sources, from well-funded online magazines to muckraking fact-checkers to the three guys in your country club whose Facebook group claims proof that Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump are really the same person.

A wider variety of news sources was supposed to be the bulwark of a rational age — “the marketplace of ideas,” the boosters called it.

But that’s not how any of this works. Psychologists and other social scientists have repeatedly shown that when confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic-minded automatons. Instead, we are roiled by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest — we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not.

This dynamic becomes especially problematic in a news landscape of near-infinite choice. Whether navigating Facebook, Google or The New York Times’s smartphone app, you are given ultimate control — if you see something you don’t like, you can easily tap away to something more pleasing. Then we all share what we found with our like-minded social networks, creating closed-off, shoulder-patting circles online.

That’s the theory, at least. The empirical research on so-called echo chambers is mixed. Facebook’s data scientists have run large studies on the idea and found it wanting. The social networking company says that by exposing you to more people, Facebook adds diversity to your news diet.

Others disagree. A study published last year by researchers at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, in Italy, found that homogeneous online networks help conspiracy theories persist and grow online.

“This creates an ecosystem in which the truth value of the information doesn’t matter,” said Walter Quattrociocchi, one of the study’s authors. “All that matters is whether the information fits in your narrative.”

No Power in Proof

Digital technology has blessed us with better ways to capture and disseminate news. There are cameras and audio recorders everywhere, and as soon as something happens, you can find primary proof of it online.

You would think that greater primary documentation would lead to a better cultural agreement about the “truth.” In fact, the opposite has happened.

Consider the difference in the examples of the John F. Kennedy assassination and 9/11. While you’ve probably seen only a single film clip of the scene from Dealey Plaza in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot, hundreds of television and amateur cameras were pointed at the scene on 9/11. Yet neither issue is settled for Americans; in one recent survey, about as many people said the government was concealing the truth about 9/11 as those who said the same about the Kennedy assassination.

Documentary proof seems to have lost its power. If the Kennedy conspiracies were rooted in an absence of documentary evidence, the 9/11 theories benefited from a surfeit of it. So many pictures from 9/11 flooded the internet, often without much context about what was being shown, that conspiracy theorists could pick and choose among them to show off exactly the narrative they preferred. There is also the looming specter of Photoshop: Now, because any digital image can be doctored, people can freely dismiss any bit of inconvenient documentary evidence as having been somehow altered.

This gets to the deeper problem: We all tend to filter documentary evidence through our own biases. Researchers have shown that two people with differing points of view can look at the same picture, video or document and come away with strikingly different ideas about what it shows.

That dynamic has played out repeatedly this year. Some people look at the WikiLeaks revelations about Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and see a smoking gun, while others say it’s no big deal, and that besides, it’s been doctored or stolen or taken out of context. Surveys show that people who liked Mr. Trump saw the Access Hollywood tape where he casually referenced groping women as mere “locker room talk”; those who didn’t like him considered it the worst thing in the world.

Lies as an Institution

One of the apparent advantages of online news is persistent fact-checking. Now when someone says something false, journalists can show they’re lying. And if the fact-checking sites do their jobs well, they’re likely to show up in online searches and social networks, providing a ready reference for people who want to correct the record.

But that hasn’t quite happened. Today dozens of news outlets routinely fact-check the candidates and much else online, but the endeavor has proved largely ineffective against a tide of fakery.

That’s because the lies have also become institutionalized. There are now entire sites whose only mission is to publish outrageous, completely fake news online (like real news, fake news has become a business). Partisan Facebook pages have gotten into the act; a recent BuzzFeed analysis of top political pages on Facebook showed that right-wing sites published false or misleading information 38 percent of the time, and lefty sites did so 20 percent of the time.

“Where hoaxes before were shared by your great-aunt who didn’t understand the internet, the misinformation that circulates online is now being reinforced by political campaigns, by political candidates or by amorphous groups of tweeters working around the campaigns,” said Caitlin Dewey, a reporter at The Washington Post who once wrote a column called “What Was Fake on the Internet This Week.”

Ms. Dewey’s column began in 2014, but by the end of last year, she decided to hang up her fact-checking hat because she had doubts that she was convincing anyone.

“In many ways the debunking just reinforced the sense of alienation or outrage that people feel about the topic, and ultimately you’ve done more harm than good,” she said.

Other fact-checkers are more sanguine, recognizing the limits of exposing online hoaxes, but also standing by the utility of the effort.

“There’s always more work to be done,” said Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of Snopes.com, one of the internet’s oldest rumor-checking sites. “There’s always more. It’s Sisyphean — we’re all pushing that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down.”

Yeah. Though soon, I suspect, that boulder is going to squash us all.

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