The alt-right gathered in Washington, D.C. in November to celebrate President Donald Trump’s victory, and the president has come under fire for choosing cabinet appointees and advisors who have faced charges of racism. That’s fed growing concern––both from liberals, like recently-retired Senator Harry Reid, and conservatives, like Evan McMullin––that the Trump presidency will have ties to white nationalism, the belief that society should be structured to ensure white political, social, and economic domination.
While the president has said that he rejects the support of white nationalists, against the backdrop of a spike in hate crimes across the country, a large-scale analysis of 8,215,332 comments from 1,734,738 different accounts left on the president’s Facebook page between January 1st, 2016 and November 1st, 2016 shows that their language increasingly reflected anti-Semitic rhetoric common amongst white nationalists, an umbrella term for a variety of hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, who believe that whites are inherently superior to other races. Most recently, white nationalists have coalesced under the banner of the alt-right, an umbrella term that captures a plethora of reactionary identities.
The alt-right is a radicalized subculture. While it most likely does not represent the values of most Trump supporters, let alone most Americans, this relatively small, hyperactive extremist group has effectively exploited the social mechanics of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to amplify its message, influence voters, and normalize its radical ideology. Over the course of the campaign the alt-right succeeded in spreading divisive rhetoric--and the comments section of Trump’s official Facebook page increasingly resembled the hateful views it promoted.
We can measure the degree to which the alt-right’s radical ideology has been normalized amongst Trump supporters on Facebook by taking language from their comments and comparing it to language of suspected white nationalists online.
For an earlier investigation into far-right radicalism on Twitter for The Washington Post, we used machine learning to identify 3,500 possible white nationalists based on the language in Twitter users’ profile descriptions and pro-Nazi symbols in their avatars. We then dissected the racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and often violent language used by these accounts. (Many have since been suspended by Twitter.)
Analyzing the context in which these accounts used keywords relevant to hate speech, and comparing that context to mainstream language found in a dataset of over 100 billion words published on Google News, makes it possible to identify distinctive patterns. Other bodies of text—for example, the comments left on Trump’s Facebook page—can then be compared to these two benchmarks, to assess the extent to which they resemble one more than the other.
For example, in most newspaper articles, the word “Jewish” is used in a similar way to words like “Muslim” and “Christian,” to describe religion.
In tweets by white nationalists, the word “Jewish” is used in a similar way to words like “communist,” “homosexual,” and “leftist.” In other words, “Jewish” often appears in contexts similar to words for other groups of people white nationalists don’t like.
The language used in the comments section of Trump’s Facebook page initially resembled that used by newspapers. For example, here is a typical comment from early 2016. Its author uses the word “Jewish” to describe his religion.
“I love Pope Frances [sic]! He took on a very Holy Name and I love Him! But once again I am Jewish but the Pope is still Blessed!”
By October, that changed. Facebook commenters on Trump’s page began to use words like “Jew” and “Jewish” to describe the mainstream media, Hillary Clinton, and other common punching bags for Trump’s campaign. They used “Jewish” in the same way white nationalists use the word “Jewish” — as an epithet.
For example, one commenter writes, “The Rothschild Jewish owned main stream [sic] media will begin to die tonight when Trump only speaks with honest journalists online after the debate. Best way to end corrupted media, ignore them.”
Another commenter uses even more direct language, writing “Hope you are president Mr trump [sic] as you are the key to stopping the jew [sic] bankers ruling America.. fuk [sic] them up man and stop zionist jew [sic] scum...from Australia.”
One commenter simply writes “Low class Jew Hillary.”
Not all of the comments reflected this kind of anti-Semitism, but enough did that the overall sentiment of Trump’s supporters on his Facebook page was measurably more similar to that of white supremacists by the end of his campaign. By November, the context in which they used words to describe minority groups was 41 percent more similar to that of suspected white nationalists than it was in January.
There could be two explanations for this: Either more followers of the alt-right had flocked to Trump’s Facebook page in the latter months of the campaign, or his existing supporters were using more radicalized language. Regardless of who posted the comments, however, the implications are more nuanced than a simple count of the number of racist or anti-Semitic comments—the change indicates that white supremacist ideology is becoming normalized in a large community of Trump supporters.
On Facebook, one explanation for this shift may be the change in media consumption amongst the Republican base. While Fox News was once considered the voice of the Republican Party, that position now seems to be held by Breitbart — the publication Steve Bannon, the site’s editor until he joined the Trump campaign, called a “platform for the alt-right.” Trump supporters shared Breitbart articles far more often than those published by Fox News, and more than those of any other media outlet except The Washington Post.
While Bannon himself insists that he is not a white nationalist, his addition to Trump’s cabinet was praised by David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white nationalists who believe Bannon will hold Trump to his most controversial campaign promises. Among the Breitbart articles shared most often in comments on Trump’s page were stories insinuating that Clinton surrogate Khizr Khan was hiding his law firm’s work on Muslim immigration, and also alleging Khan’s “deep legal, financial” relationship to Saudi Arabia constituted a direct connection between Hillary Clinton and terrorism. Commenters also frequently shared Breitbart articles that claimed Fox News is “pushing an open borders agenda” and colluding with Marco Rubio to “give amnesty to illegal aliens.”
Among opinion and commentary sites, commenters on Trump’s page shared links to Infowars more than any other publication. The conspiracy theory site, led by its founder Alex Jones, has claimed that 9/11 was “an inside job,” that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax, and “there’s no such thing as moderate Islam.” Jones himself is on the record claiming that “Jews run an evil conspiracy.”
The consequences of these conspiracy theories, propaganda, and fake news articles are felt beyond social media “filter bubbles” and far-right web forums. For example the “pizzagate” conspiracy, which falsely alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophila ring out of Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C., ultimately resulted in real-world violence. Originally invented by a white-supremacist Twitter account on October 30, this story quickly spread to fake news sites, including Infowars, and was eventually read by Edgar Madison Welch—who, on December 5, walked into Comet Pizza armed with an assault rifle to “self-investigate” and fired multiple shots. It was later reported that Welch, through his Facebook account, followed both Infowars and Alex Jones. Jones, for his part, has since released a video claiming Welch is part of yet a larger coverup.
Academics and pundits have long predicted that the combination of Trump's nativist rhetoric, right-wing propaganda, and the increased prevalence of the alt-right in mainstream politics would embolden hate groups and normalize extremist ideology. The shifting language on social media during the election and real-world events in its aftermath suggest that those predictions are coming true.