World Wide White: the online growth of white supremacists

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Content note: this story contains discussions of hate speech and racial vilification

New Orleans, April 27, 1981: eight men are arrested as they try to board a charter boat loaded with guns, explosives, and Nazi paraphernalia.

Among their number are two Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan; a Barbadian activist turned guerrilla leader turned arms dealer; and a handful of generic white supremacists. The group stated that they wanted to topple the Dominican government and install a leader that was less sympathetic to communism, but prosecutors believe the real plan was to turn the island into a criminal haven for the purposes of funding white supremacist projects.

One of the men, Don Black – Grand Wizard of the American Ku Klux Klan and cross-burning enthusiast – was given a three year sentence for his part in the plot and spent most of it taking computer programming classes. Upon his release he renounced the Klan and started his own venture: Stormfront.

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Don Black at a cross-burning in the 1980s. Via the New York Magazine

Stormfront started life as a white nationalist message board in 1990 before being relaunched as a full-blown website in 1996.  While you could find virulent racism on USENET newsgroups like alt.skinhead and alt.nationalism.white before this, Stormfront.org is generally considered to be the first website devoted entirely to white supremacist and hate content. It was organised around discussion forums covering various topics from Nazi mysticism to the efficacy of martial arts in the coming race war, and even had a dating service and a creative writing section. Its symbol was a Celtic Cross, its motto “White Power World Wide”.

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Don Black and his son, Derek, in 2008. Derek was groomed as Don’s successor within the white supremacist movement and ran a Stormfront children’s website. He renounced the movement and his father shortly after moving away for college.

The ‘net in the 1990s was lauded as an egalitarian space, and held by its proponents as the primordial goop from which true global communities might emerge.  Its users were often people from the fringes of mainstream society – drug enthusiasts, experimental chemists, philosophers, hackers – and there was hope that the discrimination and prejudice that permeated the real world wouldn’t make it into cyberspace.

But the conditions that made it so attractive to Utopian thinkers (the fact that it was separate from mainstream society and therefore everyday social norms didn’t necessarily apply) also made it the perfect place for the reinvigorated white supremacist movement. Free of scrutiny, Stormfront was able to grow like a cancer, soon averaging 5000 unique visitors a day. Not a bad result considering how difficult it was to navigate the early internet. That number climbed into the tens of thousands towards the middle of the 2000s, and peaked when Obama was elected president in 2008. 

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Stormfront’s logo. Via Deadspin.

Stormfront soon became synonymous with a particular brand of Euro-American racism. Its name conjured up images of the political and military aspects of Nazi ideology and a wider connection to Germanic mythology.

“You need a colorful name,” Black told the New Times in 1998.

“We wanted something militant-sounding that was also political and social. Stormfront says turbulence is coming, and afterwards there’ll be a cleansing effect.”

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An example of the creative writing found on Stormfront. Via Gawker.

Black himself is pretty colourful, pun not intended. He became interested in white supremacy at age 15, after reading Our Nordic Race (a book about how miscegenation i.e. interracial procreation apparently caused the downfall of several historical empires) and soon started handing out pamphlets at his school on behalf of groups like the National States’ Rights Party. When the school board prohibited the distribution of political literature he launched a mail campaign using information from the student hand book.

In 1970 and at age 16 Black went to work for J.B Stoner’s gubernatorial campaign. Stoner was the chairman of the National States’ Rights Party and was suspected of having been behind the 1958 bombing of the Bethel Baptist Church (which had a predominantly African-American congregation). Black’s relationship with the party concluded shortly after he was shot in the chest several times while attempting to steal records from Stoner’s office.

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David Duke (right) and Don Black. The two apparently got along like a cross on fire, with Duke saying: “Don is more than a very good friend, he is one of the leading individuals in the white-rights movement…He has always been a dedicated individual that’s self-sacrificing.” Via SPLC.

These fumbled attempts at installing white-supremacist government probably informed Black’s approach to Stormfront. While obviously being committed to racist ideologies, Black was always careful about how people could express that on the website. Direct exhortations to violence were usually removed, as were bomb making instructions and synagogue addresses.

Stormfront was Black’s attempt at creating an “acceptable” image of white supremacy, one that the mainstream might find more palatable. This approach was influenced by David Duke, founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who criticized things like illegal immigration and affirmative action rather than being outright racist. Both men saw white supremacy as first and foremost, a propaganda battle. Duke created a sanitized version of the Ku Klux Klan, replete with suits and national directors, while Black applied that principle in the creation of what was essentially a propaganda instrument.

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Don Black in 1982. Via the New York Magazine

“The potential of the Net for organizations and movements such as ours is enormous,” Black said in 1996.

“We’re reaching tens of thousands of people who never before had access to our point of view.”

While Black might have tried to disguise the violent nature of Stormfront and white supremacy overall, the website has been implicated in the radicalisation of several mass-murderers and hundreds of other racist crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Centre tied the murders of 100 people between 2009 and 2014 to active Stormfront users, with 77 of those murders being committed by Anders Behring Breivik. Members of the site also encourage each other to join the military to gain combat experience, a common tactic of many white supremacist groups and so-called “ghost skins“.

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Mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik was a frequent visitor to the website. Via Metro.

Last week, Stormfront – along with several other hate sites – were taken offline by domain-owners in reaction to the events of Charlottesville. This comes in a transitional period for racism and white supremacy in North America.

Stormfront and its users are increasingly at odds with the new face of white supremacy: the alt-right. The murder of Heather Heyer was met with varying degrees of dismay and disgust by Stormfront users, and it was generally considered to be bad PR. The alt-right have themselves been derided by the website’s denizens as ‘lunatics’ trying to install ‘white sharia’, while some members of the alt-right believe that Stormfront is comprised entirely of useless Baby Boomers and Gen Xers that have gone soft in their old age.

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Nazis in Charlottesville. Via the the New York Times.

It is important to remember that while these disparate groups might differ on method, they do not differ on their ultimate goal: the establishment of white ethnostates at home and abroad.

But now that Stormfront is gone, and other websites have been moved to various parts of the dark web, it’ll be interesting to see what will become the new home of white nationalism. Gab.ai is a possible successor. Its total commitment to freedom of speech, even when that freedom is used to preach hate, makes it attractive to the alt-right and white supremacist crowds. Hate subreddits have become more popular on reddit, with moderators and administrators taking a soft stance on calls for violence against Muslims and African-Americans.

For his part, Don Black isn’t going away anytime soon. He feels the election of Donald Drumpf has galvanised white supremacy and describes the president as America’s “great white hope“.  He’s even working on getting Stormfront back up and running – whether it stays relevant will be another issue entirely. Like Black himself said in regards to the seizure of his website:

“This is uncharted territory now.”