"Capitalizing on conflict": How white nationalists are exploiting Israel-Gaza tensions to push hate

X/Twitter allows racists to pay to boost bigoted posts — and then cash in on ad revenue

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published December 2, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Fiery tensions related to the crisis in the Middle East are worsening in the United States as Israel wages its war on Hamas — and white nationalists are flocking to the internet to exploit them. 

Protests have erupted throughout the nation as pro-Palestinian demonstrators call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, where a week-long ceasefire collapsed Friday following Hamas and Israel's exchange of more than 100 Israeli hostages, the majority of whom were seized during the militant group's deadly Oct. 7 attack, and more than 200 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, thousands of whom have been imprisoned for years. The crisis has also sparked a rise in anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and antisemitic incidents of bias and hate, leaving members of those communities reeling. 

"Everybody has been affected whether it's personally affected by incidents in our communities, in our schools, in and around our places of worship, or that which has been experienced by a friend or community member or a family member," Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told Salon. Soifer explained that she's mostly seen hateful, antisemitic rhetoric fueled by the war crop up online alongside a rise in vitriol targeting her organization. 

Recent reports have documented a massive surge in anti-Muslim and antisemitic hate speech on the internet in the nearly two months since Israel began its bombardment of Gaza that's killed over 15,000 Palestinians, including 6,150 children, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, in response to the Hamas attack that killed 1,200 Israelis, according to their government.

Posts on X, formerly Twitter, containing anti-Muslim keywords and hashtags spiked in the week of Hamas' attack by 250 percent compared to the previous week, according to an early November report from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which also saw a sustained 297 percent jump in the number of posts on X containing anti-Muslim keywords in the five days following the initial 422 percent surge in hateful posts during the weekend of the attack. In an analysis of 162,958 tweets and 15,476 Facebook posts from the week before Hamas' attack to the week after, the ADL also found a 919 percent, week-over-week boom in antisemitism on X and a 28 percent increase in antisemitism on Facebook. 

The presence of white nationalist rhetoric in online hate speech reveals a more insidious underbelly in the surge. Though researchers can't prove causation, white nationalist ideology has featured prominently in the hate speech circulating on social media sites, as users, in response to the crisis, lash out at Jews, Arabs and Muslims on mainstream platforms.

On X, where a premium account subscription provides a range of perks, including algorithmic content boosts in searches and access to ad-revenue sharing, posts espousing white nationalist viewpoints raise alarms, according to Katie Paul, the director of the Tech Transparency Project, which functions as the tech arm of ethics watchdog Campaign for Accountability. 

"These are ideologies that are essentially paying to get themselves lifted up toward higher level rankings when it comes to people who are searching for content related to the conflict," Paul told Salon. "That's deeply concerning because it's not prioritizing authoritative content or authoritative sources and essentially prioritizing, in many cases, disinformation and, in all the cases that we looked at, explicit racism and antisemitism."

In a report released last month, the Tech Transparency Project found dozens of X premium accounts associated with white supremacist ideology using the violence in the Middle East to further hateful agendas in posts that often violated X's policies. These profiles' posts tied the ongoing crisis to the "Great Replacement" theory — a bigoted ideology that claims Jews are perpetrating a plot to replace white-majority populations with non-white and non-Christian immigrants — defending "white nations" and giving voice to anti-Muslim rhetoric and antisemitic tropes. 

One self-described "White Ultra National" X Premium account the watchdog found, @UltraPatriot44, made several posts in October pushing replacement theory. “Multiculturalism has failed and by bombing Gaza the AntiWhite Jews will create a wave of AntiWhite refugees to our homelands,” the user wrote in part in one post. "This is what the AntiWhite Jews want.”

The user later attempted to use the violence in Gaza to recruit others to join Active Clubs, a network of white supremacist fight clubs, writing, "As the Arabs and Jews duke it out, We must be prepared to defend our White nations. Our enemies won't win the war for us!”

A Nov. 1 post from user @makeeuropasnow, a premium account with more than 19,000 followers that condemns "race mixing" and warns of "white genocide," pushed an antisemitic claim that Israel "has all the power, control and manipulation of majority White Nations." The same post also attacked "the other side," represented by a Palestinian flag, as "p3dos" and "r@pists" who "are mass invading our White Nations trying to bring in white sharia law," the last part referencing an Islamophobic trope alleging that Muslims want to force Sharia law onto western nations.

All of the posts and users TTP found violated at least one of X's safety rules, according to the watchdog, the breach of which the platform states may result in the loss of the blue checkmark and even account suspension. A Salon search of the accounts named in the report saw that, as of Friday, all except one of the profiles (one of which appeared to have changed its handle to a similar one while maintaining the same bio described in the report) were not only still active but still had visible blue checkmarks, which can be hidden by Premium subscribers.

Some of the cited X users have also seen growth in their platforms since TTP published the report. @AntiWhiteWatch1 has more than 185,000 followers on X, up from the 174,000 it had per TTP's report.

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What's happening on the platform "is one of the few times where we're not just seeing these accounts permitted, but they're still able to monetize. We're not seeing any effort to even stop the way that these white nationalist accounts are able to make money on the platform, let alone the fact that they are spreading hateful ideology, at all," Paul told Salon, adding that the proliferation of hate speech on all social media demonstrates that platforms' AI-run, reporting systems — and user reporting — aren't enough to combat the vitriol.

When reached by Salon for comment, X's press email returned an automated message reading, "Busy now, please check back later."

Two weeks ago, X owner Elon Musk, who reinstated accounts previously banned for peddling extremism and conspiracy theories upon taking control of the platform last year, even partook in amplifying the rhetoric, praising a user who pushed the "Great Replacement" theory against Jews, a move that garnered harsh rebuke. Musk, for his part, apologized for the post while speaking at a conference Wednesday night.

Still, the danger in Musk's praise also lies in the theory's direct ties to white supremacist violence. In fact, replacement theory, which was expressed in the antisemitic Protocols of Zion meant to foment violence against Jews, is at the heart of all white nationalist movement in the United States — and right-wing extremism movements globally, according to Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of U.C. Berkeley's Center on Right-Wing Studies.

"This is a template. In fact, antisemitism is the model of what we're seeing both on the extreme right in this country and internationally in the right-wing populist movements that have often taken power," Rosenthal told Salon, adding, "So there's almost a coming home to roost quality about antisemitism emerging on the right in the face of the Hamas-Israel current war."

Islamophobia also fits snugly into that template, Rosenthal said, explaining that anti-Muslim hate had been prevalent among the far-right before 9/11 but became a "staple" in its ideology in its aftermath. Former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, which hinged on curtailing immigration alongside promises of a Muslim ban that were brought to fruition, further incited Islamophobic vitriol by amplifying anti-immigration sentiment that otherwise remained internal to far-right groups like the Tea Party and later pushing it to dominate the mainstream Republican Party, Rosenthal added.

While he largely sees parallels in white nationalist rhetoric toward Muslim and Arab people in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack and the current violence wracking the Gaza Strip, he noted that the breadth of the white nationalism movement is far greater now.

"That kind of exclusivity of Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 is no longer the case," Rosenthal told Salon. "So you can get the Elon Musk-kind of antisemitism and at the same time you have [the idea that] Latin peoples, they're an invasion from the border." 

Rosenthal pointed to the presence of replacement theory in the 2017 alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where demonstrators chanted, "You will not replace us" and "Jews will not replace us." That demonstration turned physically violent when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.

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The theory later motivated the mass shooter who murdered 11 congregants of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, who wrote on the far-right platform Gab that he blamed Jewish people in the U.S. “for bringing in an invasion of nonwhite immigrants,” per Media Matters for America. A white supremacist in New Zealand who murdered more than 50 Muslims in a 2019 shooting of two mosques referenced the theory as well, describing Muslims as "invaders" in his manifesto. Mass shooters who carried out violent murders of Black people in Buffalo, New York, and Mexican people in El Paso, Texas also referenced the ideology.  

Most alarming about white nationalists' use of the crisis in Gaza to push hate online in service of their agendas is how it coincides with a spike in physical incidents of hate and violence directed toward Arab, Muslim and Jewish people since Oct. 7.

A 6-year-old, Palestinian boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was stabbed to death and his mother badly wounded in Illinois in October, allegedly by their 71-year-old landlord who faces three murder counts, one count of attempted murder and two counts of committing a hate crime, among other charges. Prosecutors claim the suspect had become paranoid listening to conservative radio segments about Israel's war on Hamas. 

Last weekend, three Palestinian college students — Hisham Awartani of Brown University, Kinnan Abdalhamid of Haverford College and Tahseen Ali Ahmad of Trinity College — wearing Palestinian keffiyeh scarves were shot in Vermont while conversing in English and Arabic. The suspect, a white man in his 40s, pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder earlier this week as authorities continue to investigate. State Attorney Sarah George told the Associated Press that while local law enforcement does not yet have evidence to support a hate crime charge, “there is no question that this was a hateful act.”

In the month following Hamas' attack, the Anti-Defamation League documented 832 antisemitic incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment in the U.S., marking a 316 percent increase from the number of incidents reported during the same period last year. A parallel report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations revealed that between Oct. 7 and Nov. 14, the organization received a total of 1,283 reports of anti-Muslim bias, a figure that represents a 216 percent rise in the number of complaints received from a similar period the year prior.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also documented an increase in antisemitic harassment of individuals and "'fake' bomb threats to Jewish institutions" alongside incidents of "anti-Muslim hate groups capitalizing on the conflict to push bigoted rhetoric about Islam and fearmongering about the Muslim community," SPLC senior research analyst Caleb Kieffer told Salon in a statement.

"The community is very afraid," Corey Saylor, CAIR's research and advocacy director, told Salon, also noting Muslim and Arab communities' courage in continuing to call for a permanent ceasefire in the face of increased violence.

"We see all these incidents, and we see and we hear from people who are changing their behaviors," Saylor added. "They don't want to be out. They don't want to be visibly Muslim. And they're afraid of just having the lens, shall we say, turn to them."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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Antisemitism Gaza Islamophobia Israel Politics Reporting White Nationalists