After Dylann Roof Shooting, Hate Crime Rates Are Soaring Because of Fake News

President Donald Trump announced he was running for office on June 16, 2015. The following day, white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire in a historically black church located in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people in the hopes of launching an all-out race war.

Of course, those two events aren't directly linked. "But it’s certainly symbolic," Heidi Beirich, director of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, tells Newsweek.

"There doesn’t seem to be a single marginalized population that was left out of the emboldened reaction to this election," she said. "There has been a massive explosion of violence across the country, and an increase in the number of hate crimes against virtually all minority groups. The numbers are definitely going up in 2017."

Two years after Roof sat in on a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, before taking out his gun and shooting the local parishioners, reports of hate crimes against black, Muslim, LGBTI, Sikh, Jewish and Hispanic communities have only continued to surge. Meanwhile, groups like SPLC and the Human Rights Campaign say battling the rise in hate-based violence will largely take place online in the coming years, where racists and those prone to committing attacks against minorities feed off of radicalized content and fake news.

GettyImages-481117496 A church youth group from Dothan, Alabama praying in front of the Emanuel AME Church on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting on July 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. John Moore, Getty

When looking at the data, it becomes immediately clear that spikes in hate crimes and racial tension haven’t only impacted black communities, like the Episcopal Church. There were at least 1,314 reported cases of anti-Muslim bias in 2014, according to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report. By 2016, that annual figure soared to 2,213.

Anti-Semitic incidents also rose in 2015,according to the Anti-Defamation League's data from that year, rising three percent to 941 total incidents nationwide.

Of all the hate crimes carried out that year, over 48 percent were committed by whites.

"We know that the normalization of violence, particularly against marginalized people, creates a culture of complicity and acceptance of hate based violence," Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, tells Newsweek. "We also see that the political climate fosters violence. As anti-transgender measures are introduced across the country and the rhetoric is turned up, we are hearing from the community an increased vulnerability of harassment in their daily lives."

In total, hate crimes rose from 5,479 reported incidents in 2014 to 5,800 the next year, when Roof made his decision to act on a months-long quest he had documented at length across the web and on his racist website, TheLastRhodesian.com. 

Roof, who was sentenced to death on Jan. 10, 2017, was reportedly an avid reader of Daily Stormer, a hate-mongering website loaded with racial conspiracy theories, fake news and anti-Semitism. The site’s readership also included James Jackson, who penned a suicide manifesto before driving from Baltimore to New York to kill a random black man with a sword, as well as Thomas Mair, an extremist loner who murdered British Parliament member Jo Cox.

The 23-year-old also searched on Google for information about the case of Trayvon Martin, in which George Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old black teenager, and more broadly about information on crime statistics.

"I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up … it was obvious Zimmerman was in the right," Roof wrote on his site. "But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words 'black on White crime' into Google, and I have never been the same since that day."

His search led him first to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a right-wing group documenting black on white crime and publishing gruesome content online. Roof says the information he absorbed online led him to believe there was a much deeper issue of violence targeting whites than the widely-reported Martin case, even though all of the data across the country supports the opposite notion: the United States is dealing with a racially-based crime issue of whites attacking blacks and other minorities.

To this day, fake news sites like Daily Wire appear on a Google search of "black on white crime" before the FBI’s fact-based statistics.  

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 11 A Google search for "black on white crime" shows misleading sites like Daily Wire ahead of fact-based data published by the FBI on June 16, 2017. Chris Riotta, Newsweek

"There’s been a general loss of civility in online discussions on race, gender and religion," Beirich said. "Maybe if Google displayed factual results for Dylann Roof instead of misinformation at the top of their news pages, we wouldn’t be here, facing the anniversary of his massacre."

Though there aren’t statistics to indicate broad trends in hate crimes throughout 2017 yet, violence against marginalized communities is seemingly continuing to soar, specifically against trans women of color, the LGBTI community and Muslims. The SPLC reported 1,372 reported bias incidents between the November election and early February, just after Trump was sworn in.

"We have to as a society understand the urgent crisis and epidemic of violence that we find ourselves facing, and we must not tolerate the kind of hate, discrimination and violence that is all too common," McBride says. "Hate breeds discrimination, discrimination often times breeds violence. These are all connected to one another. We can’t tolerate hate, we can’t allow hate to foster in our laws and in our hearts. That’s why it’s on all of us to take action to stand up to speak out."

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