The Rise of the New Intolerance

Back in 1995, I went digitally “undercover” on behalf of a major newspaper to lurk on the online discussion forums of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The internet was new back then, and not everyone had access yet. But the ‘Net was rapidly proving to be a comfortable gathering space for those with vile antisocial viewpoints, where they could spout and collude in anonymous comfort.

Declarations of support for the philosophies and actions of Adolph Hitler, and calls for acts of violence against visible minorities in Canada and abroad were not uncommon in those forums. Thankfully, it was all talk, and to my knowledge no one acted on those calls.

The experience left me both disturbed and hopeful. While the existence of such hateful views was disquieting, I was nevertheless buoyed by the fact they were very much fringe minority attitudes, and those who held them at least had enough sense to know how unacceptable they were to the rest of proper mainstream society.

These days, I still spend a fair amount of time on online discussion groups, mostly those focused on videogames and meme generation –past times that I embarrassingly share with people significantly younger than me. I do not engage. I only observe.

A disturbing trend has percolated to the fore of such groups, starting sometime around the beginning of the pandemic. They have begun to resemble the neo-Nazi forums of three decades past. But while the old groups were tiny and local, the current sites are sweeping global affairs with millions of users. And they exhibit a pride and expectation that their brand of prejudice is no longer marginal.

Participants appear to be overwhelmingly male and sing paeans to famous social media influencers known for their celebration of simplistic ideas around masculinity. Brazen misogyny is not uncommon. But the majority of their venom is reserved for nonwhite migrants to North America and Europe. Echoing far rightwing talking points around “white genocide”, they regularly amplify news stories of immigrants and refugees committing crimes, while simultaneously celebrating stories of crimes committed against immigrants and refugees.

The current explosion of violence in Israel and Gaza has stoked the verbiage on these sites even further. Hateful images and descriptions of both Jews and Muslims are shared openly and are almost always completely uncontested. There is also a particular disdain for anything or anyone racially Black, almost pathologically so. And yet at the same time, there’s a fetishization and almost reverence for all things Japanese, though actual site visitations from Japan are virtually nonexistent.

Unlike the niche forums I investigated in the 90s, these sites are sprawling global concerns that cannot be dismissed as in any way homogenous, racially or politically. The most popular site sees 600-700 million visitors per month, with most visitors coming from the USA, Western Europe, Indonesia, and India. So to dismiss the hate as simply more white supremacy would be unhelpful, as there is a complex racial diversity in this soup of hate. Clearly, something more culturally ubiquitous and insidious is going on, more so than simple racial or ethnic tribalism.

Users proudly declare their racism and try to outdo one another with their racist bonafides. To them, being called “racist” is a literal badge of honour. One is tempted to dismiss it all as puerile gameplaying. But when such games are accompanied by genuine glee over the murder of innocents, there is understandable concern for the evolving mindsets of these people.

From my observations of the conversations on these sites, I conclude that the morals and values of the world’s youth are in flux. Decades of work to dispense with the racial “othering” that led us into World War II are being undone at a rapid pace by online environments that allow the vilest of ideas to first be dismissed as jokes, then to be embraced as viable life philosophies.

It is unclear what is at the heart of this trend –social media influencers, organized disinformation merchants, or perhaps more diffuse cultural forces. But this phenomenon of New Hate appears to be manifesting as a global empathy gap wherein an increasing number of people are unable or unwilling to understand or even acknowledge the humanity of our fellows. I find myself wondering if a similar trend presaged earlier troubling events in world history, and cannot help but worry.