When one of the polo-clad, tiki-torch wielding white supremacists at Charlottesville lost his job at a hot dog restaurant two nights ago, you could almost hear left wing Twitter breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps the social fabric of our country hadn't completely dissolved and there were still ramifications for appearing at a Neo-Nazi rally, even if the president was blaming "many sides" for the violence at Charlottesville.
Of course, social media mobs have a spotty record when it comes to identifying assailants, and the Charlottesville rally was no exception. Kyle Quinn, an engineer at the University of Arkansas, woke up to thousands of expletive-filled messages from strangers after he'd been misidentified as one of the Charlottesville marchers on Twitter.
But there wasn't much sympathy for those who'd been correctly identified as part of the racist horde. Some of those identified, like Peter Tefte, were publicly disowned by friends and family. Even Jon Ronson, author of a sympathetic book about those who'd been on the receiving end of public shaming, weighed in to say the shaming of white supremacists was justified. "[The Charlottesville white supremacists] were undisguised in a massively contentious rally surrounded by the media," Ronson wrote on Twitter in the midst of mob calls for justice. "There's a big difference between being a white power activist [or] white supremacist and being, say, Justine Sacco," he wrote, referring to the PR executive who was fired from her job after joking on Twitter about how white people can't get AIDS.
Online, white nationalists may use pseudonyms, VPNs, and other techniques to try to mask their identity out of fear of doxxing, or having their personal, sensitive information leaked online. But at Charlottesville, those who attended had no reasonable expectation of privacy, according to the organizers themselves.
"The difference between Charlottesville and other public events is that the organizers were saying 'Do not come to this event without the expectation of being doxxed,'" says Keegan Hankes, an analyst at Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. "They had some inkling [that they could be outed] given the furor in the weeks leading up to the event, where you saw things ramp up between some of the anti-fascist groups and some of the alt-righters online."
Groups like the League of the South urged members to prepare for violent confrontations with anti-fascists and protestors from Black Lives Matter. In a Facebook post which has since been deleted, the pro-Confederate organization also said the rally would "affirm the right of southerners and white people to organize for their own interests just like any other group is able to do, free of persecution".
Typically, Hankes says, white nationalists tend to be "incredibly conscientious" about concealing their identities. "They scrub images of any identifying details before they post them, they try not to post any personal information," he says. And for good reason. "There's a huge cost to being identified as a member of one of these groups because it makes you, in effect, unemployable by a lot of people."
In the days since the Charlottesville rally and as white nationalists have been identified in photos on social media, white supremacists have fretted —often self-pityingly—about the risks posed by social media mobs bent on exposing their identities. In one forum thread on the Daily Stormer, which recently went dark after being cut off by both Google and GoDaddy, a user lamented that the peril of doxxing made attending a rally too scary for him. "The thought of getting outed as 'white supremacists' to our employers and possibly losing our jobs is a horrifying prospect," the user Ignatz wrote. If forced to choose between a rally, which could bring him unwanted exposure, or supporting his white family, he says he would choose the latter.
It isn't any safer for those doing the doxxing or identifying. Logan Smith, the Twitter user behind Yes You're Racist, had been helping reveal the identities of white supremacists at the Charlottesville Rally. Smith told the News and Observer that his reporting had led to death threats. "They have been threatening my family, too. The overall response of course has been 99 percent positive, but there's always that extremely small but extremely loud and extremely angry minority that bites back." Logan's account also tweeted photos that were misidentified.
Sometimes alt-righters doxx each other, which isn't a surprise to Hankes. "The alt right is a group of malignant contrarians so they're constantly bickering with each other," says Hankes. "Charlottesville was an outlier in many respects because of how coordinated they were, and how they kept infighting to a minimum."
When high-profile neo-Nazis are doxxed, it can have ramifications for the entire movement, especially if the information that's revealed about a member proves to be inconsistent with their publicly professed ideology. Mike Pienovich, the leader of the alt-right website "The Right Stuff" and the propagator of a podcast called "The Daily Shoah," was doxxed in an anonymous Medium post which also revealed that the virulent anti-semite had a Jewish wife. (The two have since separated.) He later urged his thousands of listeners to bring weapons to the Charlottesville rally.
"When you see those articles that say, 'We can come out of the shadows now and we don't have to hide our identities,' that's pure bluster."
Those in the movement who would dare to self-doxx are in the minority, though they exist. "Of course you're going to have some of those guys who are out there publishing under their own names like Richard Spencer, and there's constant arguments among the right wingers about whether everyone should [go public]," says Hankes. In the forums, one user struck a defiant tone after being doxxed, vowing "never to cuck out" despite public threats against them. "But, by and large, people are scared because of the exact same reasons you'd expect," says Hankes. "It's hard to get a job, hard to make a living, hard to have a normal social life when all your friends and family know you believe in ethnic cleansing."
He thinks that the articles about the rise of the alt-right obscures the fact that few would actually wish to be identified with the movement. "When you see those articles that say, 'We can come out of the shadows now and we don't have to hide our identities,' that's pure bluster. That's them trying to embolden their supporters or bring more people into the fold who would otherwise be casual observers or just stay away, because they're afraid of the consequences of being involved," he says.
"The truth is, they're terrified."