Digital terrorism in 2018 - Generation Z has arrived

For 24 years, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has released an annual “Digital Terrorism and Hate” report providing stakeholders, law enforcement and the media a snapshot that illustrates how extremists leverage online platforms to promote their insidious agendas.

Over the course of this time, we’ve witnessed a frightening evolution in the sophistication of the tools they use and professionalism by which they go about their work. Today, we’re on the verge of a tipping point.

The post-millennial Generation Z has grown up with a smartphone in its hands and is reaching adulthood with an unprecedented ability to organize, fundraise, and, if so inclined, to create hateful content and distribute it through fragmented, but interconnected media channels.

Here are the principal 2018 takeaways, all tying back to the common theme that we are dealing with more agile and increasingly capable adversaries:

Here is the good news: While far from perfect, most major social media providers, led by Facebook, are removing hate and terror postings.

Here is the bad news: With 3 billion people online, committed bigots and terrorists still have little trouble mounting sophisticated marketing campaigns and propaganda onslaughts against their enemies.

Online hate is increasingly targeting African Americans and Jews, mirroring real-world FBI hate crime statistics that confirm blacks and American Jews as the top victims of hate crimes in America.

Here are only a few examples:

--The caliphate’s zip code may be shrinking in the Middle East but ISIS’ online presence and impact continues to surge. Evocative imagery rallies the faithful and gullible – especially lone wolves – to target innocents in Europe and North America with stabbings, car rammings and other acts of violence. While some counter-measures have become more commonly deployed, social media remains terrorists’ most potent and effective weapon.

--Extremists are deploying off-the-shelf encryption apps to effectively mask communications and evade authorities’ efforts to track their whereabouts.

--The Alt Tech phenomenon is gaining traction. Extremists in the Alt-Right movement reject the rules laid out by social media companies and others to curb online hate. As a result, they increasingly use platforms where there are few if any rules and, when necessary, start their own online funding efforts. Taking their inspiration from far-right gains in Europe, the U.S.-based extremists are recasting neo-Nazism, xenophobia, Anti-Semitism and white supremacism with a new vocabulary (e.g. “It’s OK to Be White,” “Stop White Genocide”). An entire subculture of hate is taking shape online ranging from Pepe the Frog’s icon to gaming apps to t-shirts—all using insiders’ vocabulary.

--Online hate is increasingly targeting African Americans and Jews, mirroring real-world FBI hate crime statistics that confirm blacks and American Jews as the top victims of hate crimes in America. There has been an explosion of anti-black imagery and discussion groups validating base racism. The Jewish community finds itself targeted by multiple enemies. These include: imams at mosques on both sides of the Atlantic delivering theological and genocidal dictates; alt-right fanatics recycling classic anti-Semitic screeds that blame Jews for society’s problems; extreme anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campaigns led by groups like BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions); as well as state-sanctioned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial led by Iran.

--A culture of online conspiracy theories is flourishing on social media. These range from attacking the legitimacy of the narratives of victims of the Parkland shootings, blaming the 9/11 catastrophes on CIA or Mossad and resurrecting the ‘Big Lies’ of the long-debunked “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in order to infect new generations of young people with history’s oldest hate-anti-Semitism.

Here is the challenge ahead: America needs a consortium to tackle and degrade online hate. The players must include social media companies—both large and small – and our communities, including kids, their parents and teachers, and our elected officials.

This isn’t a Pollyannaish suggestion but an urgent call to action. We must use every tool in our own powerful arsenal to reach digital-savvy teens and young adults with compelling messages of inclusion, compassion and love. The recent mass murder in South Florida is but one brutal reminder of the price we all pay for lessons unlearned in the social media age. The only way to fight a smart, organized, effective enemy is to be smarter, more effective and better organized.