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Online Hate Thriving Even After The Recent Hate Crime In The U.S.

The commitment to eradicating hate from platforms is not always matched by the ability to do so because there is just so much content out there.

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Pittsburgh, Hate, shooting
Flowers surround signs on Oct. 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services. VOA
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A website popular with racists that was used by the man charged in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was shut down within hours of the slaughter, but it hardly mattered: Anti-Semites and racists who hang out in such havens just moved to other online forums.

On Wednesday, four days after 11 people were fatally shot in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, anonymous posters on another website popular with white supremacists, Stormfront, claimed the bloodshed at Tree of Life synagogue was an elaborate fake staged by actors. The site’s operator, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, said traffic has increased about 45 percent since the shooting.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric was just as bad on another site popular with white supremacists, The Daily Stormer, where a headline said: “Just go, Jews. You’re not welcome.”

Trying to stop the online vitriol that opponents say fuels real-world bloodshed is a constant battle for groups that monitor hate, and victories are hard to come by. Shut down one platform like Gab, where the shooting suspect posted a message shortly before the attack, and another one remains or a new one opens.

pittsburgh shooting, Hate
Flowers surround Stars of David on Oct. 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services Saturday in Pittsburgh., VOA

The problem dates back to the dawn of the internet, when users connected their computers to each other by dialing telephone numbers. A report issued by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League in 1985 found there were two online “networks of hate” in the United States, both run by neo-Nazis who spread anti-Semitic, racist propaganda.

Today, the vastness of the online world is a big part of the problem, said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center for Extremism. Determining how many hate sites exist is nearly impossible, he said.

“It’s really difficult to put an actual number on it, but I would say this: There are thousands of hate sites and there are dozens and dozens of platforms in which hate exists,” Segal said.

A new study by the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence, composed of academic researchers who study online extremism, said the exact number of far-right adherents on just one platform, Twitter, is impossible to determine. But at least 100,000 people and automated accounts are aligned with radicals commonly referred to as the “alt-right,” the study found, and the true number is probably more than twice that.

pittsburgh shooting, Hate
A sign during a protest gathering on the block of the Jewish Community Center in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the funeral for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz. VOA

An ADL report released a day before the shooting said extremists had increased anti-Semitic harassment against Jewish journalists, political candidates and others ahead of the midterm elections. Researchers who analyzed more than 7.5 million Twitter messages from Aug. 31 to Sept. 17 found almost 30 percent of the accounts repeatedly tweeting derogatory terms about Jews appeared to be automated “bots” that spread the message further and faster than if only people were involved.

The New York-based ADL said that before the 2016 election of President Donald Trump anti-Semitic harassment was rare, but afterward it became a daily occurrence. It commissioned a report in May that estimated about 3 million Twitter users posted or re-posted at least 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets in English over a 12-month period ending Jan. 28.

Gab shutdown

The story of Gab, the platform where Robert Gregory Bowers allegedly wrote an ominous message early Saturday before the shooting, shows how new sites spring up in a hate-filled environment.

pittsburgh shooting, Hate
White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va. VOA

Created in 2016 to counter what founder Andrew Torba viewed as liberal censorship on social networks, Gab gained popularity among white supremacists and other right-wing radicals after tech companies clamped down on racist sites following the deadly clash at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Daily Stormer was offline briefly after the violence but re-emerged on a new host.

With Gab now shut down after the synagogue shooting, Torba is portraying the platform not as a hate-filled corner of the internet, but as a bastion of free speech that’s working with federal authorities “to bring justice to an alleged terrorist.”

A message posted by Torba said Gab was trying to get back online, and Segal has few doubts it will succeed.

Don Black, the former Klan leader who runs Stormfront, said traffic is up partly because of the Gab shutdown and partly because of increased interest among users. His site, which has been in operation since 1995 and has about 330,000 registered users, has only had one “prolonged” shutdown — a month following the Charlottesville melee, he said.

“I expect all sorts of more trouble now because of the Pittsburgh shooting,” Black said.

Pittsburgh, Hate, shooting
A mother and her child arrive to place flowers at a spontaneous memorial of flowers and sidewalk writing a block from the Tree of Life Synagogue. VOA

Free speech

Purging hateful content from the internet is a challenge. The Constitution’s guarantee of free-speech provides a roadblock to banning hate speech in the United States, according to the First Amendment Center, a project of the Washington-based Freedom Forum Institute.

“Political speech receives the greatest protection under the First Amendment, and discrimination against viewpoints runs counter to free-speech principles. Much hate speech qualifies as political, even if misguided,” said an essay by center scholar David L. Hudson Jr. and Mahad Ghani, a fellow with the center.

Some advocate other tactics for curbing hate.

Three days before the synagogue attack, a coalition that includes the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal advocacy organization that monitors hate groups, released a proposed framework aimed at social media companies.

The plan is geared around a model terms-of-service policy that states that platform users “may not use these services to engage in hateful activities or use these services to facilitate hateful activities engaged in elsewhere.” Next year, sponsors plan to begin posting report cards showing how sites are doing at quelling hate speech.

Pittsburgh, Hate, shooting
Monks pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday’s shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn. VOA

No company has publicly announced plans to adopt the coalition’s guidelines, but Segal said the ADL separately has talked with several social media companies about limiting hate speech. Companies have been welcoming but solutions remain elusive, he said.

Also Read: Guilty Plea For The Pittsburgh Shooting Suspect

Segal added: “The commitment to eradicating hate from platforms is not always matched by the ability to do so because there is just so much content out there.” (VOA)

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Rohingyas Repatriation to Myanmar Scrapped by Bangladesh

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months.

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Rohingya, myanmar
An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Bangladesh’s plans to begin repatriating Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar Thursday were scrapped because officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return to the country that has been accused of driving out hundreds of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The refugees “are not willing to go back now,” Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Associated Press. He said officials “can’t force them to go” but will continue to try to “motivate them so it happens.”

Some people on the government’s repatriation list disappeared into the sprawling refugee camps to avoid being sent home, while others joined a large demonstration against the plan.

Rohingya, myanmar
Workers build a Rohingya repatriation center in Gunndum near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. VOA

UN urged a halt to repatriation

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August 2017 to escape killings and destruction of their villages by the military and Buddhist vigilantes that have drawn widespread condemnation of Myanmar.

The United Nations, whose human rights officials had urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation process even as its refugee agency workers helped to facilitate it, welcomed Thursday’s development.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Cox’s Bazar, said it was unclear when the process might begin again.

“We want their repatriation, but it has to be voluntary, safe and smooth,” he said.

Bangladesh officials declined to say whether another attempt at repatriation would be made Friday.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters in Dhaka late Thursday that “there is no question of forcible repatriation. We gave them shelter, so why should we send them back forcibly?”

Rohingya, myanmar
Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Pleading with Rohingya

At the Unchiprang refugee camp, a Bangladeshi refugee official implored the Rohingya on Thursday to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

“We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we’ll take you to the border, to the transit camp,” he said.

“We won’t go!” hundreds of voices, including children’s, chanted in reply.

Some refugees on the repatriation lists, which authorities say were drawn up with assistance from the UNHCR, said they don’t want to go back.

‘I don’t want to go back’

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox’s Bazar, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not. She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

“They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents,” said Setara, who only gave one name. “I don’t want to go back.”

She said that other refugees on the repatriation list had fled to other camps, hoping to disappear amid the crowded lanes of refugees, aid workers and Bangladeshi soldiers, which on Thursday were bustling with commerce and other activity.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Plan to return 150 a day

Bangladesh had planned to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

Myanmar officials, speaking late Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, said they were ready to receive the refugees. Despite those assurances, human rights activists said conditions were not yet safe for the Rohingya to go back.

The exodus began after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts. The scale, organization and ferocity of the crackdown led the U.N. and several governments to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees cross floodwaters at Thangkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. VOA

Refugee camps bleak

The refugees survived the ransacking of villages, rapes and killings in Myanmar, but for many, life in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps has been bleak.

The refugees who’ve arrived in the last year joined a wave of 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped forced labor, religious persecution and violent attacks from Buddhist mobs in Myanmar during the early 1990s.

Access to education and employment has been far from assured.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who hopes to retain power in December elections, has repeatedly complained that hosting more than a million Rohingya is taxing local resources.

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months, but plans last January to begin sending refugees back were called off amid concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that their return would be met with violence.

Foreign leaders, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, criticized Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Also Read: Rohingya Muslims Remain Fearful Due To Forceful Repatriation

But on Thursday, Pence said that U.S. officials were “encouraged to hear that” the repatriation process would begin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the U.N. “to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future.” (VOA)