A new interactive tool created by activists is attempting to track the physical location of trolls affiliated with the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, a step-up in the simmering online war between anti-fascists and the so-called “alt right.”
Announced on Jan. 28, the existence of “Fashmaps” has been slowly percolating through social media. It was created by a systems analyst using the alias “Simon,” who came up with the idea when he was trawling far-right message boards looking for neo-Nazis in his area that he could “doxx,” a tactic used by anti-fascists (aka antifa) to expose far-right actors’ true identities.
Daily Stormer, run by neo-Nazi troll Andrew Anglin, was forced underground by its website hosts in the wake of the violent protests last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, where marchers carried torches and chanted Nazi slogans. What “Simon” found is that on the meetup forums affiliated with the Daily Stormer, participants appeared to reveal the locations of their real-world gatherings. “I was surprised to find how freely they were talking about their locations,” Simon said.
Simon and his team of four create fake accounts (also known as “sock puppets”) and manually peruse the forums looking for meetups, often listed as innocuous-sounding events like “book clubs” and “pool parties,” to see if the organizer gives a location, as well as conversations related to the event.
From there, they plot their best approximation of the organizer's location on the map, and link to their profile. When there’s only a county to go off, Simon said, they plot the county seat on the map. As of last week, Simon had about 700 pins on the map, mostly in the United States, although there are some scattered across the United Kingdom, Australia, and South East Asia.
Simon insists that the purpose of the mapping tool isn’t to inspire violence against neo-Nazis. Instead, he says, the goal is to raise awareness of the neo-Nazis in communities, and to disrupt their online ecosystem and recruitment process. He also acknowledges there’s no proof that everyone hanging out in the Daily Stormer chat room is a neo-Nazi.
Brian Levin, criminology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said that people have a right to participate in political organizations privately. That right was determined through the 1958 Supreme Court ruling NAACP v. Alabama.
On the other hand, they are making their views known in a public space, the internet. “You’re going into today’s modern town square, the internet,” said Levin. “When people make pronouncements under that oak tree in the town square, their anonymity rights are limited.”
Aggregating information that was already publicly available without nefarious intent isn’t a problem, said Levin. “It’s perfectly ethical to expose someone with a screen name like ‘white power forever’ who is spreading fake information about race studies,” he said.
But it does get legally murky if the purpose of the map is to inspire others to real-world action. “People have the right to be nasty. And those who want to expose them in good faith to condemn their ideas, that’s appropriate,” said Levin. “What we can’t have is something that rises to the level of a network that attempts to do something more, like shut down their speech, and intimidation.”
On that, there is a parallel to the anti-abortion movement, which has worked to expose the identities of healthcare workers at abortion clinics. Levin referred to a case from the early 2000s involving Neal Horsley, a militant anti-abortion activist, who published names, home addresses, and other identifying information pertaining to abortion doctors, dubbed “The Nuremberg Files.” One abortion doctor in Buffalo, New York, was murdered — and his killer allegedly used the information from that website to track him down.
With Fashmaps, Simon and his team only publish information that was already publicly available, even if they’ve also been able to glean additional information from reading or participating in forums, such as relationship status or employment. In most cases, Fashmaps is only providing screen names or badges awarded by moderators such as “Banned from X-Box Live for Racism,” “Germanic Death Cult Member,” or “Savior of Aryan Princesses.”
He also concedes that Fashmaps is not providing proof of neo-Nazi activity. “We do worry about people doing stupid things without doing deeper research,” said Simon.
But he is trying to force the groups into a catch-22. If they want to recruit new members, they have to be public. But leaving discussions public also leaves them vulnerable to discovery by Fashmaps.
Some don’t seem to have any qualms about giving their full name, or even a picture.
For example, one user, purportedly a Patrick LaPorte IV, 35, from South Carolina, includes his full name and a photo on his profile. It appears to be the same LaPorte who has spoken publicly about his views in the past. He told the Wall Street Journal that he attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on the white supremacist side, and even brought a mouthguard with him in the event that he wound up brawling with protesters.
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.