Editor’s note: This article contains violent and racist search terms and other content that readers may find distressing.
In September 2020, in the run-up to the US presidential election, Moonshot and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) developed a partnership to collaboratively monitor and respond to threats of violence and violence-inciting disinformation. ADL facilitated direct outreach to relevant stakeholders on the ground, while Moonshot informed these outreach efforts through weekly threat reports and Redirect Method campaigns across the United States, which is an open-source methodology that uses targeted advertising to connect people searching online for harmful content with constructive alternative messages.
From August 18, 2020 through March 7, 2021, we recorded 511,759 white supremacy related searches across the United States, which led us to unearth the following seven trends.
After six months of proactive monitoring and response, Moonshot and the ADL released a report that found evidence of online rhetoric appearing to manifest in offline extremist violence in the United States. Both the online and offline activities Moonshot tracked were largely cultivated by the socio-political unrest unfolding throughout 2020 and into the new year. Since then, we have continued our joint venture to collect and analyze data on violent extremist trends across both mainstream and fringe online spaces.
THE LATEST WHITE SUPREMACY TRENDS
On June 16, we published another report with ADL that specifically focuses on white supremacy search trends within the United States. Moonshot observed elevated search traffic for anti-Black, antisemitic, and neo-Nazi/white supremacist themes around three major offline events: Racial justice protests following George Floyd’s murder (July 24, 2020 – September 3, 2020), the presidential election (September 4, 2020 – November 6, 2020), and post-election uncertainty (November 7, 2020 – January 6, 2021).
From August 18, 2020 through March 7, 2021, we recorded 511,759 white supremacy related searches across the United States, which led us to unearth the following seven trends:
- Offline events appeared to catalyze search traffic for extremist content online. For example, over the weekend of July 25, 2020, more than 280 Black Lives Matter (BLM) and racial justice protests occurred in over 40 states. Many were met by counter-protest groups composed of far-right extremists, conspiracy theorists, and white nationalists. We observed spikes in our search data in the build up to and aftermath of July 25, 2020 for specific themes, including interest in white supremacist groups and forums, Nazi glorification, criminalization of Black people, and anti-BLM narratives. Popular keywords included “black lives matter is evil,” “swastika patch / pin / t-shirt,” and “council of conservative citizens website.”
- Anti-Black search traffic peaked during the summer of 2020. Last summer, racial justice protests — focusing on BLM, racial injustice in the criminal legal system, and countering systemic racism — erupted across the United States. Violent anti-Black keywords, such as “how to kill black people,” sustained high search volumes in July and August. Spikes in searches for violent anti-Black keywords also occurred on the day the House voted to remove confederate statues from the US Capitol on July 22, 2020, and following the killing of two BLM protesters in Kenosha, WI a few weeks later on August 25, 2020. Between August and October 2020, we recorded approximately 330 anti-BLM searches every day; keywords included “BLM are looters,” “black lives don’t matter gif,” and “anti-Black lives matter t-shirt.” Overall, we found that spikes in anti-BLM searches occurred on or around dates of significant racial protest activity, and many peaceful protests escalated to violence spurred by counter-protesters and vehicle ramming attacks.
- The antisemitic forum “Know More News” received consistently high search interest. The website’s creator, Adam Green, is a well-known conspiracy theorist whose videos promote antisemitic and anti-government conspiracy theories like the “New World Order,” “Zionist Occupied Government,” and QAnon. Many of his videos throughout the summer of 2020 provided an antisemitic conspiratorial spin to current events and the upcoming presidential election. Searches for “Know More News” also spiked in October 2020 after Green was deplatformed from YouTube, and maintained high search volumes into January 2021.
- Sustained interest in the Ku Klux Klan serves as an easily identifiable access point for white supremacist content and group membership. Interest in this violent racist organization is consistent with past periods of the Klan’s re-emergence in response to calls for racial justice and civil rights. Searches for other white supremacist groups, including “The Order,” “the Aryan Nations,” “the Hammerskin Nation,” and several Klan offshoots, were also popular.
- Nearly 350 Americans searched “bring back slavery” on November 4, 2020. The day after the presidential election, voters in Nebraska and Alabama, among other states, voted to remove racist language that legalized slavery as a punishment from their states’ constitutions, sparking the search for “bring back slavery.” Related searches on November 4, 2020 included “how to bring back slavery” and “bring back slavery petition,” echoing fearmongering narratives and calls to action by far-right extremist groups.
- There was a consistent search interest in antisemitic conspiracies. We recorded 17,847 searches for “The International Jew,” 9,507 for “Jews will not replace us,” and 2,036 for “Zionist Occupation Government.”
- Americans displayed a strong appetite for “the Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. Increasing search interest in “the Great Replacement” started in January 2021 and peaked in mid-February with 280 searches. The Great Replacement theory revolves around the notion that white people are under threat as a result of “migration, miscegenation or violence,” and has been the foundation of several terrorist manifestos. Interest in this conspiracy at this time is consistent with burgeoning online disinformation about the Biden administration’s immigration and citizenship policies.
WHAT THE TRENDS REALLY MEAN
According to Vidhya Ramalingam, Founder of Moonshot:
“The sustained interest we’ve seen in white supremacist content across America is cause for concern. Though it appears to peak in response to offline events like elections and protests, this research signals an enduring uptake in antisemitic and anti-Black views and conspiracy theories. Our efforts will not end with this report. We will continue to monitor and combat white supremacy and other dangerous beliefs that we’ve seen materialize in the form of real-world violence.”
“This data reflects a concerning trend in our society. White supremacists’ online searches today can be the catalyst for their dangerous, violent actions tomorrow,” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “It is imperative that search engines and platforms work to stop the spread of these dangerous ideologies and help make communities around the world safer.”
The connection between online content and offline engagement — especially mobilization to violence — continues to capture the zeitgeist of extremism research, and for good reason. Further research examining the correlation between the two is of dire importance considering the sustained interest in white supremacist groups, narratives, merchandise and violence, especially targeting Black and Jewish victims.
Meghan Conroy is a doctoral candidate at Loughborough University’s Online Civic Culture Centre, an Analyst with Moonshot, and a doctoral fellow with the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Andrew Pel is a manager at Moonshot where he has led multi-year strategic messaging projects in Canada and the United States that connect individuals searching for online extremist content with counter-narratives and support services.