WASHINGTON - Last month, for several long days, many in the American Jewish community were gripped with fear over a neo-Nazi organized "National Day of Hate."
Jewish leaders and law enforcement officials urged community members to be vigilant after a little-known white nationalist group announced plans for a day of antisemitic action on February 25.
But the day came and went without incident, raising questions over whether, by spotlighting the event, mainstream organizations such as the American Defamation League helped to quash it or gave its organizers undue publicity, something many fringe groups crave.
The ADL, a prominent anti-hate group, says its "advisories and public advocacy" caused some extremists to stay home rather than partake in the antisemitic event.
"This is a success and a win for the Jewish community in keeping our communities safe," an ADL spokesperson said in a statement to VOA.
But critics say that by magnifying the Day of Hate, advocacy groups, law enforcement and media outlets played into white nationalists' strategy of cowing their victims and drawing publicity with what often amounts to little more than stunts.
Warnings about the so-called day of hate "made national headlines, became one of the top trending topics on social media in the United States, frightened the Jewish community, and led to a heightened security posture across the country," researchers at the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) wrote in a recent report.
Seed planted on Telegram
The episode began on January 4, when an Iowa-based white nationalist group calling itself "Crew 319" went on the Telegram messaging app to announce plans for a "National Day of Hate" on February 25, urging followers to join in "a day of MASS ANTI-SEMITIC ACTION."
"Shock the masses with banner drops, stickers, fliers and graffiti," the post read. "Inaction is unacceptable."
This wasn't the first time a neo-Nazi group was pushing a "day of action." In recent years, "White Lives Matter," a relatively new network of white supremacists, has popularized "days of action" featuring rallies and propaganda distribution.
But Crew 319's call fell flat. With just a few hundred followers on Telegram, the group barely registered on anyone's radar, according to extremism researcher Ben Lorber of the social justice think tank Political Research Associates.
"From spending a little bit of time on their online spaces, it was clear that this was a small group with a handful of people at most," Lorber said in an interview with VOA.
NCRI researchers studied how the group's call to action evolved from an obscure post on Telegram into a top trending social media topic.
They found that the clique's initial post generated roughly 20 likes on Telegram. And when a week later it reposted the announcement, it received even fewer likes - 11.
What is more, white nationalist groups such as the National Socialist Movement largely ignored the announcement.
"There was no momentum around it," Lorber said. "It was going to be nothing. But then all of a sudden, the national media turned it into a huge thing."
The turning point came on February 9, more than a month after Crew 319's initial post, when the ADL highlighted the planned observance in a series of tweets.
Advising its followers that it had been "monitoring plans for a day of antisemitic action," the ADL wrote that the proposed "National Day of Hate" had been "endorsed and shared online by various extremist groups."
"If at any time you feel that you may be in danger, contact law enforcement," the ADL wrote in one of the tweets. "Jewish institutions should use this event as an appropriate moment to review security protocols with staff."
The ADL isn't just another Jewish civil rights organization. Though it has its detractors, it is widely respected, and whenever it issues a public alert, "people take it very seriously," Lorber said.
Crew 319 reveled in the attention.
"The National Day of Hate is already an overwhelming success before it's even occurred," the group wrote on its Telegram channel on February 10.
Communities on edge
In the leadup to February 25, the ADL posted about the "nationwide extremist day of hate" several more times. It also sent out several emails about the day to its mailing list.
"White supremacist groups are trying to organize antisemitic activities as a 'National Day of Hate' throughout this coming weekend and especially this Saturday,' ADL President Jonathan Greenblatt warned in an email on February 23, urging allies to join in a #ShabbatOfPeaceNotHate.
By then, the 'National Day of Hate' had taken on a life of its own.
Cities with large Jewish communities were on alert.
Police departments from New York to Chicago issued advisories that "circulated among Jews on social media, in WhatsApp chats and via email," the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.
Prominent lawmakers "referenced the 'National Day of Hate' in solidarity with the Jewish community," according to the NCRI report.
And while there was no evidence that large white nationalist organizations intended to participate, news outlets reported that "neo-Nazi groups" were planning to "target" Jews with a "National Day of Hate."
The Jewish community was on edge.
"This weekend will be hard for the Jewish people," Rabbi Abram Goodstein tweeted from Alaska on February 23.
With growing online chatter about the National Day of Hate, the term became one of the top trending terms on Twitter the weekend of February 25, according to the NCRI's analysis.
On Twitter, the term was mentioned in more than 104,000 tweets and retweets and garnered tens of millions of impressions.
On TikTok, the hashtag #nationaldayofhate received close to 100,000 views, and #dayofhate received close to 700,000 views, according to NCRI.
In the face of growing public anxiety, even groups that did not foresee violence felt compelled to put something out.
"By the Wednesday night before the Saturday scheduled Day of Hate reached such a crescendo that we said OK, we better put something out. Let's try to tamp down some of the fear that's out there," said Mitch Silber, executive director of Community Security Initiative.
Yet the feared mass anti-Semitic action did not come to pass.
"Luckily, nothing happened despite the widespread fear," said NCRI lead intelligence analyst Alex Goldenberg.
Public warnings were 'necessary,' say some
The day after, Crew 319 went on Telegram to claim, without evidence, that "tons of people" participated in the event and that it would soon release a video of the day.
It has yet to produce the promised video. And Goldenberg said he hasn't seen any evidence to suggest that "the National Day of Hate was any different from any other weekend that we typically see in the United States."
In the days that followed, however, NCRI and other extremism researchers have seized on the event to highlight the dangers of amplifying what they call "low-signal extremist content.'
"To sound an undue or outsized alarm amplifies extremist causes with unnecessary attention, potentially elevating risks of acceleration," NCRI researchers wrote.
"In their view, they set out to 'shock the masses,' and amplification helped them succeed.'
Goldenberg said the amplification may have given white supremacists something to celebrate.
"What happens on February 25th next year?" Goldenberg said. "Are they going to gather up, (and) galvanize around this next year or the year after? And if they do, who is the onus on?"
The ADL stands by its public advocacy.
"Issuing public advisories is not something ADL does lightly," an ADL spokesperson said in a statement to VOA. "Precisely because we take seriously the importance of not amplifying extremist threats or traumatizing the Jewish community, we send the vast majority of our extremism-related alerts directly to law enforcement. In this instance, we believe going public was not only necessary, but was successful in helping prevent a worse situation."
Others involved in security preparation for the "National Day of Hate" say the postmortem criticism amounts to "Monday morning quarterbacking' - an American sports analogy for leveling criticism with the benefit of hindsight.
"I think, if, God forbid, something happened, people wouldn't be saying that," said Evan Bernstein, national director and CEO of Community Security Service, a volunteer security organization that works with more than 200 synagogues around the country.
For Marc Katz, the rabbi of a synagogue in Bloomfield, New Jersey, the "National Day of Hate" came close to home.
In January, a man wearing a ski mask threw a Molotov cocktail at the synagogue's door before fleeing. The attack caused superficial damage but left the congregation shaken.
"The 'National Day of Hate' re-triggered congregants," Katz said in an interview with VOA. "I had somebody show up in my office in tears. People were nervous, rightfully."
In response, local police added extra patrols during the weekend and the synagogue adopted a closed-door policy during services.
"The Day of Hate is a strange name for that day," Katz said. "And in the back of my mind, I was always wondering whether or not we were being trolled. Something felt off almost like it was meant to panic the Jewish community more than it was a true day that was being planned to wreak havoc."