Escaping the rabbit hole of hate on the internet

Discord server 13/50 is dedicated to spreading the rumor that African Americans commit more crimes than the rest of the U.S. population combined.

A Reddit page is flooded with white supremacist commentary, some of which is hauntingly familiar to the fascist ideals of World War II.

And on the 4chan thread /pol, there is a front-page post discussing whether or not ethnic minorities lack parts of their brain due to “inferior” genetics.

As access to the internet has spread, so too has the accessibility and reach of digital extremism. With the world constantly at their fingertips, teens are now exposed to racism on a daily basis, in a way that parallels indoctrination.

“In a week I’d say I spend about 87 hours in total [on the internet],” said Erik Navarro, a 10th grade student at New Mexico School for the Arts, noting he spends most of his time on Twitter and Reddit. “I see them [online racist chats] mostly in the form of dedicated groups. I do worry that racism from the internet can get out of hand and into violent acts.”

But these aren’t just concerns. Navarro said he recently stopped being friends with someone after witnessing the friend adopt hate speech from the internet.

Navarro said his friend didn’t have access to the internet before this summer, when he got a Google Pixel. After having the phone for just a few weeks, Navarro said he “could tell that he was changing.” It was the first time Navarro said he’d heard the friend use racially charged words in reference of African Americans and Jews.

“I asked him why he was doing this, and he said that’s what the internet considers ‘normal,’ ” Navarro said, adding he eventually stopped staying in touch with the friend because of the “excessive amount of times he would be racist.”

Even when teenagers aren’t falling into racist communities, the presence of hate-based and violent material is evident across commonly used websites.

David Chamberlain, an 11th grade student at Santa Fe High School, said he remembers a forum on Reddit — a website where users can post whatever they wish in individualized groups — called “r/watchpeopledie,” where people would post videos of real people dying. Eventually, Reddit terminated the “subReddit,” as the online groups are called. Yet, it’s not uncommon to still find these types of online “communities,” both on Reddit and elsewhere, Chamberlain said.

“You can go down pretty much any rabbit hole you want,” he said.

Some people have taken to cleaning up the darker parts of the internet. On Reddit, a hierarchy of users has formed to monitor racism online. This, however, requires individuals to subject themselves to viewing the material in the first place.

“Admins basically have two options: quarantine the subReddit or ban it,” Chamberlain said. “[Quarantined sites] are no longer searchable on mobile, which is where the vast majority of traffic for the site is.”

Another popular site, 4chan, lacks the hierarchy of websites like Reddit. This has spawned one of the most prolific online fringe-group communities, in the form of the group /pol. This group is dedicated to material considered politically incorrect, such as racism and political extremism, and is composed of anonymous posts. 8chan, a sister site of 4chan, is similarly devoted to such content and has been linked to several mass shootings, including the early August shooting in El Paso.

“I’m concerned about 4chan and 8chan because that is where [violent and hateful] ideas are born. That is where they develop, until they can carry over into a small Reddit community and fully develop and organize,” Chamberlain said.

As a response to internet exposure security risks such as this, Santa Fe Public Schools has instituted a number of proactive and reactive measures.

Tom Ryan, the district’s chief information and strategy officer, said the system has a firewall in place that “provides initial protection for our network.” There are also filters, which block students from accessing certain sites, as well as device-specific resources like GoGuardian. This, he said, keeps a record of “everything that people search, that every person has done.”

While Ryan said he knows students are capable of finding ways around these measures, he does not believe in restricting kids from everything. As opposed to locking down all internet access into a permission-based system, SFPS instead focuses on a responsible-use policy, he said.

“Part of our job is, in a learning environment, to help provide students the skills they need to navigate the internet, with all of its good and its bad,” Ryan said.

Internet training may provide greater access to tools for students and teachers, but it also allows for easier circumventing of security measures by students, some say.

“Most people can completely circumnavigate any censorship that the school may be trying to enforce by using their phones, by using their own internet. Several VPNs [virtual private networks] can surpass the firewalls,” said Dean Gonzales, a senior at Santa Fe High School.

Gonzales said a large amount of the preventative security measures on school-issued Chromebooks last year were specific to the browser used. Therefore, he was able to log into Play Store with a different account — not one overseen by the school — and download another browser that did not include blockage, in order to access 4chan.

This type of access can allow teens to become active participants in what can quickly turn from chaos into organized action across the country.

When an anti-Trump flag was hung on an online live feed with the words “he will not divide us,” for example, /pol “trolls” were able to find the flag because of imagery in the background. The flag was stolen, and /pol posted a photo of it to the web.

“/pol is hardly an organization, but when they organize, they might be able to do something as great as find a single flag in the United States in less than 24 hours,” Gonzales said.

Harvey McGuinness is a senior at Santa Fe High School. Contact him at harveymcguinness@yahoo.com.

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