What Happens When the Internet Tries to Silence White Supremacy

Two huge white nationalist sites were recently kicked off the web. But prohibiting hate groups could fuel paranoia—and more violence.
White Supremecy Websites.jpg

A member of the Ku Klux Klan shouts at counter protesters during a rally, calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 8, 2017.

Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images.

On Friday, Stormfront, a notable white nationalist web forum that hosts more than 300,000 members, was effectively kicked off the web when its domain provider put it “under hold.” The move follows the removal of another white nationalist site, Daily Stormer, after the violence in Charlottesville. Its staff is still managing to circulate some content online, and it remains to be seen how effective the shutdown of Stormfront will be.

As momentarily righteous as it might feel to silence white supremacy, these tactics are less than effective. This movement thrives on feelings of persecution and paranoia.

I’m familiar with these people. As a doctoral candidate, I have researched white nationalist movements and the white genocide conspiracy theory and have extensively studied the digital spaces of the movements: forums, websites, blogs, Twitter, and YouTube. Motivated by “resistance” to “white genocide”—a fear that the white race is being exterminated by a secret conspiracy led by Jews, leftists, and people of color—numerous white nationalists, from Anders Breivik to Dylann Roof, have engaged in horrifying acts of violence. This is what I fear now.

This movement thrives on feelings of persecution and paranoia.

To be clear, this is not a moral argument. There is no moral equivalency between the views of white nationalists and the progressives and leftists who oppose them. It’s also not an attempt to debate issues of free speech this incident has provoked. Rather, there are practical considerations that should be taken into account when tech companies drive white nationalists off the internet—and better solutions.

Daily Stormer was forced from the web by its domain registrars and other service providers for making grossly disparaging comments about Heather Heyer, the young activist who was killed in Charlottesville when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of anti-white supremacy protesters. The site has since retreated to the “dark web,” where it remains active but hard to access. Whether the Stormfront forum re-emerges remains to be seen.

As of Sunday, the Daily Stormer is back on the web under a new domain. The site may not stay up—it has been kicked off of other domains as recently as last week—but its ability to distribute content, as well as the demand for that content, is resilient. The site’s staff has established a presence on social networking site Gab, where they release content as image files. This content is then distributed on Twitter and other platforms by supporters via the hashtag #samizdat, a reference to networks that distributed banned material in the Soviet Union.

Since being banned, the Daily Stormer has published several articles alleging a massive crackdown on white nationalists and white people more broadly. Andrew Anglin, the site’s founder, has gone so far as to call himself an “unperson,” referencing 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian novel about totalitarianism. One might imagine that many of Stormfront’s 300,000 users feel similarly.

The growing public prominence of white nationalism worldwide over the past decade presents significant challenges. In countries such as Greece, white nationalists have managed to win seats in national parliaments. We haven’t quite reached that point of normalization in the U.S., but greater public exposure in the wake of the 2016 elections has certainly emboldened racist groups with violent inclinations, leading to events like what we saw in Charlottesville.

These sites offer a sense of belonging to their users.

These challenges are not well-addressed by speech prohibition. That has largely failed to silence the Daily Stormer and will likely not prevent Stormfront’s users from congregating elsewhere. Perhaps we should consider better ways to tackle this problem.

Research on white nationalism’s digital platforms suggests that these sites offer a sense of belonging to their users, particularly to those who struggle to find community in the offline world. Understanding how this appeal cuts across the various class, regional, and national populations white nationalists target for recruitment is essential.

Addressing the allure is something that organizations like VOX-Pol are actively doing. At a summer school the organization hosted last year, I had the opportunity to connect with the internationally diverse group of people working in various fields to deal with online violent extremism, including—yet not limited to—white nationalism. We discussed the limitations of approaches like prohibition of speech both online and off and the importance of connecting this work to community-level groups who deal directly with vulnerable populations.

This community outreach and engagement with the people targeted for recruitment is critical. To be helpful, research has to be useful to groups engaged in that kind of work.

Members of the public concerned about these issues can also play a role through local organizations that work with at risk populations. White nationalism is a community-level challenge and must be addressed as such through face-to-face engagement where people live.