‘Hacking Hate’ Review: The Real-Life Lisbeth Salander Infiltrates an Online Neo-Nazi Group in an Activist Procedural Documentary

Just about anyone who spends considerable time on the internet knows that hate speech proliferates on social media like a virus. But would you be surprised to learn that tech corporations tacitly condone such bigotry in order to profit off the engagement that far-right influencers generate? If you were previously unaware of such in-your-face malfeasance, Simon Klose’s new documentary “Hacking Hate” unpacks the ways that social media companies benefit from the amplification of white supremacy online and how they’re complicit in its real-world effects. Through slick photography that utilizes the visual language of genre films and digital life (tweets, memes, TikTok videos), Klose’s activist procedural illustrate the failures of the tech world to safeguard society through one reporter’s undercover operation into a Nazi organization.

The reporter in question is My Vingren, an award-winning investigative journalist described by the media as “the real life ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’” seemingly because she and the fictional Lisbeth Salander are both Swedish women who know how to use a computer (to be fair, “Hacking Hate” does chronicle Vingren’s work for Expo, a magazine founded by the late “Millenium” trilogy author Stieg Larsson). Vingren initially wishes to uncover how extremist movements use social media to their advantage. After setting up a string of fake profiles that would conceivably glom onto right-wing content, it doesn’t take long for them to be privately invited into the Nordic Federation, a neo-Nazi Telegram group that shares all the traits of a Russian influence operation.

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Klose, through Vingren, does a decent job of concisely conveying how quickly far-right influencers can radicalize young white men through superficially wholesome content. A goofy looking Swedish bodybuilder could conceivably be giving fitness tips on his YouTube channel or imparting white supremacist rhetoric to over 100,000 people (it’s mostly the latter). Scratch the surface, as Vingren does for a living, and it’s easy to connect the dots between this content created to validate white alienation and a radicalized population capable of committing mass hate crimes. Add in the rise of live-streaming platforms and suddenly horrific massacres can be viewed around the globe.

There’s nothing inaccurate about Klose’s thesis, which is fairly airtight and has been well reported on by many others, but his alarmist visual style quickly exhibits diminishing returns. “Hacking Hate” frequently features a meme scroll designed to highlight the extreme levels of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, you name it. While this will disturb anyone with half a conscience, repeatedly going back to this well has a numbing effect, which seems like the opposite intention of a documentary presumably produced to inspire awareness.

Similarly, the editorial choice to abruptly interrupt video clips of alt-right creators or hate crimes initially feels like an effective way to sever the visual influence of such grotesquerie, but eventually it just become another gimmick. Klose’s techno-thriller aesthetic, which includes close-ups of clacking keyboards and scenes of Vingren in dark rooms illuminated by a computer light or a projector screen, provides a patina of polish whose derivative qualities become difficult to ignore long before the film ends.

“Hacking Hate” supplements Vingren’s investigation with interviews she conducts with Anika Collier Navaroli, a former senior content policy expert at Twitter and Twitch, and Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Both experts provide compelling testimony about their experience with online hate rhetoric, with Navaroli in particular explaining how she desperately tried to convey to her superiors that the proliferation of oft-coded extremist rhetoric scan lead to real-world consequences. Her concerns were either ignored or outright dismissed, and subsequently the January 6th attack on the Capitol and a mass shooting in Buffalo occurred during her tenure. As Ahmed clearly argues, hate speech drives engagement, and since engagement generates profit, these companies have no vested interest in stemming a tide of prejudicial vitriol.

Navaroli and Ahmed make persuasive arguments about the dangers of free speech absolutism in the digital realm, immoral profit motives from the tech world, and the obvious need for strong content moderation on social media platforms. Klose further argues that tech’s myriad failures have put democratic societies around the globe at risk of fascist takeovers. Again, it’s a strong thesis, but unless you’re someone who’s completely in the dark about this topic, “Hacking Hate” simply doesn’t bring much new information to the table. At some point, the film becomes an extended recapitulation of familiar talking points, and while one could argue that these issues need to be reiterated ad nauseum as a social benefit, an extended news magazine piece somehow feels inadequate.

Vingren and her investigation stands as the film’s biggest selling point, but even that has its drawbacks. Eventually, Vingren’s undercover infiltration of the Nordic Federation leads her to its ostensible ring leader, Vincent, whom she discovers has ties to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company strongly believed to be a proxy for the state. Vincent’s ties to Russia inspire a debate in Vingren over the nature of his ideology. Is he a genuine Nazi or a useful idiot whose racial animus has been exploited by expert manipulators? Late revelations about Vincent’s past confuse matters even further as the full extent of his overeager search for group identity becomes clear.

“Hacking Hate” ultimately punts on this issue, which disappoints even if it makes some sense from a journalistic standpoint. The film followed Vincent’s trail as far as it goes, and after all, he’s just one of many extremists who will continue to wreak havoc on the world unless a governmental body implements strong digital regulation. With a criminal who only exists virtually, “Hacking Hate” needs the detective to pick up the narrative slack. But while Vingren’s clever research methods and forthright personality render her an engaging screen presence, she needs to remain a cypher. A perpetual target of credible death threats from extremists, Vingren lives in an undisclosed location, and keeps most personal details private, aside from revealing the fact that she has a child. Her necessary anonymity leaves a hole procedural mechanics can only attempt to fill, but on this front, “Hacking Hate” only occasionally absorbs. There’s only so much tension that solo screen time can generate.

“Hacking Hate” can charitably be construed as a subversion of social media incentivization, a filmic attempt to channel free-floating rage towards powerful entities who make money off of human fragility and social discord. But as an exercise in positive or progressive radicalization, it falls short of its aims by communicating well-known problems without offering solutions beyond the need to soldier on in the face of such vast hatred. If there’s a lesson that normal people who live on the internet already know, it’s that one.

Grade: C+

“Hacking Hate” premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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