Princeton scientist connects web hate and the acts it spawns

Princeton scientist connects web hate and the acts it spawns

Steps must be taken or ‘civil society will fall apart’

Joel Finkelstein says, “If we see hate as a disease and chart how it spreads, it can give us insights into how that happens.”
Joel Finkelstein says, “If we see hate as a disease and chart how it spreads, it can give us insights into how that happens.”

Several fringe communities on the web are replete with cryptic language and founding myths that communicate messages of hate and anti-Semitism to their followers. To explore the link between the hatred disseminated in the virtual universe and acts motivated by such hatred and carried out in the real world, Joel Finkelstein of Princeton and a group of fellow scientists started the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) last May.

Finkelstein, a psychologist and neuroscientist, explained to NJJN how the messages of bigotry fuel dire actions.

“Imagine that you have a shooter like Robert Bowers,” the alleged killer of 11 Jews worshiping at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27 in Pittsburgh. “He’s talking on Gab, one of these fringe communities, using a lot of cryptic words understood only by members of those communities and cryptic myths and images that can be interpreted only if you understand the community he is part of [and] the system and philosophy that gave rise to him.”

Presuming that Bowers was inspired by the words, language, and images of such an online community to carry out the murder of Jews in the real world, Finkelstein said, then “there is a feedback loop there, and it is very important that we understand how that feedback loop works if we want to interfere in it.”

Finkelstein will speak about NCRI’s findings and what can be done to help stop the spread of hate and anti-Semitism on the web on Tuesday evening, Jan. 15, at the Jewish Center in Princeton.

Finkelstein is director of NCRI, which develops and employs tools to penetrate the obscurity surrounding these communities, he said, in order “to understand the meaning and spread of hateful ideas, including memes and language, within and between web communities.” The founders started the institute to develop a computer methodology to explore the spread of hate “using ideas of contagion and epidemiological models of how viruses, or ideas, spread.”

“If we see hate as a disease and chart how it spreads, it can give us insights into how that happens,” Finkelstein said. “If we don’t have those insights, we can’t possibly fight something we can’t see and don’t understand.”

NCRI maps the language, words, and images used within these web communities to discern relationships between them that reveal meanings that are not immediately evident. “If you look at the language [Gab] uses, you see a lot of highly coded words that call for incitement to genocide specifically, and call on anti-Semitic myths shared by the whole community,” Finkelstein said.

NCRI “uses sophisticated deep-learning tools that can parse out how words are used in huge corpuses and creates a network of how words are connected to each other,” he said. This enables them to distinguish innocuous appearances of words like “white” and “Jew” from racist and anti-Semitic ones.

From relationships analyzed by NCRI’s tools and computers, for example, Finkelstein and his colleagues learned that the term “gtkrwn” was showing up next to phrases like “Hitler was right” and statements of Holocaust denial like “the greatest story never told.” Eventually, in part because of the frequency these terms were found in tandem, they determined that the outwardly nonsensical “gtkrwn” is actually an acronym for “gas the kikes, race war now.”

Finkelstein grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in Tyler, Texas, the son of Lawrence Finkelstein, a rabbi with Orthodox ordination. However, he did not get involved in creating NCRI because he is Jewish, he said, but rather because “I was interested in hate.”

He and the other scientists didn’t specifically “seek to study anti-Semitism,” he said; “that jumped out of the data.”

When he began working with NCRI after finishing his Ph.D. in neuroscience/psychology at Princeton University, he said, “I described myself as left wing. I liked Judaism but wasn’t very observant.” However, as Finkelstein delved into the research and saw the rise in anti-Semitism, he said, “it did connect me with my history and past.… The obvious historical currents were so powerful, and I could feel my own identity being drawn into them.”

Now a member of Young Israel in Lawrenceville, Finkelstein admitted that his fiancee, a “Chabadnik,” also played a critical role in his reconnecting to his Jewish identity.

Finkelstein said that the far-reaching anonymity of these web communities is particularly scary. Fifteen years ago, attacks like those in Pittsburgh and the Charleston church massacre in June 2015, in which nine African Americans were murdered by a white supremacist, would have required the actual indoctrination of an individual to become a killer. “You would have to have an interpersonal organization to train and cultivate those people,” Finkelstein said.

But today, “with the advance of the internet, those people can find each other; what it lacks in depth it makes up in reach. The entire phenomenon can happen by itself without a trace of anyone being groomed.”

Finkelstein asserted that if this web contagion is not stopped, there will be a vast increase in the type of violence that took place in Pittsburgh. Jews, he said, need to work together to accomplish three things.

The first is to establish a hard line in civil conversations regarding what constitutes incitement to genocide.

The Nuremberg trials, he said, established “a standard in international law that sought to criminalize activity in the public discourse at that line — because they could see, in retrospect, how that incitement connected to how people carried out those acts.”

But in the 1960s and ’70s in the United States, civil groups claimed that that standard was being used unfairly in prosecuting individuals. The result was “a series of changes in legislation that were free-speech absolutist,” watering down the definition of incitement to genocide.

“Our needs have changed since then,” Finkelstein said. Incitement to genocide on the web, he said, is “having an impact.” Jews, he said, should push for the establishment of more stringent boundaries defining civil conversation. Of course, he added, the computer tools used must be exacting in detecting the line where “anything before that is protected, and anything after it is illegal.”

Second, he said, the courts, lawmakers, and civil institutions must understand how these online communities operate, and must create better industry standards to regulate their behavior.

Finally, he said, the federal government’s executive branch, which is in charge of the FBI and Homeland Security, needs to take note of the new reality.

“If all three things are done, civil society will live,” Finkelstein said. “If not, Jews will be endangered, and when Jews are endangered, the civil societies they live in will fall apart.”

If you go

Who: Dr. Joel Finkelstein, founder and director of the Network Contagion Research Institute

What: Anti-Semitic Hate Speech and the Bots Epidemic

When: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Jewish Center in Princeton

Cost: Free

Contact: or 609-921-0100

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