How extremists manipulate the media (and you) to look more powerful than they areKnoxville News Sentinel — Allie Clouse
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – A Tennessee pastor, Grayson Fritts, knew exactly what he was doing when he called for the state-sponsored execution of LGBTQ people in a rabid, rambling sermon that was recorded and posted to social media channels in June.
What looked like career suicide – Fritts was a Knox County Sheriff’s Office detective at the time of the sermon – was really part of a well-planned campaign by a group of about 30 tiny storefront churches that have eagerly sought the sort of national attention that followed once his sermon was reported.
Fritts fever had broken out, and the media had it bad.
Shrouded in the guise of religion, Fritts and his hate network, called the New Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, had been begging for coverage of their extremist preaching. It was exactly what they wanted to amplify their message and exaggerate their influence.
"Inflammatory language is made so that media will fall for it and distribute as a form of shock,” said Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism teaching and research organization.
Combine a polarizing viewpoint with shock value and you've got a story. Add a divided political climate and you've got a movement.
Fritts and Steven Anderson, leader of the extremist religious network, want to incite anger, hatred and distrust. They want to bring out the worst in media and people online, knowing media coverage exposes far more people to their message than they could ever reach unaided, and helps them attract new followers.
"They specifically chose an anti-LGBTQ message because there is a cultural moment happening right now that allows for more exploitation," said Rebecca Barrett-Fox, an associate professor of sociology at Arkansas State University who studies these groups.
Understanding how extremists manipulate media and its consumers is the first step toward blunting a message that can consume considerable community energy and raise anxiety in the targets of hate speech.
This is a behind-the-screen look at how extremist groups have used social media and news outlets to mislead you, inflate their numbers and empower bigoted ideas to hurt and radicalize people everywhere.
The algorithm advantage
Anderson started the New Independent Fundamental Baptist movement in 2017, but in just two years his refined tactics have helped him build his influence far beyond his early efforts, which date back decades.
He has been monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center since the early 2000s for his homophobic rants and his church, which is at the center of the New IFB, has been classified as an anti-LGBTQ hate group since 2010.
The New IFB movement, like many other 21st century extremists, has figured out a way to make social media work for them. Every New IFB church has an extensive online presence – Anderson's church has 13 YouTube channels alone.
There’s a strategy to flooding the social media zone.
The group intentionally builds redundancy into its communications to reduce the chances that their videos and channels will get shut down for hate speech violations. They do this by maintaining multiple accounts on mainstream platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and backups on far-right “free speech” sites. New IFB accounts quickly circulate the same videos on each of their profiles whenever a new one is released.
Barrett-Fox says social media is an open market for hate, and business is good.
"(Extremists) used to go door-to-door to recruit members, but a social media structure lets them get work done more quickly. Once you have a system, it's easy," Barrett-Fox said. "People may not open the door, but they'll click on something."
Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the progressive policy institute Center for American Progress, said reposting the same video may cost these groups views, but it prevents sites from finding and removing all their content across platforms – especially since there is no system in place for these companies to communicate and collaborate to stop hate groups online.
In addition to their slew of accounts, New IFB churches use anonymous profiles to defend themselves in the comment sections on their posts.
Spamming the internet isn’t enough, though. Extremists have become experts at recruiting online.
Churches connect their messages with popular conspiracy theories to draw in susceptible audiences. For example, an anti-vaxxer might stumble on a New IFB video that supports those beliefs. Then, with just a few clicks, people can be exposed to the entire range of videos from the group, and that can be enough to persuade some users.
"The main goal of search engine and social media algorithms is to keep people online," Fernandez said. "Platforms look at the content you're viewing and feed similar ideas to you through your feed. That can cause audiences to really spiral into hateful communities."
Google and YouTube have tried to resolve this issue by referring internet users to truthful content from trusted sources, but their systems aren't perfect.
In reality, the New Independent Fundamental Baptist movement is not remotely as large as it appears on social media, but the group's clever use of these channels and manipulation of the media misleads the public about their size.
Crafting the perfect message
Every hate group needs a strong, dividing message. In the New IFB's case, their anti-LGBTQ sermons and rallies were the height of their communication chain.
But they didn’t get it right at first.
Before the series of Pride Month sermons, the New IFB attempted to get the media's attention; they just weren't as successful. They finally found the perfect rhetoric to make the media and public furious in June: advocating the murder of LGBTQ people.
"The public is drawn to a clear message and an anti-LGBTQ message is a very clear one. People are drawn to speech that puts people into categories," McBride said.
Simplicity could only get them so far, though. The New IFB had to separate itself so that it couldn’t be ignored.
"They intentionally use inflammatory language, or what they call 'hard preaching,' to get people's attention," said Peter Montgomery, senior fellow at People for the American Way, a progressive group founded to fight right-wing extremism.
"The New IFB has adopted positions that put them in opposition of other Christian groups on purpose to differentiate themselves."
According to danah boyd, founder and president of the Data & Society Research Institute, extremists have developed a strategy to manipulate the media. After creating a spectacle fueled by social media, hate groups use sensational phrases to promote their message and find new audiences. The New IFB launched a "Make America Straight Again" conference right around the time the news about Fritts was hot to do just that.
"I don't think they see their message as deception," Barrett-Fox said. "They just think it's strategy."
Where the media went wrong
Following the frenzy to break news about Fritts and other New IFB pastors, the number of people who said they were attending the Make America Straight Again conference more than quadrupled.
"(The media) is spreading the word for them. The media has a duty to pay attention, but there is a difference between paying attention and causing moral panic," Barrett-Fox said.
Media outlets unintentionally expose their audiences to extremist messages through series of seemingly small decisions, many of them made at an individual level within a news organization.
Every word, link, video, audio clip and story decision matters, but it takes a concerted effort for a news organization to carefully consider the digital reach of each step of what typically are normal news reporting efforts.
Knoxville News Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, for instance, reported on Fritts’ sermons because of his position as a law enforcement officer, but purposefully didn’t link directly to the sermons. “We didn’t think it was responsible to use our reach, which is bigger by many factors, to amplify hate speech,” said Executive Editor Joel Christopher.
But for every news organization that doesn’t directly take its audience to inflammatory content through links or embeds or shares on social media, there are dozens more that do. And because of careless, widespread media coverage, people rushed to join the small, previously insignificant hate group, making the media one of the New IFB's biggest recruiters.
McBride said one of the most common mistakes journalists make is describing extremist groups vaguely, especially their size.
For example, the New Independent Fundamental Baptist movement can be described as widespread because it has churches in several countries around the world. But they also can be called isolated because these churches are few and far between.
News consumers can help combat the spread of extremist messages by educating themselves about the groups. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center are great places to start to understand the origins of extremist movements, and there is even more in-depth research on sites like Google Scholar.
These sources are the best way to find additional information about extremism without interacting on an extremist website.
You can take other precautions to make sure that you and your family are not exposed to extremist material by using internet parental controls, thinking before you post and being careful about who is in your social circles online and in reality.
You win some, you lose most
Now more than a month after the New IFB pastors' anti-LGBTQ Pride Month sermons and Make America Straight Again conference, it's difficult to tell what their next move is.
But experts on extremism say mostly they’re after power.
"These pastors want to have influence, they want to make a name for themselves and they are seeking control," Barrett-Fox said.
For the New IFB and other extremist groups, influence is balanced on their ability to make people believe they are the ones in danger, when in reality they are harming a wide range of communities.
According to boyd, becoming a "digital martyr" to radicalize others is the last step to successfully manipulate the media.
"There is a status threat happening in their community and they don't want to lose their authority. This group wants to reestablish their ability to punish people they don't like," Barrett-Fox said.
"They are really invested in the victim narrative. They have an apocalyptic vision of how they're going to suffer. Even when they lose, they win, because in their eyes that justifies how corrupt society is – it's further evidence of their status as persecuted."
Follow Allie Clouse on Twitter: @allie_clouse
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: How extremists manipulate the media (and you) to look more powerful than they are