Trump Points Finger At 'Dangerous' Internet Following Texas, Ohio Shootings

By Steve Goldstein, Lauren Gilger, Associated Press
Published: Monday, August 5, 2019 - 6:56am
Updated: Tuesday, August 6, 2019 - 12:27pm

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DONALD TRUMP: Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: That was President Donald Trump addressing the nation this morning about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend. Combined, the shootings led to at least 29 deaths and dozens more injured. The death toll in El Paso reportedly increased to 21 earlier today. The motivation behind the Dayton shooting is not yet known, but the shooter in El Paso left a hate-filled manifesto online in which he said the attack was a response to the "Hispanic invasion of Texas." Seven Mexican nationals were identified among the dead in El Paso, and President Trump extended his condolences this morning to Mexico.

Donald Trump
Joyce N. Boghosian/White House
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, speaks about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio., on Aug. 5, 2019, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House.

LAUREN GILGER: In light of the El Paso shooter's rhetoric, the president called for the condemnation of racism, bigotry and white supremacy, which he called "sinister ideologies that must be defeated." And to do that, the president said the role of the internet and social media cannot be ignored. 

TRUMP: We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts.

GILGER: President Trump also steered away from addressing potential gun control, saying, "mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun."

GOLDSTEIN: So what role does the internet play in causing this kind of hatred, and what can we do about it? Jim Hawdon studies the causes and consequences of these types of violent acts as director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech University. He joins us now for a few minutes by phone. Jim, thanks for being with us. 

JIM HAWDON: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

GOLDSTEIN: So you have documented the rise of online hate speech over the past half-dozen years or so. What are we talking about here? What it what sort of growth have you seen?

HAWDON: Oh, the number of people, a number of Americans — the data we look at really is for young Americans, 15 to 36 are the samples that we look at. But the percents that report seeing these attacks on groups of people — and it differs from bullying in the sense that bullying attacks an individual, whereas cyber hate attacks a group or an individual because of his or her membership in a group — and we've seen that these numbers have increased considerably since 2013 when we started to track the data and now nearly 70% of the respondents say that they see this type of information online within the three months prior to being surveyed.

GOLDSTEIN: So based on documenting this rise of online hate speech, is there a way to determine what sort of thing might cause someone to act, to go from reading and posting the material to actually taking that next step to committing an act of violence?

HAWDON: Well that's that's a tough thing to get at simply because we don't really have a lot of data on the people who actually commit the crimes. But one thing that is fortunate is that as horrible as these acts are, they are still relatively rare. So it is difficult to know exactly what the trigger is. But we do have pretty good sense of the conditions, the environment in which some triggering event is likely to light that fuse. And the online environment is very ripe for the promotion and the sustaining of the rhetoric. The rhetoric that you see and the ideas that you see create the environment that is very combustible for those people who are thinking about such as these acts.

GILGER: And let me jump in there, Jim. Before we have to let you go, I wonder if you can talk about what you think needs to be done. I mean when you look at a site like 8chan where this manifesto was posted, is there regulation that could address this in terms of when you talk about triggering events?

HAWDON: That's very difficult. We're involved in some research to try to find automated ways to kind of identify various combustive situations and environments and posts. But of course, there's so much out there that identifying these are very difficult. And even if we can identify them in time, the means of social control we have available to us are very limited. Of course, speech is protected, and unless it is seen as inciting specific acts of violence, there's not much the authorities can do.

GOLDSTEIN: Well Jim, we'll have to have to stop you there for this point, but obviously we'll have to check in with you more to get more detail. But thanks for the time today. Jim Hawdonis director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech University. 

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