Civic News
Elections / Social media

Why these digital humanists spent hours poring over KKK accounts

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities hosted a “Night Against Hate,” where participants built a database of online hate groups.

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities' space in Hornbake Library. (Photo by Aysha Khan)

In an election cycle where white supremacy, xenophobia and racism have found their way into every corner of your timelines, feeds and screens, you’d be forgiven if you decided not to spend an evening clicking around in the darkest corners of the internet.
But that’s what about 70 students and academics did last Thursday night at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) in College Park.
With its “Night Against Hate,” MITH rallied a community to build a database of hate groups online — websites, Twitter accounts, Instagram accounts and more.
“The immediate result is producing block lists for activists and others who feel they see too much hate online,” MITH director Neil Fraistat told participants.
The organization had already collected over six months worth of tweets containing hate speech, including many tweets related to the first two presidential debates. By collaboratively developing a spreadsheet of handles, hashtags and usernames used by verified hate groups, they’ll be able to produce future research on combating online hate speech.

MITH, known for its work analyzing Ferguson-related tweets and developing scholarly digital humanities tools, based their data on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Extremist Files, which lists 164 U.S. hate groups. While some participants worked to research these group, others discovered new groups, from members of the trendy new alt-right movement to local hate groups in the DMV area.
As they worked, participants swapped feedback with remote participants in a team messaging channel, hosted by former MITH researcher Amanda Visconti’s public Digital Humanities Slack group.
Reading anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-gay propaganda for hours on end can get a little grim, if not outright triggering.
“Please, take care of yourself,” was the frequent refrain of MITH’s assistant director, Purdom Lindblad, who stopped the group several times for mental health breaks and discussions on how the research could be refined or used.
Lindblad also encouraged participants to use incognito browsing or the Tor browser for privacy and security reasons.
“You don’t want ads following you around, or campus IT coming after you for looking at KKK websites,” she said.

MITH holds weekly Digital Dialogues with digital humanists and scholars throughout the year. These talks, which this fall will focus on African-American history and culture, are open to the public and available via livestream.


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