White supremacists are using cheap, rapid DNA-testing services such as 23andMe to post “evidence” of their white European ancestry on Twitter and alt-right forums, often in threads filled with hateful language about the genetic inferiority of nonwhites — but the companies selling those services won’t kick them off.
The phenomenon drew widespread attention after a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left a woman dead last weekend. Days later, by coincidence, researchers presented a study about thousands of posts related to genetic ancestry testing on the white nationalist forum Stormfront.
The weekend’s violence prompted technology companies to publicly refuse their services to white supremacists. GoDaddy, Cloudflare, and Google refused to host the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer; PayPal and Apple Pay cut off payment services on websites that sell white nationalist and Nazi apparel; Spotify started removing bands accused of promoting white supremacy; and on Thursday, OKCupid banned a user flagged as a known white supremacist.
But DNA-testing sites haven’t gone quite as far, despite their established popularity with white supremacists. 23andMe, which has more than 2 million customers, has banned and closed the accounts of people who make racist, abusive, or threatening comments on its own community forum; however, it stops short of kicking users off the platform for using their genetic testing results to further racist or hateful ideology elsewhere online.
“We condemn all forms of racism. This includes people using our test to advance hate-based agendas,” said Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “We don’t condone individuals misusing our test to promote hate.”
Two other popular genetic testing services, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, said the same thing.
“We are against any use of our product in an attempt to promote divisiveness or justify twisted ideologies,” Tim Sullivan, CEO of Ancestry, wrote in a public statement after BuzzFeed News asked the company for comment. “People looking to use our services to prove they are ethnically ‘pure’ are going to be deeply disappointed. We encourage them to take their business elsewhere.”
Max Blankfeld, cofounder of Family Tree DNA, said he would invite those looking for affirmation to try the test. The results, he said, would plainly refute such beliefs.
“I would love for them to do the test and find out that there is no such thing as pure identity or pure origin,” Blankfeld told BuzzFeed News. “They will see that their theories will come apart totally.”
On Jan. 4, white nationalist Richard Spencer posted a screenshot of his genetic testing results on Twitter, adding a hashtag for #23andMe, the service he used to obtain his results.
In November, Spencer — an editor at AltRight.com and president of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank — gave a speech saying, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” He has also called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of nonwhite Americans, and has defined the alt-right as “about being a white person, being a European in the 21st century." And he was one of the main voices behind the racist violence in Charlottesville, for which he is currently being sued.
Spencer joins a robust community of white supremacists sharing their genetic testing results on forums like 4chan, Reddit, and Stormfront. Often, commenters debate their validity arguing that the results, which rarely find purely “white” lineage, are a result of a Jewish conspiracy by the testing company CEOs. Most often, the results are used to reinforce the idea of the genetic superiority of whites.
Spokesperson Andy Kill told BuzzFeed News that 23andMe has banned people from its forums and blog, and closed the accounts of customers who make racist, abusive, threatening, and harassing comments in those places. The company’s fine print, which prohibits the use of its services for “anything that might reasonably be construed as harassment or disparagement based on race,” applies to 23andMe’s own channels, Kill said — but not outside ones.
If the company hears of someone invoking their 23andMe results in a racist way on Twitter, 23andMe will notify Twitter of their remarks, according to Kill.
But “we cannot flag anytime someone posts a photo or screenshot of the product, as the vast majority of those postings are people celebrating their genetic diversity or other information they've learned based on our service, and not done in a racist or otherwise offensive fashion,” Kill said.
Spencer’s tweet sparked a thread of white supremacist and anti-Semitic remarks, but the tweet itself simply stated “My ancestory,” with no inflammatory comments.
But posts about Family Tree results shared elsewhere on the web would go ignored.
“I don't think that there is a need for us to engage in order for people to know that we totally reject hateful speech and racism,” Blankfeld said. “On the contrary, sometimes engaging helps them spread their message — which is something that we definitely don't want to do.”
At Ancestry, staff members monitor message boards and comments on the company’s Facebook and Twitter pages, and remove comments that flout standards, Brandon Borrman, vice president of global communications at the company, told BuzzFeed News. But the company cannot monitor its customers’ posts on their own accounts or elsewhere, Borrman said. “We can’t make that type of connection.”
Lori Andrews, a law professor who specializes in science and technology at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, told BuzzFeed News that DNA-testing companies don’t have a clear legal responsibility to police how their customers talk about their results on outside platforms.
If a white supremacist posts their 23andMe results on Twitter, for example, “it’s not really 23andMe’s problem, though it’s a hate speech issue,” Andrews said.
Other researchers say the problem is baked into the services themselves.
“The advertising, particularly by 23andMe, suggest that people discover the hidden truth about themselves, and distinctly ties genetic results to race and identity,” said Joan Donovan, coauthor of the study, presented at the American Sociological Association this week, that analyzed 3,070 Stormfront posts since 2004 that mentioned genetic ancestry testing.
“We have to ask the question why users from Stormfront would think that 23andMe has some answer for them with regard to racial purity in the first place,” Duana Fullwiley, associate professor of anthropology at Stanford University, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s sort of what they market.”
23andMe says that its service helps people find out about their geographic origins, not “race” per se. The company has done marketing campaigns that seek to raise awareness about refugees and break down racial stereotypes, not celebrate racial purity, Kill said.
On Friday, after this story was published, 23andMe outlined in a blog post its policy for policing hate speech and emphasized that it condemns racism: "There is no superior DNA; we are all from the same common ancestors and we share the same building blocks of life."
Fullwiley would like to see such services be more transparent about the limitations of genetic ancestry testing. In her view, basing the results on continents is crude, and propagates a misconception.
“You can have the false idea that this company can give you some kind of truth about your racial identity, and in fact it's a very partial truth that's very open to interpretation,” she said.
Fullwiley believes large services like 23andMe, with access to millions of customers who are looking for answers, should educate their audience, even if that means engaging in the technicalities of testing or methodology.
This effort is more pressing than attempting to play whack-a-mole on white supremacist chatter on social forums, she said.
“People are really hopeful that science will arbitrate racism. My point is: It won’t. They will find a way to affirm their racist beliefs elsewhere.”
This story has been updated to include a response from 23andMe about its marketing campaigns for its service.
This story has been updated with a reference to 23andMe's blog post on the subject.
Azeen Ghorayshi is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her PGP Fingerprint is 9739 9DAE 607E A66A 3683 AC20 E34B D2A0 8899 74C4
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Stephanie Lee is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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Nidhi Subbaraman is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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