American Neo-Nazis Don’t Have the Numbers

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 Some of the following data is surely outdated, but I still believe that the preponderance of evidence points to neo-Nazis and other white nationalists being primarily LARPers (at least in America).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, 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.

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Lightning Talk on Zcash Foundation Governance

I gave this short talk at the Decentralized Web Summit in August, 2018. (It was livestreamed on YouTube.) Below is the full text I prepared.

I work for a privacy nonprofit called the Zcash Foundation. We exist to support technology that puts people in control of their own financial information. We focus on stewarding the cryptocurrency Zcash, in collaboration with a separate, for-profit startup that you may know as the Zcash Company. The Foundation also works with independent cryptocurrency miners and developers.

As a protocol, Zcash is a lot like bitcoin. The biggest difference is that Zcash includes a cryptographic innovation called zero-knowledge proofs, specifically zk-SNARKs, which makes robustly private transactions possible. Zcash isn’t perfect and it has significant usability problems that are still being worked out, but we think it’s the best technological approach to financial privacy.

Part of the Foundation’s role in the Zcash ecosystem is to assess what the community at large wants for the future of the cryptocurrency. During June we held a governance process that was intended to enable broad participation while also limiting ease of manipulation. The results of the process were not legally binding, but they have already influenced the Foundation’s strategy and will continue to shape our choices as an institution.

Here’s how the governance process worked. The Foundation’s leadership decided to curate a list of people who they knew were central to the Zcash community. We reached out to those people directly to ask them to join a Community Governance Panel. We also solicited applications from the world at large on various social media channels and the Zcash forum. I personally contacted the most active forum commenters via private messages.

In general, one-on-one outreach was the most effective for getting people to sign up, but public solicitation also worked. Only two applicants were rejected: A known scammer who has burned the Zcash community before, and a sketchy-seeming opportunist. The Community Governance Panel ending up totaling 72 people.

Once the Panel had been assembled, its members voted using encrypted ballots on a system called Helios. We know who voted, but we don’t know what their individual choices were, except for a few people who voluntarily disclosed their votes. 64 of the 72 voted, which is 88% turnout. The user experience of Helios was confusing for many participants, so that’s something we’ll try to address next time.

There were six policy ballots, and the most common topic among them was the future of Zcash mining. The ballots had been proposed by community members on GitHub. In retrospect, we could have guided the ballots better, since people complained that they were either too vague or too specific. In addition to those votes, the Community Governance Panel also selected two new Foundation board members, from a field of nine candidates.

Overall, the governance process was a success, not because it went 100% smoothly but because the Foundation learned so much about how to do a better job next time. The whole user experience and how we communicate expectations will be streamlined. In particular, we hope to include more voters from outside of the United States and Europe. I wish I could go into oodles of detail, but if you’re interested, our recap blog post explains everything!

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Protected: Cypherpunk gathering on August 3rd

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Survivorship Bias and Startup Hype

Luck plays a significant role in business success. Not just in the mere fact of success, but in the magnitude of any given company’s triumphs. We tend to overlook this reality because of a mental distortion called survivorship bias. It is a common cognitive failure, and a dangerous one because it obscures the distastefully harsh nature of the world.

We love to fantasize that emulating the habits of extraordinary entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk will catapult the most talented imitators to the stars. In reality, there are plenty of would-be titans of industry who simply weren’t in the right place at the right time. Even with a great product, they could have failed to make the crucial personal connection that would have accelerated their endeavor to the next level.

Survivorship bias is best summed up by a sardonic XKCD comic: “Never stop buying lottery tickets, no matter what anyone tells you,” the stick figure proclaims. “I failed again and again, but I never gave up. I took extra jobs and poured the money into tickets. And here I am, proof that if you put in the time, it pays off!”

“The hard part is pinning down the cause of a successful startup,” a pseudonymous commenter on Hacker News wisely noted. “Most people just point at highly visible things,” such as hardworking founders or a friendly office culture. “The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups that did all those same things, but failed.”

Ambitious people with incisive minds may be fewer than schmucks, and certainly multi-billionaire CEOs tend to be both brilliant and driven. Yet there are scads of brilliant, driven people who will never make it onto the cover of a prestigious magazine. Or any magazine.

Consider the mythology around hoodie-wearing college dropouts. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham once joked, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” The quip is funny because it mocks a real tendency among venture capitalists: Pattern-matching to a fault.

In the same vein, a stunning proportion of partners at VC firms graduated from a handful of tony universities, as if the seal on a person’s diploma were what indicated investing abilities. (Granted, the incidence of leveraged social connections and postgraduate degrees may amplify that trend.)

Steve Jobs, along with Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, became fantastically successful after quitting school to start a company. “How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed?” Scientific American asked rhetorically in 2014. “Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.”

The press inadvertently helps perpetuate survivorship bias. People find famous entrepreneurs fascinating and inspirational, so journalists write about them extensively. The general public is primarily interested in the fates of companies that are household names or close to that status. And of course, reporters themselves are susceptible to survivorship bias just like anyone else. This is reflected in their coverage.

So what’s the antidote? Well, it’s boring: Being careful and thorough. Make sure to look for counterexamples whenever you think you’ve identified a trend or a pattern. Resources do exist, although not always on the first page of Google results.

For example, CB Insights compiled a list of 242 startup postmortems from 2014 through 2017. The analysts wrote, “In the spirit of failure, we dug into the data on startup death and found that 70% of upstart tech companies fail — usually around 20 months after first raising financing (with around $1.3M in total funding closed).”

Most of all, don’t let the headlines rule your worldview. “The press is a lossy and biased compression of events in the actual world, and is singularly consumed with its own rituals, status games, and incentives,” as three-time SaaS founder Patrick McKenzie put it.

Listen to Walter Lippmann, in his 1922 book Public Opinion. “Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live,” Lippmann wrote, reflecting on the inaccuracies of tick-tock reporting during World War I. “We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

JJ’s Razor

My friend @Ctzn5, who goes by JJ, came up with a useful corollary to Hanlon’s razor. I’m posting it here so that I can easily link to it whenever, instead of needing to dig through Twitter search every time.

To refresh your memory, Hanlon’s razor goes like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

JJ’s addition (which dates to 2016, as far as I know) points out the futility of Hanlon’s: “The intentionality of an agent with behavior sufficiently indistinguishable from malice is irrelevant.”

I think JJ’s razor could use rephrasing for pithiness, but I’m not sure what would be ideal. Perhaps: “Malicious or stupid, it doesn’t matter, because your options are the same.”

Suggestions welcome!

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you).