Why the Internet’s most vile hate group should take responsibility for the Charleston killings

This is how white supremacy spreads.

In the wake of nine murders committed by a young white supremacist in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we’ve yet again begun the Sisyphean task of figuring out how to stop mass shootings. Politicians promise us a debate on gun control; in his recent White House address, Obama lamented that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” but that wider political conversation isn’t coming. 

Experts might argue for the very real benefits of improving our disastrous mental health system, but that would require functional legislatures to fix.

On Wednesday evening, 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot nine black churchgoers in Charleston as an act of terrorism. He had a clear political agenda centered on the oppression and elimination of black people, much like the ideology represented by white power websites like Stormfront and r/CoonTown, a subreddit devoted to anti-black and anti-immigrant hate speech.

In a photo from Roof’s Facebook page, his jacket is adorned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a country whose violent, storied history speaks volumes about his personal racism. As the Daily Dot’s Ned Donovan explains, if you haven’t heard of the country, there’s a reason why.

“[I]t’s also because Rhodesia never formally existed,” Donovan wrote. “It was a breakaway state formed in 1965, after the U.K. told its African colonies that unless they embraced black majority rule, they could never be granted full independence. This doctrine was slowly followed by all 22 British colonies in the region except Southern Rhodesia. Its whites, who made up 4 percent of the territory’s population, refused, and unilaterally declared independence on November 11, 1965.”

We’ve yet again begun the Sisyphean task of figuring out how to stop mass shootings. 

On the same day that the Supreme Court said the state of Texas could legally refuse to put a Confederate flag on a state-issued license plate, images of Roof’s car spread through cable news and social media, itself adorned with a “Confederate States of America” license plate. It’s clear Roof was a devoted participant in the white nationalist movement, which proudly calls Stormfront its home.

Stormfront, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is the project of Don Black, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Like many hate groups, Stormfront has a strict policy against threats or calls for violence, preferring to portray itself a celebration of racial pride, not of racial hate. Indeed, Stormfront members largely took to the site to decry the actions of Roof, calling him “lower than negro” and criticizing his selection of a Christian target. Similar discussions transpired on r/CoonTown.

If Roof does admit to visiting Stormfront, he wouldn’t be the only confirmed killer who’s visited the site. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), members of the site have independently committed over 100 lethal hate crimes since 2009 and its user base has a disproportionately large murder rate overall. 

Perhaps the most notorious killer born from Stormfront is Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who walked onto a school campus and killed 77 people with an automatic rifle. According to SPLC, Breivik was a dedicated user of Stormfront and frequently took to the site to advocate for the elimination of all European Muslims.

Most users of Stormfront and /r/CoonTown have worked very hard to distance themselves from people like Breivik and Roof. Statements like “Dylann Roof Was Right But His Solution Was Wrong” have become a mantra on these forums. “A church full of Christian black people is most likely not our enemy,” said one poster

These groups were quick to blame society at large for the shooting. Talking about the media’s coverage of hate groups, one Stormfront member said, “They ignore the effect that massive non-white immigration and just too much immigration in general has on the white working class poor and how it pushes people over the edge. It is the elites that make these things happen, not us.”

Like many hate groups, Stormfront has a strict policy against threats or calls for violence, preferring to portray itself a celebration of racial pride, not of racial hate. 

These disclaimers are an attempt to separate white nationalists from the violence they undoubtedly inspire. It relies on the false belief that racism of any kind can be a foundation for rational thought, instead of an breeding ground for dangerous behaviors.

Perhaps the best corollary for how Stormfront fosters hate crimes while not blatantly encouraging them is the dense pro-anorexia movement online, wherein young girls attempt to define anorexia as a lifestyle, not an illness. According to a 2010 Stanford study of pro-anorexia websites, such forums “can help reinforce disordered eating patterns,” meaning they assist in the mental deterioration of their users.

Stormfront and sites like it have a similar effect on their own disturbed users, convincing them that their delusions of racial prejudice are justified by overexposing them to examples of black-on-white crime or driving them further into conspiratorial thought. 

Richard Poplawski, a frequent visitor to Stormfront, shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers to thwart what he saw as a coming Zionist takeover. More than any other hate crime associated with Stormfront, this incident was laid at the feet of the site and its user base. Heidi Berich, director of research at the SPLC, cited Poplawski’s actions as an example of how vulnerable users are “being sucked into this conspiracy world and propagating violence.”

By banning violent threats and offering absurd policy prescriptions (“Reparations for slavery in the form of a free one-way trip to Africa and $5000 cash”), most users would like to portray themselves as the moderate foil to Roof’s extremism. But there is no moderation of what is, at its core, an unhealthy and violent delusion: that society can be improved by the elimination of another race from their lives. 

For too long, Stormfront and a growing collection of racist subreddits have rested on the idea that they never actually suggest violent action as a solution. Despite the constant correlation between lethal hate crimes and these sites, their users are comforting themselves with the false belief that one needs to say “go kill these people” to actively encourage their death.

It relies on the false belief that racism of any kind can be a foundation for rational thought, instead of an breeding ground for dangerous behaviors.

Far from being doe-eyed innocents, Stormfront users are stoking the fires that encourage people like Dylann Roof to commit such atrocities. They are supplying the irrational thought processes that have, time and time again, encouraged angry white men to seek relief through murder and mayhem. The attempts by these groups to distance themselves from the murders they rouse is nothing more than a self-defense mechanism, protecting the sites from legal action and their users from guilt. 

But its unlikely the white supremacy movement will grow a conscience after Roof. They’d rather pretend they have nothing to do with it at all.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via EmilioKuffer/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.