Robin Valeri wasn’t surprised to learn that Robert Bowers, the man accused of gunning down 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last fall, was active in online communities where hatred flowed freely.
Valeri, a psychology professor at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York, began studying cyber hate shortly after 9/11. Over more than a decade, during which she has edited two books on hate crimes and terrorism and penned various papers, Valeri has documented the expansion and growing sophistication of hate groups that troll the internet.
“Pornographers and hate groups were the first to embrace the internet,” Valeri said. “They realized, ‘We can use this for free and reach a huge population.’ Now that 50 percent of the world has access to the internet — and in America, it’s closer to 95 percent — it is very powerful.”
Nathan Williams, a federal prosecutor, saw the power of such mediums as part of the Justice Department team that tried Dylann Roof. The high school dropout frequented online hate groups and built a website depicting himself as a white nationalist. In 2015, he murdered nine people attending a bible study at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, a historically black congregation in Charleston, S.C.
Roof was convicted and sentenced to death in the first capital prosecution under the federal hate crimes statute.
Williams will join Valeri on Tuesday at Saint Vincent College, where the criminology department is partnering with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to host a public symposium, “The Faces of Hate: The Investigation and Prosecution of Hate Crimes.”
Bruce Antkowiak, a professor of law and criminology at Saint Vincent and a former federal prosecutor, said exploring the issue was a natural for the college that lists “the criminology of hate” among its course offerings.
Kayla Jachimowski, an assistant professor of criminology who taught the course in the fall, said her students were outraged when they returned to class the week after the Tree of Life massacre.
“They couldn’t believe it happened here. It brought to light the importance of what we were studying,” she said.
Bowers has been charged under the same federal statute that prosecutors used to try and convict Roof.
The Tree of Life massacre, reports of Ku Klux Klan recruitment pamphlets surfacing on the streets of Pittsburgh in the weeks following the murders and an FBI report documenting a third consecutive year of increases in hate crime reports across the country all served to energize groups to seek a better understanding of the forces at work.
Williams has spoken extensively to law enforcement groups since the South Carolina church murders. He said the most frequent question he gets is ‘how do we detect this type of activity and disrupt it?’
“It’s the question where all of these mass shootings are involved, whether it’s Parkland, Pulse Night Club or Tree of Life. They are all horrible,” Williams said.
Jachimowski’s students will explore the issues with high school students this week. And the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition, an organization born out of a rally to counter a Klan visit more than two decades ago, is working to build programming to counter biases that often bubble beneath the surface of civil discourse.
Nascent efforts like that are pitted against sophisticated programs hate groups have been building online for years, Valeri said.
“Some use an in-your-face approach. They say, ‘We are a hate group, and this is who we hate.’ Others use a soft sell approach. Groups like ‘Jew Watch’ try to be ambiguous and say they are just a library for information to draw people in, and still others try to put out false information,” Valeri said.
“Dylann Roof went on the web, and white supremacist comments fed into his opinions. We see him finding information and it’s motivating him. Group members are talking, and they end up even more extreme,” Valeri said.
She said some hate groups have become skilled at using online sites to encourage others to do their bidding.
Although Roof and Bowers attracted international headlines, authorities say violence is not rare where hate crimes are concerned.
In Pittsburgh, where city police track hate crimes, authorities said about half of 208 reported hate crimes since Jan. 1, 2008, have involved violence.
Such developments merit study and scrutiny of the forces at work, Antkowiak said.
“These are dangerous, dangerous times when an appeal to a disinterested hatred comes to the point where human life becomes readily expendable,” he said. “Nobody can proclaim that any area of this country is immune from this.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .