Rick Eaton, who infiltrates white supremacist groups for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, now does most of his work online

By Joe Piasecki

Rick Eaton isn’t a racist, but he’s made a career of hanging out with white supremacists.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s senior researcher has spent three decades tracking and infiltrating hate groups locally and around the world, once helping bring former Nazi officers to justice while working undercover in Germany and South America.

Now Eaton — who came to the job with a background in book publishing, not criminal justice — spends most of his time online, because that’s where the hate groups are.

He also works with Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to shut down hate speech, but First Amendment issues complicate the work and the sheer volume of posts is daunting.

On Wednesday, Eaton joins novelist Harriet Pike at the Santa Monica Public Library for a conversation about her novel “Enemy in the Garden” and its central theme of anti-Semitism lurking beneath the surface of American society.

Why does anti-Semitism persist in America?

There are still some people, who for religious or other reasons, think of Jews as Christ-killers. In other cases, it’s just that people don’t know anything about Jews.

Some are particularly devious about it — they’ve heard these longtime conspiracy theories that Jews have plans to control the world, and rather shallow people like to glam onto that.

The good news is it’s not on a really large scale — not institutionalized like it was 100 years ago, when Henry Ford was distributing The International Jew along with new cars.

How are white supremacist groups trending?

They are very much reduced. There isn’t a lot of leadership out there right now.

What about the White Student Union showing up at UCLA and other college campuses?

Some of this is just a product of the Internet. There has always been someone trying to start a white student union on campus. These are mostly Internet-based, and they’re going to pick up a handful of followers who respond to the message that whites are being put down in favor of minorities.

What responsibility do social media companies have to shut down hate speech without becoming censors of free speech?

It’s a very fine line. A lot of my job is dealing with social media and social media companies. We travel regularly to Facebook, to Twitter, to Google and others to deal with this issue. They are very quick to deal with anything related to terrorism; on the subject of hate it’s a different matter.

The truth is that social media companies don’t want this material. Let’s take Facebook and Holocaust denial, a subject which riles a lot of people up. I can tell you that Facebook absolutely hates that this material is there, but because it’s considered historical discussion they leave it on despite the complaints.

The good news is that, because social media is an interactive conversation, when these companies get complaints they will follow what’s going on. They look for reasons to take the material off, such as people denigrating each other and getting into flame wars. A lot of these sites have come down, but unfortunately there’s an immense number of them out there.

Twitter is actually the weapon of choice for both terrorists and extremist groups, and on the extremist front not much is being done about that, nor is it being done much on Google/YouTube either.

What about terrorism?

There were almost no terrorists operating online at the time of 9/11, mainly because they did not have Internet access. Now it’s become a free-for-all. That’s why Facebook, for example, reviews material in as many as 38 languages now. Twitter made a major attempt earlier this year to remove a lot of ISIS accounts — 125,000, they said — but the problem is the majority of those users came back immediately. This summer they’re supposed to be introducing some kind of program that will help deter the recidivism of terrorist profiles on Twitter, but we haven’t heard how that’s going to work or if it’s in place yet.

Before the Internet, you used to physically infiltrate hate groups. What was that like?

It’s not all that difficult, as long as you know how to talk the talk and walk the walk. You don’t overdo it. I wouldn’t go in and act like I’m one of them. This goes for anyone who has an agenda: Whether it’s white supremacy or somebody who’s pro-life or pro-choice, usually when you say ‘Tell me more, I didn’t know that,” people love to talk. When they think they have a potential believer it’s kind
of easy to keep people talking. They like you and they don’t even realize it’s because you’re giving them an opportunity to spout.

Was it all business or did they serve tea and cookies?

The Nazis are usually in some seedy meeting room someplace, and they typically don’t serve anything. But at the Islamic group meetings I went to, there could be 1,500 people. A group called Islamic Committee for Palestine would take over a hotel at McCormick Place in Chicago for the week between Christmas and New Year’s because there was almost nobody else there. And they’d take over the kitchens so they’d be halal.

Are there any hate groups in West Los Angeles?

I can’t think of anybody actively operating in West L.A. right now. We’ve had flyers distributed in the area, but not by people who were from the neighborhood. West L.A. and similar places are more often used just to stir things up and get attention.

A lot of Trump detractors point to white supremacist support for his campaign. What’s your read on the situation?

Other than David Duke, who was one of their own, white supremacists have never openly supported a candidate like they are now. You will see dozens, probably hundreds, of Twitter profiles and Facebook pages that have a picture of Trump on it or a hashtag relating to the Trump campaign. One particular website calls him ‘The Glorious Leader.’

Because of his stance on immigration and so forth, [the Trump campaign] has really brought out the white supremacists, which is kind of weird considering that Trump touts the fact that his son-in-law is Jewish. It’s an interesting situation, one like we’ve never seen.

Eaton and Pike are in conversation at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, at the Santa Monica Public Library, 601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. Seats are free but limited. Call (310) 458-8600 or visit smpl.org for more information.