Becoming a member of a private mobile group chat for white supremacist teenagers was surprisingly easy. There was no secret password. There was no initiation. I didn't need to recite any Aryan pride credos, disparage any minorities, or even divulge my identity — which is probably a good thing, since I'm a 30-year-old reporter with a last name that isn't fooling anybody.
No, all I had to do to join up was create an account on Kik, the mobile messaging service that boasts more than 200 million users, as many humans as there are in Brazil. And then I had to have a 14-line chat with the gatekeeper to the group, a guy who calls himself "Pa." It went exactly like this:
Me: Hey- can I join the sf [Stormfront] group?
Pa: Yeah,you affiliated with any aryan gangs?
Pa: Religious in anyway?
Me: Not particularly
Pa: Like how?
Me: I don't really go to church or anything
Pa: So you'd be Christian,sort of like me tho
Don't bother going to mass
Kind of person
Me: Yeah sounds about right
Pa: Where are you from?
Pa: Alright I'm from Ireland
I'll add you in so,
Me: Oh cool, thanks pa
Pa: Alright then
With that, I was free to observe "White Pride World Wide," where every day 50 mostly anonymous teenage users, 50 mostly anonymous users claiming to be teenagers, or most likely some combination thereof, gather in a rolling discussion of the imperiled future of the white race, the nefarious influence of immigrants and hot-blooded interlopers dating back to Romans in Celtic Ireland, and the dangers posed by Jewish control of contemporary culture. They also discuss selfie sticks, steel beams, and rare Pepes. It's 2015, and they're teenagers.
I learned of White Pride World Wide (WPWW) through a thread in the "Youth" subsection of Stormfront, the internet's leading white nationalist forum. In the aftermath of last month's massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, dozens of reporters — including myself — swarmed the white supremacist web in an attempt to track terrorist Dylann Roof's ideological roots. "Youth," dedicated to "White Nationalist issues among teens," was a natural place to try to figure out how the old ideas of white supremacy are being translated to a new generation — to Roof's generation.
While federal authorities have disclosed that Roof was in contact with white supremacists online, he doesn't seem to have left behind much writing on the web besides his now-infamous 2,500-word manifesto. That document trotted out tried and true, even hoary, tropes of American white supremacism; with the exception of a few mentions of the internet, much of it could have been written at any point since the end of Jim Crow.
And while that could well turn out to be the extent of his online communication, my time in WPWW convinced me that our picture of the white supremacist internet is strikingly outdated, incomplete. For all the press it has received in recent weeks, Stormfront (and its ilk) is old and ugly technology, a web forum (with flat membership) and a complementary talk radio show run and hosted by a 61-year-old former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan whom some posters on WPWW deride as an old crank. The 'Youth' subforum receives a few posts a day, if that.
On the other hand, the Kik group is optimized, instantaneous, integrated. Some days see hundreds of posts. This is white supremacism that looks like today's social internet — comprising many forms of media and users from around the world, weirdly irreverent, continuous. As one poster, who said he is an 18-year-old living in Stockholm, told me, "We use it because we are able to communicate across borders and timezones, instantly without the delay of a forum or website."
This shouldn't come as a surprise. While the basic messages of white supremacy remain constant, the media by which they are delivered change with technology. From fabricated "firsthand" pamphlets (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), to mass market paperbacks (The Turner Diaries), white supremacist messages migrated to ham radio, entered the digital era on bulletin board systems like the Liberty Bell Net, skipped over to Usenet groups and then made the jump to the World Wide Web on sites like Stormfront. But today, of course, it's in an app. And an instant delivery messaging app, one that is likely valued at billions of dollars, at that.
This is the white supremacism of the future, and for two weeks I had a front row seat.
The first lesson I learned from White Pride World Wide was to turn off push notifications. The volume of chat the group produces is overwhelming no matter how you consume it, one message at time or in great big chunks. It was disorienting; Sometimes it took five minutes of catch up reading just to figure out what the hell everyone was talking about. The group is so prolific in part because its members span time zones, an ocean. In the two weeks I observed the chat I found members from the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Sweden, and the Netherlands. There are almost certainly more nations represented. That lends credence to the argument, recently made in several places, that parochial white hate groups are becoming a thing of the past, that white supremacy has become well and truly global. It led to some strange admixtures: At one point Pa changed his posting handle to "Ian Smith was #based."
For the record, that made the administrator of the group an Irish teenager paying tribute to the prime minister of Rhodesia in language borrowed from a black Bay Area rapper.
Though a handful of posters preemptively mourned the Confederate flag, good old-fashioned American racism was relatively rare, perhaps because there were so few posters with whom it would resonate. Yes, there were the requisite repugnant jokes about the intelligence of African-Americans and the work habits of Mexican-Americans, and yes, there were the requisite conspiracy theories about Jewish dominance of finance and the media. But much more common were discussions about the relative racial purity of different white nations and the dissolution of white European culture.
This led to some incredibly strange debates. Right after Pa gave me access to WPWW, I found myself trying to follow a passionate argument about the effect of medieval Viking raids on Gaelic Ireland. Pa, who posts on Stormfront as HeathenIrishGael, was trying to convince another poster, a Dutch girl named Matilda1488, that the Norsemen, much romanticized among white nationalists, had committed atrocities against his ancestors:
"Well they burnt my country to the groun,sacked the church,burnt MY village to the ground,sacked my family."
Matilda1488, whose profile picture looked suspiciously like a Tinder bot, responded that, basically, Vikings will be Vikings: "No other occupation was available to them. Farming was a no go. I'm sure it wasn't personal."
This got Pa going. "They wanted to destroy Christiandom here,they burnt kicked my moms family out of limerick and made an exclusion zone for Gaels outside its walls. My village still bares the destruction of the Danes."
Pa posted a picture of ruins, set against a blue sky.
By the next day, Matilda had quit the group. Losing a female contributor wasn't good — later on Pa would joke, "1 girl wanted. Just 1." But it wasn't catastrophic. As one frequent poster reasoned, she was hot, but she wasn't "Eva Braun tier."
Anyways, these kinds of arguments were rare, and only happened when white-on-white violence tugged at the seams of the group's ideology. Whenever these disputes did flare up —as one did about the war in Ukraine — there was always someone there to remind the group of its true function:
Trolling is a major feature of WPWW, and it was difficult to distinguish its members from the frequent posters on any misanthropic chan or subreddit festering in the penetralia of the internet, for whom racism is a shock tactic rather than a belief system. A lot of the mocking language in the group ("You transgender pan sexual mocca frapacino latte fluid based homosexual"; "No, you cis scum, I'm a trans hippopotamus") was completely of a piece with the trolls of the wider internet.
A favorite pastime of WPWW is joining other Kik groups and harassing their members. Targets while I was in WPWW included a transgender group called "No Dudes. No Nudes." and a group for suicidal teens. There was something so surreal about a Kik group called White Pride World Wide attacking a group with an LGBT hashtag, about in-group/out-group dynamics that were entirely virtual and yet rendered so completely literal through the naming conventions of the app-based internet, that I felt like I was watching a dark, dark satire rather than real humans tapping furiously at iPhone screens.
This surreality made me wonder if the posters themselves were old enough to distinguish fantasy from reality, whether their involvement with the group was a form of adolescent role-play. The users regularly posted selfies for one another, often with arms flexed and jaws clenched, sometimes shirtless. A 16-year-old named Dave was the most frequent selfie poster, and at one point he uploaded a series of portraits in a black-and-white floral print kimono and a blonde wig. His intention was to cosplay as a manga character; he's holding a manga in his right hand and has a blade up his sleeve. But the effect was draglike, and the other posters made gentle fun of him. Another poster wrote longingly about his desire to look more Aryan, and he showed the group the blue colored contacts he bought to that end. To say the group has homoerotic undertones would be an understatement.
At times WPWW simply struck me as a way for lonely, bored, and confused teenagers to blow off steam and to try on new identities — political, sexual, and otherwise. I would later find out that WPWW had splintered from a more extreme Kik group three months earlier, after "skinheads" in the former group objected to the part-Jewish ancestry of a frequent poster. A lot of the chat in the group had absolutely nothing to do with white supremacy. The members shared arty travel photos, swapped computer advice, bemoaned their lack of success with girls. Pa talked about his desire to become a manga artist. Another poster wrote about traveling around Europe to teach English. Some posters pondered joining the military. On July 4, Dave posted a selfie holding a rifle in one hand and a Miller Lite in the other, wearing a redneck's uniform of red and black checked flannel and a white baseball cap that read "Heritage." In the top corners of the image he had superimposed a Confederate flag and a NASCAR logo. Irony is not a quality I tend to associate with hardcore race warriors.
And yet every time I found myself thinking the members of the group were just dumb and harmless kids, they would bring the subject back to guns. Guns were a major preoccupation of WPWW: which countries made the best ones, which gun dealers were sympathetic to white nationalism, where to stock up on ammunition. Though the posters heaped scorn on Dylann Roof, they seemed more ambivalent about mass child killer Anders Breivik, and also about Varg Vikernes, the notorious Norwegian musician and neo-Nazi who served 16 years in prison for murder and arson. "I've exchanged emails with Varg," wrote one poster. "He was nice😅."
And they kept posting a photoshopped image that they found hilarious, about murdering gay people.
Pa in particular talked about guns a lot. He asked the group what people were doing "to prepare for any wars"; he spoke of a need to purchase a "British assault vest,preferably one with a place I can put a knife by my left shoulder"; he fantasized about murdering a Jewish Irish politician:
The juxtapositions in the chat were absurd, the way terminally ironic internet humor sat next to actual hatred, sometimes even within the same sentence or image. Even the teens in the group noticed it. During Pa's rant, Keaton joked: "Could you imagine Pa shooting up Ireland and the authorities going through his phone and finding all the memes and rare pepes?"
After two weeks of watching White Pride World Wide, I posted for the first time. That was for a few reasons. First, Pa kept threatening to ban me for lurking. Kik groups take a maximum of 50 people, which means admins constantly need to prune noncontributing members. Second, while I hadn't lied or misrepresented myself to the group — I hadn't communicated with any of them except Pa — I did want to ask them some direct questions, and to do that I had to introduce myself.
The reaction was swift. One poster found and posted my BuzzFeed bio and asked, "Will my pic get on buzzfeed?" Another wrote, "Fuck off kike I ain't helping you spread you're Jewish propaganda Your." The first reconsidered: "Go away Joe."
And just like that, I was removed from the group. I didn't get to ask any questions. At least not right away.
Over the next 24 hours, a handful of members reached out to me. First it was a poster named DeusVult, from Sweden, who was cordial and described his opposition to "the systematic deconstruction of european culture and heritage." Then a poster named Comrade 卐 sent me a YouTube video titled "Auschwitz Vs. Science" and in a tone I found both insultingly pedantic and somehow touching, informed me, "The holocaust never happened the way you were told and brainwashed. I shall not speak to you until you have watched this documentary. From there we shall continue this chat." Next, a poster with the handle ConfederateCam and a Confederate flag for a photo wrote to say, "Hey, you better not publish this article, you hear." I imagined him shaking his fist, or at least sending a fist emoji.
Finally, at 3:37 a.m. the morning after I, as he put it, "revealed myself," Dave messaged me. "Hello!" he wrote. "To not be hostile: Get all the info you're looking for."
I was glad Dave contacted me. Due to his role as the goofus of the chat — in the screwy way he played dress up, in his obvious devotion to manga and nerd culture — I had him pegged as the "good" one or at least the "least bad" one, a misguided but possibly decent boy in a very regrettable stage of his life. But there was something about Dave that bothered me, that threw this judgment off. He sometimes shared elaborate "prank" ideas with the group, like secret racist Jackass sketches in which he would play a white power Johnny Knoxville. In one, he wrote that he was going to the party of a Jewish classmate, and to the delight of the group asked whether he should goad her father into talking about the Holocaust. In another scenario Dave shared, he said he would go to downtown Philadelphia with a Confederate flag and a GoPro, and provoke a black person into attacking him.
"I can release it saying 'Peaceful protester attacked by angry racist individual,'" he had written. He was the only poster on WPWW who actually posted tangible plans, ones that seemed capable of making the leap from fantasy into reality.
I asked Dave whether he really believed all the stuff in White Pride World Wide. He responded that yes, he largely did: "I am one of the few National Socialists left in the group. Not a skinhead, just a NS. And yes, I, to an extent, believe the white race is superior...That does not mean I want genocide among the others."
Then I asked Dave if he had carried out his provocations, which he referred to as "social experiments." He said he hadn't. He wasn't "stupid enough" to reveal his belief as a National Socialist to his classmates, and as far as the flag stunt, he told me he was still "collecting supplies."
Later, I found Dave's Instagram. There were dozens of pictures of him cosplaying in downtown Philadelphia, of painted Warhammer figurines, of Dave shoulder to shoulder with nonwhite classmates, looking happy. There were also photos of Hitler and of German and Polish officials signing the Non-Aggression Pact between those nations in 1934.
I didn't see how these things could co-exist, how Dave could be an affable screwball in an obviously multicultural environment while posting crap like that to Instagram. But then again, he had a portal in his pocket to a world of words and media that embodied the exact same tension, between the frivolity and plurality of internet culture and the very serious hatreds of white nationalism. Maybe, I started to think, that's just what the future of white supremacy looks like, on a medium so fast and so porous: Contradictory, absurd, occasionally terrifying — and comfortable with it.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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