In his now-infamous manifesto, Dylann Roof, the racially-motivated white terrorist who murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, describes the pseudo-logic that became the foundation of his racist ideology. After analyzing “The Last Rhodesian,” the website where Roof published the manifesto, the Southern Poverty Law Center theorized that Roof might have been an active member of at least one popular white supremacy blog.
Some of Roof’s writing seemingly matched up with comments left on The Daily Stormer, a white supremacy aggregation website that occasionally generates its own content. The SPLC’s theory that Roof was likely involved in hate-focused forums makes sense, but the way that the media’s been speaking about these online groups is a little off. We're treating them as an emerging threat, when they're really more of a sideshow.
In 1995 Don Black, a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan and notable member of the American Nazi Party, founded Stormfront, one of the internet’s largest neo-Nazi websites, with the goal of “[taking] America back.” According to Stormfront’s administrators, the site’s maintained its position as one of the Internet’s most popular white supremacist websites, a claim that Stormfront likes to substantiate by publishing its monthly traffic for the public to see.
Here’s the thing, though: when you look at the data that Stormfront shares about its monthly traffic, it isn’t all that much to write home about.
According to the most recently published statistics, Stormfront’s traffic over the past three months was about 2 million unique visitors. That averages out to about 600,000 unique visits per month. r/CoonTown, another virulent bastion for online racists, sports similarly low traffic compared to the rest of Reddit, the network of forums it's built into. To put that in context, r/AskReddit averages about 17,590,748 uniques each month over the same period. (It's worth pointing out that unique visits are a tricky metric to make sense of considering that a single person can create multiple uniques by visiting the same page with different browsers. This means that technically all of the sites' legit traffic could be much smaller.)
Black didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
It makes sense that Stormfront, the fringe racist forum founded by a Klansman, wouldn’t quite stack up to the most popular forum on the Internet. But the numbers say something important about the current state of organized, extremely racist, online communities.
Groups like Stormfront and the Daily Stormer desperately depend on the public perception that they are legion — ready and willing to indoctrinate new, young minds into their twisted belief systems. Stormfront’s been around for more than 20 years now, but the numbers show that the community isn’t exactly growing.
Stormfront only publishes the last three months of its traffic data to the public, but you can look at its most recent graphs and see that people are coming to the site steadily, though not in generally increasing numbers. There was a brief spike in traffic on June, 18, the day after the Charleston shooting. Otherwise, though, Stormfront's got a pattern. Every month, the same group of diehard racists direct their attention to sites like Stormfront and have their prejudices affirmed by the same tired narratives. These headlines aren’t really scary as much as they’re laughable:
Writing for BuzzFeed, Joseph Bernstein describes the current difficulties Stormfront is dealing with when it comes to its international members skirting the legal loopholes the site uses to justify its speech. Stormfront officially prohibits express calls for violence against the minorities it hates, but those rules are proving difficult to enforce in its predominantly non-English sub-forums.
“We don’t necessarily know what’s going on in these forums,” Stormfront founder Don Black explained to BuzzFeed. “But there’s nothing we can do about that except prohibit the discussion of illegal violence.”
While Stormfront struggles to covers its own tracks and remain to be relevant to the neo-Nazi community, other corners of the internet are taking a stance against their type of thinking. New, fresh-faced racists like Dylann Roof are definitely out there, but their presences online are being actively watched and policed by their peers on new social networks like Reddit and Tumblr.
Fear forums like Stormfront and the Daily Stormer are only a small part of the problem at hand. People like Dylann Roof are a very real social issue that deserve our collective attention and concern, but it's dangerous and ultimately irresponsible to chalk their actions up entirely to being radicalized online as part of a mass white supremacist movement.
We’re talking about what happened in Charleston in a way that's different than the conversations we've had about other racially-charged events in the past few months. We acknowledged that Dylann Roof is a terrorist and that his actions were the result of deeply-rooted, infrastructural racism. Let’s not waste this valuable moment in history worrying about a struggling community of trolls.