The following is part of an article I wrote for Inc. about interviewing the semi-infamous hacker Weev (legal name Andrew Auernheimer). He currently runs dev-ops for neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer — or at least that’s what he was doing when I talked to him during August and September, 2017.
I’m only publishing the second half of the article because frankly, Weev’s enthusiasm for genocide is banal among neo-Nazis and doesn’t need more coverage. I may change my mind and publish the full essay eventually, who knows. You can read the interview transcript on Pastebin or peruse my commentary on Twitter.
A context note: The news peg for the article was Cloudflare and a bunch of domain registrars booting The Daily Stormer, so that kerfuffle is alluded to a couple of times. My current view is that cypherpunk resistance to censorship is the way to go, but I don’t want to get into that here.
And now, why I think neo-Nazis aren’t as much of a problem as they pretend they are! Some of the following data is surely outdated, but I still believe that the preponderance of evidence points to neo-Nazis and other white nationalists being primarily LARPers (at least in America).
Andrew Auernheimer’s position on de-platforming was straightforward: “People can either talk about things or they can kill people. Only paths to social change.” And: “If we are disallowed from airing our grievances in the marketplace of ideas the only option will be violence.”
Although put in brutal terms, this is logical. If you are sufficiently fed up, and sufficiently silenced, what else can you do but resort to fists, knives, or guns? Auernheimer added, “Not a threat, just an obvious conclusion.”
On the bright side, follow-through seems unlikely now that The Daily Stormer is once again accessible on the open web, although Auernheimer was recently banned from rightwing Twitter equivalent Gab for expressing a similar idea. [Note from the present: I’m not sure whether TDS is still available beyond Tor, but I don’t care enough to check.]
Auernheimer’s common sense ended there. He delighted in quasi-apocalyptic fantasies: “When the final round comes, you guys are gonna see how significant our numbers are. Because we don’t throw tantrums in the street like liberals. If we move, we will move once to solve problems, and that will be that. There will be no demonstrations. There will be a movement in the night. The next day will be rosy for us.”
He added later, “Either we are going to get what we want or our enemies are going to have their houses burned down with their whole families inside.”
While Auernheimer’s vision is terrifying, on a practical level Neo-Nazis and their ilk simply do not have the numbers. The Daily Stormer is the best-known white supremacist website, and its monthly traffic before the recent ordeal broke down like this, according to Auernheimer: 6 million monthly unique visitors, roughly 19,000 of whom are forum members, who generated 545 million page views altogether. (A mainstream politics website like Politico garners more than four times the unique visitors.) Auernheimer estimated that 45 percent of the traffic came from the US, while most of the rest was from Europe.
Six million sounds like a lot of people until you put it in perspective. 45 percent comes to 2.7 million, which is eight tenths of a percent of the United States’ 323.1 million residents. That is 3.2 percent fewer than the number of Americans who will tell pollsters that they believe lizardmen run the earth, and also the number of Americans who will tell pollsters that they’ve personally been decapitated. Of course, The Daily Stormer’s audience can’t be assumed to contain all of the United States’ militant racists, but it’s a helpful benchmark.
Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent American white nationalists, put on a conference in 2016 that was only able to pull 300 people, which was — generously — 4.2 percent of the attendance of BronyCon, an event for adult fans of the My Little Pony franchise, as The Daily Caller noted. Ahead of the Charlottesville protest, AltRight.com declared, “A conservative estimate would put us at about 500, although if […] affiliated groups come through, we can top 1000,” which would be a whopping 14.3 percent of BronyCon.
Auernheimer did offer a counterargument. “We are a pro-genocide publication,” he explained. “For everyone that consumes pro-genocide media, there are far more than will embrace casual degrees of media. And having people saying really extreme things redefines the edge of political theater to make people closer to us be more towards the center. Now 10 percent of people think it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.” Nine percent, actually, according to a Washington Post poll. “That’ll be 25 percent shortly,” he continued. “And we’ll keep pushing.”
It would sound ominous, but the notion is again undermined by data. In 1996, United States law enforcement recorded 1,109 hate crimes against Jews. In 2015, they recorded 695. That’s a 37 percent reduction over barely two decades.
Furthermore, 39 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats said that “prejudice against Jewish people is in the United States today” is either a “very serious problem” or a “somewhat serious problem,” according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in August. Forty-four percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats said that yes, “white supremacist groups pose a threat to the United States.”
Meanwhile, white attitudes toward blacks have been steadily improving since the mid-1900s. Americans are increasingly concerned about race relations since the early 2000s, but it does not follow that a spate of racially motivated massacres loom on our national horizon.
Interviewing Auernheimer was a frustrating experience. I still feel torn between the view that de-platforming is a dangerous trend, and that free speech as a cultural value is in peril — versus the opposing view that private companies can use their infrastructure however they wish to, and The Daily Stormer is welcome to use Tor or to print out physical “spamizdat” (classic Weev trick) if no one is willing to enable them to do anything else.
I talked it over with fellow civil libertarian Giancarlo Sandoval, a PhD researcher in digital cultures at Birkbeck, University of London. He said, “I don’t believe there’s a shadowy cabal pulling the strings,” but rather that The Daily Stormer is suffering the natural consequences of advocating extremely unpopular ideas. Sandoval added, “Registrars can do whatever they want, they are commercial entities.”
Ultimately, my conclusion is that businesses refusing to serve someone isn’t a problem that demands legislation. So what if building your own internet infrastructure is expensive — buying a printing press was too! Censorship by the government is another matter, since nation-states force compliance with their rules at gunpoint.
It is true that ICANN, the organization that stewards domain names, was started in part by the United States government. But with the advent of Tor and other decentralized networks, ICANN can’t choke off dissenters, just force them to resort to less convenient options.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, but cheapness of speech and ease of speech are not. Nor do I think they should be. Until I’m convinced that the government itself is suppressing The Daily Stormer, my unease about de-platforming will stay passive.