Andy O’Brien makes it his business to track the online presence of certain far right groups in Maine, and this week he and collaborator Nathan Bernard published an article in Mainer that examines how members of a Lewiston-Auburn Facebook group may be targeting Muslim residents and newly elected Lewiston city councilor Safiya Khalid, the first Somali-American elected to that council.
O’Brien joined Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz to discuss what he found.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Gratz: Without repeating any of the offensive comments you have encountered, can you characterize the sort of posts you’ve been finding in this Facebook group LA’s Journal?
O’Brien: Very bigoted comments, using a lot of different slurs, accusing Muslims of committing obscene acts and also a lot of violence being advocated. One user talked about killing as many Muslims as possible.
When did you first notice this level of vitriol directed at the candidate?
Well, I noticed when I saw her post something in September that was a text message from a member of a far-right militia group that’s very anti-Muslim accusing her of wanting to impose Sharia law and things like that. So I started looking into that group. Members that have been loosely affiliated with this kind of militia group have plotted to attack Somalis in Kansas. And so I was really interested in tracking what was going on online, because these online spaces like on Facebook and other news groups have become the kind of offices of hate groups, where they spread hate, disseminate bigoted images and organize.
So even though this is about a Lewiston city council election, are there broader implications for the state here, do you think?
I mean, I think it’s everywhere. We’ve seen a real tolerance, particularly from Facebook, which is the most popular social media platform, for anti-Muslim bigotry. They very selectively enforce their community standards. And if you just look on Facebook, on local news articles or a lot of these sort of far right Facebook groups, this kind of rhetoric is tolerated often. And as we saw, as we wrote about in our article, a lot of the comments and posts that I mentioned earlier were flagged by other users as being hate speech. And Facebook refused to take any action. They said it didn’t violate their community standards. Now after this article went viral on Twitter, we got a response from the chief technology officer of Facebook who said that now they’re taking action against this, but there’s still plenty of this kind of hate being spread on Facebook.
Now are we talking about people that you can identify that are here in the state? Or is some of this coming from outside of Maine?
No, it’s mostly here. Certainly with Safiya Khalid’s election, there was a lot of attention from out of state, but a lot of it is cultivated right here. There’s a lot of fear about “the other.” They don’t understand, they don’t know these people. And there’s this fear that they’re somehow taking over. A lot of this gets incubated in these Facebook groups that become these echo chambers. With LA’s Journal, this Facebook group that we referred to, you have to answer a question of whether you were born in Lewiston-Auburn. And so they try to select people who are from the area.
And so even if it’s mostly here, it is connected to the issues about hate speech on social media that we’re seeing around the country.
It’s everywhere. I mean, certainly in the past four or five years, we’ve seen an upsurge in it. I mean, I’ve been following the far right for many years, ever since one of my classmates organized the anti-Somali, white supremacist rally back in 2002, 2003. Ever since I’d say about 2015 we’ve seen a lot more overt hate speech online. And that’s where kind of the organizing got transferred.
Are you concerned that it eventually goes beyond speech to action?
Yes, absolutely. We’ve seen what happened with the Christchurch mosque shooter, and the Tree of Life synagogue shooter. Both of those guys were radicalized online. And a lot of these far right groups, they promote that kind of thing, and they valorize the people who commit these acts. I’ve been looking at a number of these message forums and seeing first-hand accounts from people who said, “I started out just as conservative and then I started reading these posts, and I started reading these articles that are being shared, and I started realizing maybe I’m a white nationalist. And then started reading more and said, maybe I’m a fascist.” That’s how it works. This stuff was all in a private group, but a lot of this stuff is way out in the open. And especially I found that anti-Muslim hate speech is very much tolerated in our society, unfortunately. And we need to call it out for what it is.