Subscribe
Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League, as seen in a video interview.

Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League, as seen in a video interview. (ADL/YouTube)

(Tribune News Service) — Oren Segal is an expert on extremism. As vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism, he and his team work tirelessly to understand and combat extremism, terrorism and all forms of hate in the real world and online.

The center provides resources and training to enable law enforcement, public officials and internet and technology companies to identify and counter emerging threats. It gathers data, analyzes it looking for trends, and disseminates its findings to the world, helping inform policy and action in a variety of settings.

After 24 years of being embedded in the darkest corners of the internet, Segal is concerned that many of the attitudes, beliefs and conspiracy-driven narratives of violent extremism are emerging from the darkness and repeated as truth, in public for all to hear.

The result is increasing normalization of radical thought. And with it, increasing levels of violence, threats and harassment in the public sphere, leading knowledgeable and passionate defenders of truth to leave public service, only to be replaced by their extremist brethren.

“Extremists have more avenues to celebrate hate than ever before,” he said.

And yet, he is optimistic about the ability to collectively respond. Segal recently discussed the current state of hate in the United States, a new report from the ADL on threats and harassment against public officials, and his belief that together, we can respond and return hate to the shadows.

Here are highlights of the Las Vegas Sun’s conversation with Segal.

Can you give us an overview of what you are seeing and what you are doing?

We spend our time in the dark spaces to try to understand where the next threats are — not just against the Jewish community but all communities where disinformation and conspiracies are incubated. How bad actors are trying to reach, recruit and radicalize people. And then, you know, hopefully try to find a way to do a little bit about what we’re seeing. What I mean by that is, when we see particular threats on the spaces that we investigate, we share that with law enforcement.

Nobody knows the language and code words and tattoos and symbols that extremists use better than we do. And so we try to provide that to the tech industry so they can preemptively deal with us and not let their platforms be exploited.

Some of them do pretty well. Others are doing a pretty terrible job.

Nevertheless, we’re trying to empower through our analysis and intelligence, and then ultimately, it’s just keeping the community safe. The mission of ADL is to fight antisemitism and also secure justice for all. The center on extremism, it’s important. We know that we’re trying to find antisemitism, election denial narratives, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti LGBTQ sentiment, it’s all part of the same package.

You go into the dark places to see this. However, a lot of it’s out in the light now. What is different the past several years in America?

Twenty years ago, when I started doing this, I fell onto some like Use-net platform, or whatever it was at the time (Usenet was an early kind of internet discussion forum).. And it was a small online space where extremists would, you know, find like-minded people. You kind of knew that a third of the people on there were probably law enforcement and a third were probably, you know, ADL and others like us.

But now you know what? The narratives and the conspiracies that were the lifeblood of those spaces are in our public discussion. Broadcasts every day from the mouths of the likes of Tucker Carlson are what are animating certain campaigns and people who are running for office. They want to be elected because they think those narratives are going to appeal to their base.

And then you have the way that it’s communicated on social media without any friction whatsoever. Nobody can tell the difference between conspiratorial ideas and facts, and I think that’s actually the biggest concern I have — not that we’re seeing so much antisemitism and other forms of hate. That’s a huge concern. People don’t recognize it. They don’t know that they are amplifying it, or that they’re sharing it. And that is because it’s become so normalized because of those factors.

Two things that jumped out in the Princeton study that the ADL sponsored were COVID anxieties and election denialism. Are you seeing a lot of election deniers across the country, and consistently higher levels of all kinds of expressions of hate?

When you scratch the surface on some election denial conspiracies or COVID conspiracies, just look underneath and the antisemitism is there. But we also look at how those narratives of animated extremist groups, so the reason we did this study is that we were noticing white supremacists were showing up at school boards, were showing up to target medical professionals, were trying to intimidate election officials.

These are all representatives, in different ways, of our democracy — people who are here to protect and serve — and that was fundamentally being targeted by bad actors because they want to create chaos and undermine our democratic institutions.

And then after Jan. 6, they realized, “Why are we going to Washington, D.C.? We can have much more impact by staying local.”

It’s not a surprise to see the threats of violence against those officials in the same places that we’re seeing antisemitic propaganda being distributed, and communities or drag-queen events being disrupted. Or, you know, protests against critical race theory. It’s actually all part of the same movement. We try to separate them, but in the online spaces where this is incubated, they’re all kind of combined. And people who are in those (extremist) spaces are choosing their own adventure.

At one time in the life of extremists in the United States, there were things that one group of extremists wouldn’t accept from another group of extremists. You have the John Birchers who were one way and the Ku Klux Klan was another way. Are any of these extremist groups today pushing back against each other saying, “No, that goes too far?”

(New York Nets star) Kyrie Irving was kind of laughable. He was a flat-earther. Flat earth? Who believes in a flat earth anymore?

Then he started tweeting out Alex Jones. Next thing you know, he’s promoting antisemitism. So, if you’re going to believe that the earth is flat, or that an election was stolen, or that there’s a Jewish cabal of pedophiles, then you’re probably going to believe these other conspiracies, because it’s not so much about the content of the conspiracy. It’s about the knowledge that the more we may put these conspiracies out there, it creates chaos and undermines our democracy, because those are the conditions that they need in order to attract more people and basically take down society.

How has social media changed the climate with respect to propaganda?

When we look in these online spaces, for the type of propaganda that we know is going to be distributed, we often know beforehand — before there’s a distribution of antisemitic literature in Los Angeles or a banner being dropped — because they’re planning it in these online spaces.

And there are people who are essentially not only trying to prey upon people but to encourage them, incite them to engage in this activity. That never happened before.

I don’t think in human history up until recently could a 13-year-old in Estonia actually run a white supremacist online group that motivated people to violence in this country. That’s an actual example.

So this is happening regularly, where bad actors are able to get into the spaces and essentially move their agenda forward without the knowledge of the people who are being activated.

But isn’t it also true that another difference from back in the day is that you would become a Nazi first, then you would seek out Nazi forums, rather than being just somebody who’s living in the suburbs or locked down during COVID who happens to read the wrong post, and then an algorithm decides, “Ah, this person is Nazi curious?” Doesn’t that create people who hate who might have not otherwise wound up hating?

I know the whole algorithmic amplification is an issue, right? That the way to keep people engaged on a certain platform is to provide them with their interests or take their interest to extremes. So if you like cars, eventually you’re going to see a monster truck. The algorithm eventually will take you to a dark spot.

And certainly that lack of critical thinking skills, I think, enables people to sort of buy into these conspiracies.

There’s an example of a white supremacist group that wanted to sell its white supremacist music. And so they asked the Facebook ad algorithm to identify people who love Hitler and Goebbels and others, and then those who identify as such, and there’s many of those who do that on Facebook, right? They would get the ads for this white supremacist music, so it’s definitely helping connect haters also, who were already established but certainly making available the narratives.

And now what extremists are realizing is that you don’t always have to be so extreme in order to attract people. Indeed a lot of their propaganda by design is meant to sound very patriotic.

Are we complicit by supporting these social media platforms that allow this to happen? People love Facebook because they can talk to their friends. But they don’t realize this is happening?

You’re hitting it on the head. We know Facebook is filled with a lot of bad actors, a lot of harassment. And yeah, we are on Facebook.

We know that Kanye West has expressed antisemitism and yet we love his music, right?

We know that there are elected officials running for office or trying to break down fundamentally what the society is about, and yet we are voting for them.

We almost have to maybe take a step back and ask ourselves, “Why are we all in a sense allowing the normalization of hate and extremism?”

In the last election, there were threats made against election officials. When we wanted to speak with the election officials about that, they declined because they did not want to amplify or encourage more threats. And it was not clear whether they reported these threats elsewhere to law enforcement. They confirmed that they received them, but they didn’t want to talk about them, because there was a disincentive for them to do it. Do we need the equivalent of a suicide hotline for elected officials, particularly down ballot elected officials to be able to communicate I’m in trouble?

People should be able to report incidents and not feel like they’re putting themselves at risk — and do so confidentially if they have to write and we can sort of verify that information.

The biggest concern is that people don’t want to become medical professionals. They don’t want to work at school boards anymore. The people who are here to protect our communities and our democracy are being intimidated from even wanting to do that job anymore. And you know, who’s going to fill out those roles, if not them? That is at the core of an eroding democracy.

I’m curious where law enforcement fits in on all of this because Nevada is a state that has a lot of rural parts? What can media do when covering law enforcement when there is that link to extremist groups?

We put out a report that looked at 38,000 names of Oath Keepers members that were leaked. And we did a deep investigation over six months looking at every single name and email address that was provided on a membership list where people paid either $100 or $1,000 for a lifetime membership to the Oath Keepers.

We found over 300 law enforcement officers that we believe paid to be part of the Oath Keepers and over 1,000 former law enforcement, 117 military and 81 people who are either currently serving in elective office or looking to serve in elective office.

These are the most sensitive positions in our country, people who are supposed to be dedicated to the safety and security of their communities, who we believe signed up to the Oath Keepers membership roll.

That is an attack against democracy from within. What I think people should do is what we did: Expose it. You have to hold people accountable in any way that you can.

We reached out to every single law enforcement agency and said, “Hey, just want you to know we believe somebody appears on the Oath Keepers membership list and they’re serving in your department.”

Are these agencies doing anything?

It’s a little early to tell how much they’re doing. Some people responded. And we’re thankful for the information. Some people did not really respond at all.

Let’s get back into business about the down-ballot races because that’s an area that Republicans realized a long time ago: If we control the state legislatures, eventually we can change this country. Now Steve Bannon talks about a precinct-by-precinct strategy. Is intimidation of local officials a fact of life that’s going to remain or is this sort of a political fashion? The whole point of intimidation is to drive people out so you can fill the positions with irresponsible people. What’s your long term perspective on this down-ballot behavior?

I don’t anticipate it stopping anytime soon. The extremists who are trying to intimidate people, trying to change this country, are committed to maintaining this. It’s like a dry run for the 2024 presidential election.

But this is where I have a little hope. It’s a dry run for how we respond. We can’t just look at it as a dry run for the bad actors and what they’re going to learn and then maybe even get better at trying to undermine our democracy. This is an opportunity for law enforcement, policymakers, government officials to understand what’s happening and then put the steps in place to make sure that people are not intimidated when they go vote.

Is it fair to say that extremists rely upon a small core of highly motivated individuals and broad-based apathy from everybody else in order to flourish?

Yeah, I think extremists today rely on Tucker Carlson to repeat the great replacement theory to millions of people. They rely on elected officials to deny elections. They rely on celebrities to promote their ideas that otherwise many people wouldn’t hear about. So extremists today have more avenues to normalize their hate than ever before, and they celebrate every single day.

You’ve got researchers who are out there exploring really ugly parts of the web. What’s the attrition rate among them? What kind of mental health care you are providing for them?

I have doubled down on making sure that people have a healthy work-life balance. I force them to take their vacation time.

We have crisis after crisis after crisis. We build redundancy there and will tell people, “You’re not working this one.”

We have a lot of mental health benefits in our agency. So if people need to talk to professionals, they absolutely can.

We also have a community of people who are dedicating their lives to this, and nothing has been more helpful.

(c)2022 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)

Visit the Las Vegas Sun at www.lasvegassun.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up