HACKING HATE (Tribeca 2024) – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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The pale, bald Swedish man with dark eyes and a bushy beard posts photos of his family on Instagram and other platforms. He writes about hunting or lifting weights, using hashtags like “#nationalism.” Soon, followers send along invites to private chats and message groups full of racist memes, TikTok videos spewing Nazi salutes, and reams of hate.

The man, Andreas, is actually a fake profile that an investigative journalist created, along with those of his phony family. But the vitriol and how it’s used is frighteningly real.

The film Hacking Hate won the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival. Written and directed by Simon Klose (Food Hacking), it follows award-winning Swedish investigative reporter My Vingren through a high-tech web as she discerns who operates several far-right social media accounts. On a broader scale, the film also examines how such extremists recruit others and encourage the spread of dehumanizing language and misinformation.

Watchdog groups, media outlets and the FBI have attributed a rise in hate crimes in the United States since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election to Trump’s racist and sexist rhetoric. Yet while Hacking Hate revisits his tweet before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the film looks beyond the presumptive Republican nominee to a broader picture, placing the convicted felon alongside politicians from France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy who also have used hate to win populist elections.

Vingren has earned the nickname “the real-life Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” because she writes for the antiracist Swedish magazine Expo, which best-selling Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson founded in 1995. A glasses-wearing redhead shown prepping bottles for her infant, Vingren doesn’t physically resemble the fictional antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander, but she’s as admirably dogged and shrewd.

She has to be. Some of the extremist influencers the film samples include White women whose “makeup tips” are writing racist statements on their cheeks. Others are a little slyer, quoting Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels between workouts and pitching custom T-shirts with images of assault rifles.

Klose, cinematographers Ivan Blanco and Tony Johansson, and editor Nicolás Nørgaard Staffolani at times shoot Hacking Hate like a thriller, accompanied by an electronic score by Kate Havnevik. Vingren uses photo tools to morph her selfies into profile pictures for her fake accounts. Wide shots of her living room show her projecting a map of connections between those accounts and extremist YouTubers, private message boards, and others.

Her undercover work finds recruiting videos for the Wagner Group, called the “private army” of Russian president Vladimir Putin, as well as contacts and connections among other extremist recruiters. Huge social media platforms “are easy to abuse for influence operations,” one contact notes.

As fascinating and disturbing as that is, Hacking Hate becomes a riveting call to action as it shows how hate speech on social media drives violence worldwide and demands more responsibility from social media companies. Hate is profitable because it drives engagement, says Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Elon Musk, who appears in archive footage here, unsuccessfully sued the nonprofit after its research found hate speech on X (formerly Twitter) rose drastically once Musk fired the bulk of the platform’s moderators.

A spokesperson tells Vingren that YouTube “generally speaking” doesn’t make money from “extreme users,” but it doesn’t seem to work hard to kick them off the platform, either, awarding some with plaques for high numbers of followers. “When you enable people to make their voice heard,” the spokesperson says, “you will hear voices that we don’t think are nice.”

This “oh well” idea of “free speech absolutism” is one Americans, Musk, and social media outlets parrot, but it’s never worked in favor of marginalized people, notes writer, lawyer, and researcher Anika Collier Navaroli, who is Black and queer. The former head of trust and safety at Twitter (now known as X), Navaroli got Trump banned from Twitter after his “will be wild” tweet urged followers to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, drawing an angry crowd that erupted into the Capitol riots.

Navaroli’s Big Tech criticism has made her a target of death threats, as has Vingren’s reporting. Sitting across from each other on a sofa, the women swap stories about how police have told them not to leave home and how they think about quitting “all the time.”

The scrolls of hateful garbage that Vingren encounters would test anyone’s resolve, and seeing how widespread this is will give some viewers pause, if not despair. Yet Hacking Hate ultimately conveys admiration for these determined fighters, chipping away at such Goliaths.

This work is a way to deal with her fears of where the world is headed, Vingren says—and understand how others end up full of darkness.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.