Lentis/The Internet Strategy of White Supremacists

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

History and Background[edit | edit source]

A white supremacist is "a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races."[1] Before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, white supremacy was widely accepted across the United States. Following the Civil War, the beliefs of many in the North regarding racial equality began to shift away from white supremacy, whereas the belief in the South remained the same and white supremacy social groups such as the Ku Klux Klan formed.[2]

While white supremacists have used the internet to promote their agenda since its advent in the 1990s, its use became much more prevalent in 2008, when Richard Spencer re-branded the movement as the Alt-Right. The new name appealed to more people and increased the presence of white supremacy on the internet.[3] The internet became the ideal medium to spread white supremacy for several reasons. First, it offers free, unlimited, and instant advertisement to millions of people. Additionally, white supremacy sites are easily able to control their image and target certain types of people. Lastly, smaller groups can quickly gain more members through links on larger groups' sites, which establishes unity among groups rather than competition.[4] White supremacists use websites, blogs, forums, message boards, social media sites, and memes to spread their ideology and recruit more members.

Participants[edit | edit source]

In a post called “A Normie’s Guide to the Alt-Right” on the Daily Stormer, a Neo-Nazi website, primarily known for the organization of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Andrew Anglin describes the Alt-Right as “an online mob of disenfranchised and mostly anonymous, mostly young White men”.[5] He claims that the movement “could only exist on the internet, where everyone’s voice is as loud as they are able to make it.”

The Daily Stormer and other websites and forums, such as 4chan, 8chan, and Stormfront, provide spaces for extreme white supremacists to post hate speech and promote violence while concealing their identity. The Alt-Right created some of these sites with the purpose of organizing space for discussion. Others are more mainstream social networking sites, which the Alt-Right can also use due to their lenient policies regarding freedom of speech. Ultimately, the stated goal of the white supremacists on these sites “is to first solidify a stable and self-sustaining counter-culture, and then eventually push this into becoming the dominant culture”.[6]

The most widely used social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, seek to prevent the spread of hate speech and the organization of Alt-Right groups. Facebook, for example, states, “We ban these organizations and individuals from our platforms and also remove all praise and support when we become aware of it.”[7] Likewise, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, commented “communities dedicated racist beliefs end up banned for violating rules we do have around harassment, bullying, and violence” [8] Additionally, Reddit administrators may quarantine communities that are not explicitly prohibited but are still offensive “to prevent its content from being accidentally viewed by those who do not knowingly wish to do so”.[9] Posts on a quarantined Reddit page will not appear in search results or in the "Popular" tab.

Strategies[edit | edit source]

Attracting New Members[edit | edit source]

White supremacists use many different strategies to increase membership. One such strategy is low balling. White supremacy groups often filter their extreme values and ideals on public sites, framing them with more tolerable language. In doing so, individuals with similar beliefs may feel more welcomed at first and are therefore more likely to accept the white supremacist ideology.[10] In order to initially draw people in, examples of low balling are be found on public sites, such as the Ku Klux Klan's website, which can be easily found online. More aggressive messages are found on sites like Gab, which require an account and are visited by people already deeply involved in the movement.

Another strategy white supremacists use to recruit members is appealing to victimhood, which relies on resonating with individuals who feel victimized. Specifically, white supremacists intentionally target the most vulnerable, such as individuals on depression and mental health forums. They build narratives to convince vulnerable populations that their struggles are caused by other races and racism against whites[11] Julie, a Klanswomen in NY, appeals to victimhood on the KKK's website. She explains that "there are people here in America who are being displaced, who are losing their jobs and careers to non-white legal and illegal immigrants; Through manipulative social programs, we are forced to integrate. We are used to fund our own demise."[12]

Trolling and Poe's Law[edit | edit source]

OK hand gesture

Another common strategy used by white supremacists is trolling, or antagonizing others "by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content" online.[13] Trolling schemes are frequently organized on the Politically Incorrect board of 4chan, an image board website used heavily by the Alt-Right. One example occurred in February of 2017 when an anonymous 4chan user posted “We must flood twitter and other social media websites with spam, claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy.”[14] The trolling scheme made its way to Twitter where white supremacists claimed the OK hand gesture was a symbol of white power and shared images of public figures forming the hand symbol. In doing so, white supremacists could convince people that virtually anyone was part of the Alt-Right. Furthermore, since the hand symbol has meaning that is not rooted in white supremacy, individuals that identified with the Alt-Right could flash the symbol using plausible deniability to escape any blame. The ultimate goal of online trolling schemes is to evoke emotional responses from individualss who encounter the content while retaining plausible deniability that the content is racist, sexist, or otherwise hate-filled.

In this example and many other trolling schemes, white supremacists take advantage of Poe's law, which states that it is difficult to distinguish between sincere extremism and a parody of extremism online. For this reason, even insincere extremism produced and spread by white supremacists is subject to sincere interpretation and contributes to normalization of discrimination.

Enthymeme[edit | edit source]

It's OK to be white

White supremacists also use Enthymeme, a device from Aristotelian rhetoric in which the author omits part of a claim, leaving the audience to interpret the implicit claim.[15] Again, members of Alt-Right groups utilize this strategy because it allows them to stir up a response without making explicitly hateful claims.

One example of the use of enthymeme occurred in October of 2017, when an anonymous 4chan user detailed a plan to post flyers stating "It's okay to be white" on college campuses during Halloween night. The intent was to cause the media to go "berserk" the next morning. The anonymous users claims that "a harmless message like this has already caused a massive media shitstorm before”[16] as proof of concept for the idea. The plan was carried out and captured the media's attention as desired. Although the literal meaning of the words "It's okay to be white" does not have racist implications, the words within the context of the political culture at the time provide an implicit claim that whites aren't fully accepted in society.

Appeal to Authority[edit | edit source]

In appealing to authority, white supremacists cite perceived authorities including scientists, public figures, and journals to increase the validity of their arguments. This strategy is deceptive in nature since authorities are cited out of context or out of their field of expertise. For instance, "Why Anti-Racism is Nothing but a Lie" on AltRight.com cites research by sociologist Robert Putnam in arguing that "ethnic diversity equals social disintegration."[17] Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Putnam's attorneys have asserted such mis-representations selectively cite his research to present a distorted view.[18] In reality, his research argues that diversity has short-term costs, but is desirable in the long-run.[19]

Alternative Narratives[edit | edit source]

Instead of reporting events as they occurred, Alt-Right news sites make use of alternative narratives to support their agendas. Alternative narratives are used to depict an alternative story by strategically selecting components that can be used to create a distorted version of the event. By segmenting the facts, the alt-right paints a different picture than mainstream media sites.

Examples of alternative narratives are apparent in the reports about the man who drove his car into a crowd of people at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The Daily Stormer, an Alt-Right led site responsible for the organization of the rally released an article about the identity of the man, Alex Fields. Andrew Anglin reports that Fields's mother's last name is Bloom. He then writes "Bloom is an almost exclusively Jewish name. He looks Jewish." Anglin goes on to state that "it looks to me as though he was probably Jewish, and going there to fight Nazis" under the premise that "if he was in any way associated with the Alt-Right, they would have found that information immediately and posted it."[20] By carefully selecting the evidence, Anglin attempts to convince the reader that Fields was not attending the rally as a white supremacist.

Conversely, The Washington Post selects details that suggest Fields is associated with white supremacists and his actions were premeditated. The Washington Post claims that Fields “has been described by those who know him as a Nazi sympathizer.” Additionally, “Fields slowly reversed his vehicle to the top of the hill then rapidly accelerated and drove directly into the crowd, striking numerous individuals.”[21] The story is entirely different than the story in the Daily Stormer.

Cloaked Sites[edit | edit source]

Cloaked websites "are a form of propaganda, intentionally disguising authorship in order to conceal a political agenda."[22] They are one means through which white supremacists have pushed alternative narratives to a mainstream audience. For example, as recently as January 2018, Don Black, the creator of the online white nationalist community Stormfront.org, owned the domain MartinLutherKing.org.[22] With a dot org domain, the site had the potential to deceive visitors into believing it was run by a non-profit. The site targeted children, offering pop-quizzes, fliers to pass out at school, and links to racist skewed articles to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.[23]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The online strategies used by white supremacists exemplify challenges created by the open communication and anonymity of the internet. For one, it's difficult to understand a person's intent without the nuance of voice and body language. This makes it is difficult to distinguish between a parody and sincere extremism online (Poe's Law) and allows users to hide behind plausible deniability. Further, the lack of editorial necessity and reputational barriers in publishing content means that anyone can post false, misleading, and controversial content. When such barriers to entry are removed, everyone has the ability to use or misuse the system. One concerning misuse is quoting out of context. Without proper context around information, users can be led to draw conclusions not initially supported by the information. As such, internet users can distort facts and narratives by providing misleading or no context around information. As white nationalist internet strategy is a current and evolving topic, future work will be necessary to expand and update this chapter beyond the surface level inspection of strategies to include deeper understandings of oppositional strategies, psychological drivers, and the real world consequences of online white supremacy.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. White supremacist. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved November 27, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20supremacist.
  2. PBS. (2017). White Supremacy and Terrorism. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/white-supremacy/.
  3. Marwick, A., & Lewis, R. (n.d.). Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online. Data & Society Research Institute. Retrieved https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/DataAndSociety_MediaManipulationAndDisinformationOnline.pdf.
  4. Weatherby, G. A., & Scoggins, B. (2005). A Content Analysis of Persuasion Techniques Used on White Supremacist Websites. Journal of Hate Studies, 4(1), 9 - 31.
  5. Anglin, Andrew. (August 31, 2016). "A Normie's Guide to the Alt-Right" Daily Stormer. https://web.archive.org/web/20170814000904/https://www.dailystormer.com/a-normies-guide-to-the-alt-right/
  6. Anglin, Andrew. (August 31, 2016). "A Normie's Guide to the Alt-Right" Daily Stormer. https://web.archive.org/web/20170814000904/https://www.dailystormer.com/a-normies-guide-to-the-alt-right/
  7. Hatmaker, T. (2018, October 31). Facebook bans the Proud Boys, cutting the group off from its main recruitment platform. https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/30/facebook-proud-boys-mcinnes-kicked-off/
  8. R/announcements - Reddit's 2017 transparency report and suspect account findings. (2018, April 12). https://www.reddit.com/r/announcements/comments/8bb85p/reddits_2017_transparency_report_and_suspect/dx5go62/?st=jfxshr2g&sh=598b087b
  9. R/announcements - Revamping the Quarantine Function. (2018, October). https://www.reddit.com/r/announcements/comments/9jf8nh/revamping_the_quarantine_function/
  10. Weatherby, G. A., & Scoggins, B. (2005). A Content Analysis of Persuasion Techniques Used on White Supremacist Websites. Journal of Hate Studies, 4(1), 9 - 31.
  11. Khazan, Olga. (2017, August 15). How White Supremacists Use Victimhood to Recruit. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/the-worlds-worst-support-group/536850/.
  12. The Knights Party. (2018). For Women. Retrieved from https://kkk.bz/for-women/.
  13. Troll [Def. 2]. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved November 25, 2018, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/troll.
  14. 4chan-operationokkk.jpg. (n.d.). https://www.splcenter.org/files/4chan-operationokkkjpg
  15. Rapp, Christof. (Spring 2010 Edition). "Aristotle's Rhetoric" The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/
  16. It's Okay to Be White - 4chan thread. (2017, October 31). Retrieved November 27, 2018. https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1310065-its-okay-to-be-white
  17. Scharf, J. (2018, May 3). Why Anti-Racism is Nothing but a Lie. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from /2018/05/03/why-anti-racism-is-nothing-but-a-lie/
  18. BRIGIDA BENITEZ, CHRISTOPHER M. DOUGHERTY, & L. LISA SANDOVAL. 11-345, No. 14–981 (Supreme Court of the United States June 24, 2013). Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs/11-345_respondentamcudrputnam.pdf
  19. Putnam, R. D. (2007), E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty‐first Century The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30: 137-174. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x
  20. Anglin, A. (2017, August 13). Car Crasher Identified – Called Terrorist by a Bunch of Republicans. https://web.archive.org/web/20170813211714/https://www.dailystormer.com/car-crasher-identified-called-terrorist-by-a-bunch-of-republicans/
  21. Heim, J., Barrett, D., & Natanson, H. (2018, June 27). Man accused of driving into crowd at Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally charged with federal hate crimes. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/man-accused-of-driving-into-crowd-at-unite-the-right-rally-charged-with-federal-hate-crimes/2018/06/27/09cdce3a-7a20-11e8-80be-6d32e182a3bc_story.html
  22. a b Daniels, J. (2018). The Algorithmic Rise of the “Alt-Right.” Contexts, 17(1), 60–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536504218766547
  23. Martin Luther King Jr. - A True Historical Examination. (2018, January 15). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20180115005731/http://martinlutherking.org/