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Book review: ‘Culture Warlords – My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy’

Image credit: Julian Leshay/Dreamstime

Proud Jewish journalist Talia Lavin takes readers on an undercover trip into the rageful world of white supremacy. Her aim? To expose the tactics and ideologies of online hatemongers.

While social media and online platforms have often provided society with a sense of harmony and desire for change, from the fight to #EndSARS in Nigeria to conversations about tackling climate change, they have also paved way for hate speech. This is no exception in the hidden corners of the web where extremists hang out. In fact, you can imagine it being much worse. Picture the atrocities that are being said and shared on such platforms. This is something that Talia Lavin has explored in her book ‘Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy’ (Octopus Books, £18.99, ISBN 9781913183967).

Admittedly, I didn’t know who Talia Lavin was before coming across this book of interest, but a Google search told me everything that I needed to know. She’s a witty, loud, unapologetic proud young Jewish freelance writer who has received a fair bit of hate from members of the extreme right on social media over the past few years. “To be publicly Jewish and female, and engaged in antifascist rhetoric – even in the form of caustic tweets – rendered me a vivid character in the imagination of extremists,” she writes. 

Lavin, a former fact-checker for The New York Times, was baffled by the vehemence of far-right trolls who have targeted her and sought to look into this further. So for her debut book, the fearless reporter immersed herself in the world of her tormentors for a year, mapping a blueprint of all the online places where white supremacists, white nationalists, Christian extremists, and so called 'incels' across the US thrive and multiply.

Lavin endured personal trauma to expose the pervasiveness of the white supremacist movement by going undercover as a blonde Nazi woman and a forlorn incel to infiltrate deep into these extremist communities online. “My intent in joining these groups was to gain a fly-on-the-wall view of far-right rhetoric, surveilling its violence, racial animus, and anti-Semitism in an environment in which contributors felt safe to speak freely,” she writes.

Throughout the year of her catfishing and gatecrashing these online communities, she joined many groups on the encrypted app Telegram. Lavin tells us how a study by the reporter Tess Owen of Vice News, published in October 2019, did an analysis that proved Telegram was growing exponentially in 2019 as a platform for the far right, as extremists were pushed off mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter due to censorship. Lavin writes that over two-thirds of 150 far-right channels Owen examined had been created in 2019; 82 out of 150 channels examined had appeared after the mass shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March of that year, and as such were focused on preparing for violent action – for example, guides to prepare for committing a mass shooting.

Being Jewish herself, Lavin was also determined to find the online groups who targeted her community. She observed white supremacists going out of their way to terrorise random Jews to remind them that they are unsafe simply because they are Jewish. One horrifying example came in the form of a public channel on Telegram called The Noticer, she writes. On here, members gathered screenshots from Twitter accounts of people who mentioned they were Jewish and blasted these screenshots out to an audience of thousands of avid anti-Semites. “It was a channel that targeted Jewish people who were ostensibly trying to pass as white.” She also discovers the digital world of disturbingly young extremists, including a white supremacist YouTube channel run by a 14-year-old girl with more than 800,000 followers.

Lavin’s stories in her debut are equally shocking, provocative and humorous, taking readers down the path of some of the vilest subcultures on the internet and the methods they use to try and infiltrate the mainstream media. Her exposé into the dark web of the far-right comes to show the urgency of imposing regulations and laws that are capable of tracking down groups such as these that intend to cause harm to people that don’t look like them, don’t uphold the same ideologies as them, and who otherwise oppose their actions.

Ultimately, she turns the lens of anti-Semitism, racism, and white power back on itself in an attempt to dismantle and quash these online communities, and the threat it represents in the US and the world today and in the future. She also explores ways in which we, as a society, can fight back. She tells readers to let ‘Culture Warlords’ be part revenge, part explainer, and partly the story of what hate does to those who observe it and those who manufacture it. She writes eloquently: “Let it be a manual that leads you to fight – for a better world for you, for me, for all the black kids and Muslim kids and trans kids and brown kids, who deserve a world free of the verminous miasmas of hatred.”

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