Originally published on 27/12/21----------------------------------
In February of 2020, a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by two white men while jogging through a suburb in Georgia. Some called the event a modern day lynching. Others tried to justify it by claiming self-defence for the men with the guns. During his run, Arbery stopped in a house under construction. The men told authorities they suspected him of being a criminal responsible for several break-ins in the area and attempted to make a citizen’s arrest. Footage shows Arbery trying to escape before he was shot to death in the struggle. 
Soon after, white supremacists on 4chan invented a metanarrative claiming that Arbery was in possession of a hammer and wearing Timberland boots at the time of his death, implying that he was breaking into houses and therefore deserved to die. It was a coordinated effort to undermine the credibility of the victim’s story, with the ancillary benefit of removing any guilt from the men involved in killing him and portraying them as local heroes. The narrative was simple and absurd enough that it gained a lot of traction with racist conspiracy communities. All it had to do was make people question the reality of events as represented by mainstream media. 
To most, this new narrative was obviously a complete fabrication. Not only were there zero mentions of a hammer in any of the incident reports, but there were also several clear statements that Arbery was unarmed at the time of his death. The only “proof” provided by the white-supremacists about the Timberland boots came from some extremely blurry photos of a man running with red circles drawn around his footwear. But it was enough to convince many. 
Then there were the memes. Racist memes following templates designed to blend in with more lighthearted content, portraying this fictional narrative as factual. This practice is a cornerstone of online disinformation. If internet users are accustomed to their memes delivering primarily factually accurate content, then those misleading ones that slip through unchallenged may have a serious impact for a story such as Arbery’s. 
Another aspect of this campaign was the coordinated online effort to make the term “jogger” into the new N-word. It took a while for mainstream news to catch on. A VICE article published on the 14th of May was the first to report on the trend. Following this, articles appeared in the Washington Post, the Independent and the Northstar on the 17th, 18th and 19th of May respectively, months after the false narratives were spreading across social media. 
In an article from July 2021, independent investigative outfit Bellingcat examined the increased use of coded language on social media among white supremacists, claiming it serves to gain followers and allow their radical posts to mix in with the more common conservative content with less chance of being removed. They found that the “White Boy Summer'' movement (2021) started out as a lighthearted meme not necessarily attributed to any political entity, but was adopted by neo-Nazis to heighten racial-tensions and encourage terrorist attacks in the style of the Christchurch massacre of 2019. 
While many alt-right groups make use of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, there is also a preference among white-suprecmacists for platforms which offer limited moderation and anonymity among users, such as Reddit, 4chan and 8chan. April Glaser writing for Slate in 2019 notes that a mass shooter in El Paso, Texas, posted his manifesto on 8chan hours before carrying out the shooting. It quickly spread across multiple platforms after his manifesto instructed others to participate in the attack. 
Messaging services guarded from government authorities through end-to-end encryption such as Signal or Telegram have become a popular method of communication as well, given the privacy they offer, as well as custom message boards like Stormfront or IronMarch (now defunct). Siladitya Ray writing for Forbes in January of this year claims that new platforms Gab, Rumble and MeWe are being flooded with new alt-right users seeking alternatives to mainstream sites (most likely following mass deplatformings after the Capitol Riots in January). 
Facebook is used by white supremacist groups for recruitment. They tend to have a lot of sway with the younger male demographic, who are typically the most receptive to extreme hate-based ideology. With millions of new users every year, Facebook offers an ideal delivery system. Data from analytics website Statista reveals that men in the 18-24 age range are the second highest demographic of Facebook users globally, sitting at 13.8% as of writing.
Significantly, the demographic with the most users is men in the 25-34 age range, at 18.8%. It is likely that this demographic forms the backbone of most white supremacist organisations and comprises the majority of those doing the recruiting. These groups benefit from the anonymity offered through online gatherings. It is much safer than openly sharing their extreme ideologies in places where it may affect their careers or social standing, such as university campuses and army bases. 
Nick Bilton writing for Vanity Fair claims that after Trump’s election in 2016 there was a mass migration of left-leaning users from Facebook over to more hospitable sites like Twitter and Snapchat. Unlike Facebook, these companies have repeatedly challenged the Trump administration on its many racist statements as well as its attempts at sowing discord through conspiracy conjecture. Conversely, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg actually called Trump personally to reassure him of Facebook’s laissez-faire stance toward freedom of speech on its platform. Facebook has since become a stronghold for ultra-conservatives, and was the staging area for two significant events in the recent history of alt-right conflict in the US: the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” march and the Capitol riots in January 2021. 
In Charlottesville, neo-Nazis gathered en masse alongside other alt-right factions. A counter protester was struck and killed by an alt-right motorist who drove through the crowd. Simon Schuster and Billy Perrigo writing for Time claim the march was a watershed moment, displaying how white supremacy had entered the political mainstream in the U.S. with implicit support from Trump. They note that Facebook should not have acted as surprised by the fatal nature of the event considering the Southern Poverty Law Center had been providing the company lists of white-supremacist hate groups since 2012, to which Facebook never paid much attention until after Charlotesville. 
Michel Martin and Will Jarvis in an article for NPR detail how during the Capitol riots, data shows that the Facebook pages generating the most engagement around the event were notorious alt-right misinformation providers. The riots showcased the consequences of misinformation spreading beyond insular extremist pages and out into the “real world.” Rioters broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office to steal her laptop, encouraged by Trump’s many attempts to demonise and discredit her. They also attempted to disrupt the House of Representatives as it was still in session, resulting in the fatal shooting of a pregnant rioter. 
Compared with these events, the disinformation campaign around the Arbery case may seem innocuous, or a low-level example of amateur alt-right metanarratives. But it reflects the increasing difficulty of mainstream media to retain authority over information in the realm of social media. If white supremacists are able to use memes to sow doubt around a modern day lynching and Trump is able to insight mass hysteria through malicious tweets, how can modern journalism cope with this growing onslaught of fake news? 
Amid a media storm surrounding its systemic refusal to address issues plaguing the platform, Facebook’s holding company is rebranding to Meta. It is said to be the next big step for social media. There doesn’t seem to be a guarantee if this will bring about any meaningful change or just serve as a distraction, to merely mask the issues. Zuckerberg offers no concrete answers and instead attempts to placate his critics with promises of a brighter future, inside Meta, surrounded by whatever they find most beautiful. Taking place in virtual reality, it could mean a fresh start for all; a new beginning free from riots, nazis and lynch mob videos.
And yet, we are left to wonder: what ghosts will linger in the machine?
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