How media helps the far-right recruit

Logo of the Neo-Nazi group American Identity Movement (Formerly Identity Evropa)

lmost every week there’s a news story about white nationalist posters appearing at some college campus or random neighborhood somewhere in the country. Most recently, it was San Jose State University. For their part, university officials did the right thing: They declined to release the name of the group or provide pictures of the flyers, denying them the publicity they sought.

But the group got their message out anyway. Shortly thereafter, the American Identitarian Movement (AmIM)—formerly known as Identity Evropa—took credit for the posters, and the local news couldn’t resist making a story out of it.

The Mercury News and the local ABC affiliate covered the announcement. Incredibly, both used images from AmIM’s own Twitter feed. The Mercury News went one step further and embedded a link to the account.

(Screenshot)

This is the best possible outcome for AmIM. Instead of being seen by only a handful of people, their posters were broadcast into thousands of households and shared all over the internet. The AmIm account has about 7,000 followers, whereas The Mercury News has nearly 240,000.

AmIM’s modus operandi is to have members upload pictures of their actions online. The idea is that the media outlet covering the incident will go straight to their account to get graphics.

From an AmIM training document titled “How We Poster:”

In order for this mission to be successful we must maximize the amount of people who see our activism. This means that it doesn’t matter if the flyers get torn down. Pictures of the flyers posted in each school will be uploaded to our social media accounts, naming the university or city.

The guidelines contain detailed instructions for taking photos of the flyers:

The camera is positioned close to the flyer, creating a loud and exciting aesthetic. The flyer is often photographed from an angle, creating more energy and also displaying what else is nearby.

They’re thinking in terms of creating something that the media can use.

A sample of the conversations from their chats in Discord:

(Unicorn Riot Discord Archives)

The Mercury News, which covers the south Bay Area, where AmIM was founded, doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to amplifying their message.

Last year, when AmIM was still called Identity Evropa, the newspaper devoted a lengthy article to a postering in Campbell. Not only did The Mercury News feature an image from Identity Evropa’s social media account—complete with the logo stamped on the corner—they even reached out to the group’s spokesperson for comment, allowing him several column inches to spew propaganda.

The Blowfish Strategy

Most white nationalist groups are relatively small. Though estimating membership is always tricky, a ballpark estimate for AmIM of between 200 to 300 could be made based on the number of active users on their Discord server. (Around 225 had posted more than 100 messages).

These groups use various tactics to present their organizations as much larger and better organized than they actually are. For example, in order to inflate their visibility, a number of groups at Unite the Right in Charlottesville passed out branded shields to anyone who would take them.

This backfired horribly for one neo-Nazi organization. Vanguard America gave its protest props to James Alex Fields, who would later drive his car through a crowd protestors, killing Heather Heyer and critically injuring more than two dozen.

Another stock tactic is postering out of town in places where they seek to expand. Sometimes members will drive hundreds of miles to put up posters in a town, hoping that it will make the news and create the impression that there’s a local presence.

(Credit: Unicorn Riot Discord Archives)

This is a time-tested method. White nationalists use their status as pariahs to their advantage, knowing that any time they poster an area or drop leaflets, it will be treated as news. They take the view that there’s “no such thing as bad publicity.”

Social media adds a new dimension. Before Twitter or Gab, old guard groups like the KKK set up recruitment hotlines. They deliberately targeted black neighborhoods to inflame controversy.

AmIM/Identity Evropa takes a different tack. They’re conscious to maintain the appearance of a legitimate organization. Their handbook emphasizes legalism in all activities and instructs members not to “place materials close to diversity centers, black fraternity or sorority houses, etc. Doing so could constitute intimidation, which is not what we’re going for.”

Leaked training materials show how the group tries to avoid using terms like “ethnostate” that could be used to brand them as white nationalists. Members are instructed to adopt phrases that are more common among the broader right, such as “chain migration.” Their server even observes a “No Nazi stuff” rule in case they’re infiltrated by antifascist groups.

This strategy pays off to a certain extent by making them more media friendly. Reporters who would never in a million years speak to a Grand Dragon feel comfortable calling them for comment or (interviewing them on national television.)

Well-intentioned media always aim for balance but these groups don’t deserve fair treatment. Regardless of how badly they are presented—ex. most articles point out AmIM’s involvement in organizing the deadly Charlottesville rally—any amount of media coverage can be used to the group’s advantage.

The Mercury News printed the AmIM spokesman’s inflated estimate of the group’s membership. He claimed it had 1,000 members nationwide and 200 in the Bay Area alone. While there were roughly 900 users on their Discord servers (as of mid-2018), fewer than half had posted more than 10 times.

‘Anonymous tipsters’

AmIM doesn’t just put up posters and wait for the media to respond, either. Someone usually calls in a tip to the local news.

(Unicorn Riot Discord Archives)

In Seattle, local media have been taken by this tactic. Last year, the alt-weekly The Stranger received two reports about stickers and posters around South Lake Union from people claiming to be Amazon employees .

The composition of the photos matches the style specified in the AmIM handbook, while the quotes from the “anonymous tipsters” read like bad white nationalist parodies of a woke liberal:

The photo attributed to an “anonymous tipster” conforms to the AmIM guidelines for composition: “Be sure to capture the flyer or sticker in one half of the shot, and the hallways, courtyard, street, etc. in the other half. We want our audience to see where these are taken.” (Screencap / SLOG)

“I am literally shaking” is a well-known catchphrase that became popular in 2016 among the alt-right. It appears in memes showing a “triggered lib” freaking out.

It’s a safe bet that at least one of these “anonymous tipsters” was Spencer Sturdevant, the Seattle-area coordinator for AmIM. He posts identical pictures to the group’s Discord under the name Niko-WA.

Dos and Don’ts

The media should rethink how it covers white nationalism—specifically how (and if) Neo-Nazi postering should be reported on.

The newsworthiness of neo-Nazi posters is ostensibly based on the potential impact on the communities where they are posted—and therein lies the contradiction. Their impact is limited until it is magnified by the press.

Then there’s also the (correct) assumption that neo-Nazis pose a threat and therefore the community needs to be alerted about their presence. But this renders nonsensical the actions of media like The Mercury News. If they’re a threat, why cover them fairly?

In certain specific contexts, there is news value in reporting on white nationalist posters, such as when these actions are clearly intended to threaten or intimidate members of religious, racial or ethnic minority groups. The flyering incidents at synagogues in the Seattle area this month are a good example.

Avoid covering when possible, but adopt the following best practices if you do:

  • DON’T: Provide any contact information, websites or social media accounts. Also, avoid showing or discussing the content of the posters. If you must include pictures of the posters, blur out any website names or other contact details. Try not to name the organization at all.
  • DO: Center the experiences of those affected. Interview residents of the neighborhood where the flyers appeared. If applicable, speak to leaders of the mosque, synagogue or other organization directly impacted.
  • DON’T: Reach out to white nationalist organization for comment. They will use the incident to their advantage. Don’t let yourself be a useful idiot.
  • DO: Interview counter-extremism experts who have detailed knowledge of the groups and can contextualize the content of the posters. They can break down all the dogwhistles and coded language, providing a better understanding of the intent behind the messaging.
  • DON’T: Report on individual incidents. The goal of frequent postering actions is to keep the organizations’ name in the news and “[s]ignal to [their] supporters on social media that [they] can coordinate large-scale operational activities and that [they] are a national organization that [people might] want to become a part of,” to quote AmIM’s postering guidelines.
  • DO: Report on incidents in aggregate. Instead of individual stories, write longer, more in-depth articles about how Neo-Nazi postering events are increasing in certain areas. Ex. “Neo-Nazis increasingly targeting synagogues and mosques with propaganda” “Sightings of white nationalist flyers becoming more common on campus”

In 2018, the ADL reported a nearly 200 percent increase in postering incidents last year, primarily driven by AmIM/Identity Evropa (312) and Patriot Front (324).

Posting flyers has become the primary political activity of organized neo-Nazi groups. As ADL Director Jonathan Greenblatt points out: “Hate groups were emboldened in 2018, but their increasing reliance on hate leafleting indicates that most of their members understand this is a fringe activity and are unwilling to risk greater public exposure or arrest.”

The media plays a crucial role in spreading their propaganda. If they can’t recruit, their organizations will stagnate. At the same time, individual members will become disillusioned with constantly doing fruitless “activism” and drop out.

There are ways that the media can disseminate information about these events to the public without amplifying Neo-Nazi messages—but they don’t create profit for the outlets.

The best course of action is to avoid writing articles about these events altogether. Instead, forward information to directly to community groups, anti-racist activists, churches, synagogues, mosques and national organizations that track extremism.

Only when members of the media prioritize their duty to serve the public over clicks and ad revenue will these organizations lose steam and die out.

CORRECTION: The original version of the article incorrectly assumed that the source of a tip in a story by The Stranger blog about Identity Evropa flyerings in Seattle was a member of the group. The author of that blog post informed me that the source was an acquaintance of hers. We regret the error.

Journalist, socialist, activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store