This story was originally published by WIRED

ON SATURDAY, AT a Charlottesville, Virginia, rally populated by alt-right activists and white supremacists, a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring 19 and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The man arrested in connection with the murder, James Alex Fields Jr., had previously posted white nationalist symbols, alt-right memes, and even a photo of Hitler as a baby to his Facebook page. Now alt-right message boards and leading figures are attempting to disown not just Fields but Saturday’s violent gathering as a whole, in part by going into full damage-control mode.

For months going on years, online forums like Reddit and 4chan have fostered a growing contingent of disenfranchised, young, (mostly) white men who have railed against calls for diversity and inclusion. In the process, they have demonized minorities and progressive values. In practical terms, this has meant flirting with—if not directly embracing—white supremacy as the solution to their problems. The alt-right can’t disavow the events of the Unite the Right rally, because that rally was a product of an environment they’ve spent years making.

“There’s no question that the conditions by which people feel emboldened, the condition under which people’s attitudes are supported and elevated on these types of forums, certainly create the conditions that makes this type of violence possible,” says Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor at New York University who focuses on race and digital media.

Fields appears specifically connected to Vanguard America, a group that the Anti-Defamation League defines as “a white supremacist group that opposes multiculturalism and believes that America is an exclusively white nation.” You might have seen one of several videos floating around of Vanguard America members, who all donned white polos and khakis in Charlottesville Saturday, chanting “blood and soil” as they marched through the streets. The phrase refers to a defining Nazi ideology that emphasized the idea that German blood belonged on German soil. In Vanguard America’s case, it represents the notion that the blood of white people somehow has a “special bond” to American soil.

Vanguard America issued the following statement late Saturday evening: “The driver of the vehicle that hit counter protestors today was, in no way, a member of Vanguard America. All our members had been safely evacuated by the time of the incident. The shields seen do not denote membership, nor does the white shirt. The shields were freely handed out to anyone in attendance. All our members are safe an [sic] accounted for, with no arrests or charges.”

Regardless of whether Fields was an official member, he was clearly involved enough to know about the meeting place, the chants, and the dress code. The group also made no attempt to denounce Fields, nor did it express remorse for the lives that were lost. Currently, Vanguard America’s pinned tweet reads, “Stand up, White man. This is your fight. Become a man of action, become a part of the Vanguard. #VanguardAmerica.”

But even beyond the actions of Fields, or any specific white supremacist group, the rhetoric of alt-right groups online promoted both the Charlottesville rally and, by extension, the confrontations that arose from it. On Sunday, the alt-right Reddit group r/The_Donald attempted to distance itself from the previous day’s events. One post in particular declared that those who weren’t present at the rally could in no way be complicit in what happened there.

But for the entire week prior to the event, that same subreddit promoted the rally with a thread stuck to the top of the page.

The original post itself was deleted at some point on Saturday, but archived versions of it survive on both Internet Archive and

Archive version of Unite the Right promotion on r/The_Donald via
In the post, user John3Sobieski notes that while “many of the people who will be there are National Socialist and Ethnostate sort of groups,” he does not “endorse them.” However, he then goes on to say, “In this case, the pursuit of preserving without shame white culture, our goals happen to align. I’ll be there regardless of the questionable company because saving history is more important than our differences.”

Archived version of Unite the Right promotion on r/The_Donald via
Another (now deleted) post from Reddit user WeLoveTrump2016 asserts that attending the rally and standing up to “radical leftist terrorism” is a moral imperative: “It is one thing to say you believe in Free Speech. It is another to stand up for the first amendment in the face of thousands of violent Marxists. If the leftists can shut down this event, then they will shut down ours too through the same intimidation and literal terrorism. This rally is a matter of Civil Rights and preserving American History and Heritage. … We cannot allow BLM and Antifa terrorists to succeed in demolishing our rights to speak and peacefully assemble.” (“Antifa” is technically a group that opposes fascism, though the alt-right uses the term as a pejorative to describe any organized left-wing group.)

Simply deleting these threads doesn’t remove the r/The_Donald’s association with what happened. It also doesn’t erase the cumulative posts that target minorities and advocate for white supremacy.

“It’s something that we saw over and over again happening throughout Donald Trump’s campaign,” says McIlwain. “Not calling out racism and white supremacy, not actively trying to voice concerns about it—much less ramping it up by contributing in terms of language or making room for overt and explicit displays of racism—all of those figure into the picture that contributes to what we saw Saturday. All of that contributes to an environment that makes those types of actions possible, that makes them kind of likely.”

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of the nuance that some of these organizations were trying to think through and communicate would be lost, and that people would devolve to a lowest-common-denominator kind of thinking, which is an America for white Americans versus all others,” says Safiya Umoja Noble, assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and the author of The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online.

Over on 4chan’s politics board, which has often acted as a sort of catch-all for opinions and ideas that are too unsavory even for Reddit, explicit discussions about preserving the white race are a daily occurrence, as are the racial slurs and pejoratives that

As recently as June 29, one 4chan user recommended that another join Vanguard America—though the user warned the organization isn’t “really into street combat.” Another user offered, “If you want to stomp some Antifa, you are going to have to meet people IRL in an antifa-infested area.” These sorts of comments are rarely (if ever) condemned, and more often than not encouraged.

But in the wake of Charlottesville, the focus shifted to deflection. Both 4Chan and Reddit also embraced the notion that Charlottesville was a “false flag,” a staged effort by shadowy forces to effectively frame the alt-right for violence. And in a thread titled “DMG CONTROL alt right,” users explicitly sought ways “to stand up and show that the MSM [or mainstream media] narrative is false. It’s the only way of getting normies back onto our side.”

In that same damage-control thread, one user laid the alt-right connection to white nationalism out in relatively explicit terms: “The Alt-Right is an attempt to rebrand WN. Using ironic memes and terms that don’t mean anything to our enemies but normies find funny and actually lead people to develop a race-based political consciousness is what it is all about. If you are arguing that we should always be pragmatic and open minded and we should bully larpers [live action roll-players] into fucking off then nobody in the modern movement really disagrees with you.”

On Sunday, Reddit threads titled things like “Painting Trump supporters and the right as violent white supremacists IS AN ORGANIZED, DELIBERATE SMEAR CAMPAIGN by leftist smear groups such as Media Matters. The fake MSM are all a part of the campaign” and “REMINDER: Antifa are literally showing up at Trump rallies disguised as ‘Trump supporters’ giving Nazi salutes” have been garnering significant support. The latter currently has over 7,000 upvotes.

In a video posted Saturday entitled, “EXCLUSIVE: Virginia Riots Staged To Bring In Martial Law, Ban Conservative Gatherings,” Alex Jones, the man Donald Trump praised as having an “amazing reputation,” explains, “It’s in the WikiLeaks that they want to cause a race war, the Democrats, because they’re losing. The Republican leadership is just as bad; they’re a part of it.” According to Jones, globalist elites staged the violence in Charlottesville in order to trigger a national emergency that will eventually allow them to enact martial law and stop any sort of demonstration from ever happening again. All of which is to say, according to Jones, none of this is the alt-right’s fault. In fact, they were set up.

4chan, too, has grasped on to the idea that the deaths at Saturday’s rallies might have been planned by the left or, in some instances, the CIA. One user wrote that it “appears to be the perfect set-up to win sympathy for the violent left, while demonizing the right.”

“It’s a false distinction to say what happens on the internet isn’t happening in the real world,” Noble says. “People are acting on their beliefs always, in various different moments of their lives. Of course we should continue to expect to see people like Dylan Roof, and people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, we should expect to see people who have used these internet and online spaces to think and ideate, we should expect to continue to see people doing and acting in the world upon those ideas.”

Was Trump’s alleged slur actually racist?

This story originally published by BBC News

Charlton McIlwain, professor and dean at NYU, and Drew Liquerman of Republicans Overseas, offer contradicting opinions on the matter.

Yes, it was racist
Mr McIlwain: Yesterday, Donald Trump said African and Haitian immigrants hail from “shithole countries”. A little black girl and child of Haitian immigrants I know overheard. Unprompted, and defiant she responded to her mother: “Donald Trump is a shithole!” The word itself was foreign to her, but she intuitively understood the words were derogatory, demeaning – racist. In Trump’s words she recognised a constellation of associations and inferences that Trump drew on to make this so.

A statement is racist when it explicitly denigrates and/or asserts as true a negative, longstanding stereotype about an entire group of people, signalled by the colour of their skin. “Shithole” fits the bill in the vilest way. Those who manage with a straight face to say Trump’s words were not racist no doubt will point out that he did not specify that black people from these countries are shitholes. But, he did not have to.

We have longstanding and differential associations between the colours white and black. For much of our recent history, white has always represented all that is pure, clean, desirable. These associations are found in the language of our dictionaries, the one-time definition of Africa as the “dark continent”, and the way we demarcated slaves from non-slaves throughout the slave trade. These associations define our beauty standards, animated through film and television’s past and present. And, these colour associations still dominate our perceptions of leadership, images of success and attributions of worth and value.

Because of these longstanding and pervasive associations between black and white, Trump need only connect a few dots to express his racism. Denigrate immigrants from countries like Africa and Haiti as shitholes with no value, then specify their opposite – people from “Norway”. Even a little girl can see what the primary difference is between the two.

From cringeworthy to scary: a history of anti-drug PSAs

This story originally appeared on NPR’s Marketplace

For decades, we’ve been trying to convince teens that drugs are dangerous, definitely not fun and totally deadly.

Beginning in the 1980s, adults — namely a combination government, non-profits and ad companies — weaponized something they knew teens already loved: TV. The simple idea was to use TV advertising to cement messages in teens’ minds that would discourage drug use, encourage them to stay substance-free and draw a line in the sand between users and non-users.

Although the U.S. government has spent more than a billion dollars on funding anti-drug public service announcements since the 1980s, there’s little evidence to show that anti-drug PSAs pay off. But that’s not stopping governments and non-profits from again reaching to the anti-drug PSA handbook, even if the reasons we remember anti-drug PSAs are the exact reasons their makers didn’t intend.

Starting with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, TV viewers in the 80s were blitzed with anti-drug PSAs. They were everywhere, buffeted by government funding and airtime donated by television stations and networks.

This story is part of our podcast, The Uncertain Hour. Listen to the first episode of our new season and subscribe here.

In 1987, the then-Partnership for a Drug-Free America created the famous “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” ad, starring an egg in a cast-iron pan.

“That became sort of iconic but I know that it’s also been widely parodied,” said Michael Ludwig, professor of health education at Hofstra University.

And it wasn’t the only ad of that era that’s almost laughable today. There was McGruff the Crime Dog with a chorus of children singing that drug “users are losers.” There were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles calling drug dealers “dorks.” And Pee Wee Herman creepily advising children to stay away from crack cocaine.

There’s no good evidence to show these ads worked. Studies showed that ads, even if they soured teens’ attitude on drugs, didn’t actually cause them to change their behaviors. In fact, some ads had a forbidden fruit effect — they made teens even more curious about drugs.

“When you advertise against it, you may also be inadvertently advertising for it,” Ludwig said.

But PSAs can also broadcast cultural messages about the type of people who use and sell drugs. Messages that stick with people.

“I saw there was one where there was a young black male who was suggesting, ‘Hey, kids, get your mom and dad out of the room,’” Ludwig said. “And as he talked about the various drugs that he had for sale, he morphs from a young black man into, literally, a snake.”

Charlton McIlwain, associate professor at New York University, said that ad was not just offensive, but harmful.

“I’m getting a message of fear, but what I’m seeing is an image of blackness,” McIlwain said. “In subtle ways [that] gives us a license to treat people like animals. And that’s precisely what you saw throughout the crack war, looking at African-Americans primarily as its target.”

By the late 1980s, public service announcements peaked at a rate of some $1 million in airtime a day.

“Money spent in the 80s on those ads was a waste,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor at Stanford University and former drug policy adviser to presidents Bush and Obama. He says those ads were basically lectures with a singular message.

“You shouldn’t use drugs because authority figures have told you not to,” Humphreys said. “Now, be a good boy or a good girl and do what you’re told. No adolescent wants to hear that.”

By the 1990s and 2000s, anti-drug messaging got scarier and more graphic. The message baked into these ads seemed to say “if you abuse drugs, here are the dire consequences that await.”

The “brain on drugs” egg ad got a violent, destructive update. And even private citizens, like a business man in Montana, began to fund scary ads to show the dark side of meth addiction. In those, teens perform over-the-top violent acts, like hitting their mom, in contrast to laid-back voice-overs which talk about how meth isn’t really that bad.

That shock-em-away playbook has remained. The Trump White House recently partnered with non-profits to create graphic anti-opioid PSAs that will live online. And Arizona is in the midst of a new $400,000 anti-opioid social media campaign. It includes two horror-movie themed ads, featuring teens trapped inside a pill.

The Arizona Department of Health Services enlisted a focus group of incarcerated teens to give feedback on the ads. “It’s those scarier messages that show those graphic consequences,” said Sheila Sjolander, assistant director at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

But do scare tactics in PSAs work? The simple answer is: no.

In 2016, the federal government evaluated different research into anti-alcohol, tobacco and drug messaging. They found that “though used widely since, studies prove scare tactics ineffective in substance abuse prevention.” Going full-blown scary might work on teens already unlikely to use. But it can lead others to tune out.

Some tactics, however, have been found to be effective. A study from Ohio State University found teens were slightly less likely to try pot when ads showed drug-free teens as independent and thinking for themselves.

Today, there’s a reason we don’t see too many government-funded national anti-drug campaigns. The media budget for the government office funding those ads was axed in 2012, after years of criticism that its ads were ineffective. This has left non-profits and states to take up the PSA helm, and some of them are reaching for a different playbook.

“The other thing you can do is to just give people factual bits of information that are helpful to them,” Humphreys said. Like what to do if you’re struggling with addiction or tips on preventing overdoses. Because teens are teens — and once you start telling them what to do? That’s when they start tuning out.


This article originally appeared in The Atlantic.

In a city or town, a quick look around will tell you the racial makeup of the community you’re in. But on a webpage, there’s no easy way of telling who else is visiting. Some sites make it clear that they’re geared toward members of a certain race: The Root, for example, describes itself as a destination for “black news, opinions, politics, and culture.” Elsewhere, visitors have to guess a site’s target audience based on its content—or they may conclude that race doesn’t matter on most of the internet.

But that latter idea is one that a group of academic researchers who study race and the internet have been pushing back against for decades. With training in different backgrounds—sociology, media studies, internet culture—they contend that the internet is far from raceless; in fact, they say, most of the internet is targeted at one demographic in particular.

Because of its history as a product of technology companies that are staffed overwhelmingly by white employees, the internet is largely made by, and for, white people, the researchers argue. “Those with the most access and capital are more likely to control the culture of the internet and reproduce it in their interests,” said Safiya Noble, a professor of information studies at UCLA who has published research about examining the role of race in social media and search engines. “The web is a white space and its sensibility otherizes non-whites.”

Internet scholars have been kicking around this idea since the early days of the World Wide Web, but it’s a particularly difficult one to test experimentally. Unlike studies that catalog how discrimination leads to generations of segregation in physical spaces—redlining in major American cities, for example—it’s not as easy to detect similar patterns on the web.

This year, Charlton McIlwain, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, gave it a try. Applying theories that are usually used to study geographical segregation, McIlwain examined how people navigated through the internet to try and understand whether web traffic is segregated.

He approached the experiment with two questions. First, he wondered whether explicitly racial sites—sites that describe themselves in racial terms—link mostly to other racial sites, and non-racial sites link mostly to other non-racial sites. Second, he wanted to know how people moved between those sites, and whether or not they regularly hopped between those categories.

He began with the 56 “Top Black Sites” as chosen by Alexa, a web analytics company that ranks pages based on traffic and popularity. He used a software program that examined the network of links emanating from those sites, and ended up with more than 3,000 pages with nearly 16,000 links between them. (Those connections can take the form of hyperlinks in a news story, for example, or on a personal blog post.) Then, he used another analytics service to categorize those sites as “racial” or “non-racial” based on the way they described themselves for search engines.

When McIlwain looked at how the 3,000 sites he’d chosen were connected to one another, he found that non-racial and racial sites linked to each other in relatively equal measure: Neither type of site had a significant bias toward similar sites.

But divisions began to crop up when it came to how visitors actually navigated between the sites. McIlwain found that people who usually go to non-racial sites tend to visit other non-racial sites; similarly, visitors to racial sites preferred to click on other racial sites.

I asked McIlwain what it means that internet users self-segregate as they browse the web. He rephrased my question in terms of geography: “Why, when there’s a pathway to a different neighborhood, don’t I go there?” The answer, he thinks, has to do with the quiet ways that any space, virtual or physical, signals to visitors about itself.

“One has to look for the subtle, perhaps unintentional ways that sites are projecting a message,” he said. “‘This is an exclusionary place; this is a place that is not really meant for you. Yes, you have access—there’s a highway to get here—but we really don’t want you here, and there’s nothing for you here, anyway.’”

“I, as a person of color, may say, ‘Look, I know what is ‘for me,’ and those are a limited number of sites,’” McIlwain continued. “And that’s where I draw my boundaries.”

Search rankings also play an important role in segregating web traffic, McIlwain says. When I searched “news” on Google, I clicked through the first ten pages of results without seeing a single news site focused on race. Generally, search algorithms appear to favor non-racial sites, which researchers theorize are heavily skewed toward a white perspective.

Noble’s previous research has focused on the effects of search-engine algorithms, which are among the most influential factors in how a person experiences the internet. “People query the web in the context of their racial identities,” Noble told me. “But they are served websites that are often racially and gender-biased against women and people of color.”

Google serves up millions of search results every minute, and the finely tuned algorithms it uses to do so are the secret to its success. But every algorithm was, at some point, tuned by human hands. Just like big-data hiring and policing can be affected by hidden prejudices unknowingly baked into systems by human engineers, search systems reflect the values of the people that constructed them. Silicon Valley often takes a colorblind, technology-first view of the world—an outlook that, in attempting to erase the harms of discrimination, can perpetuate them—and those principles are apparent in its companies’ products.

“I think Dr. McIlwain’s research is critically important because it provides more evidence to dispel the notion that the internet is a democratic space,” Noble said. She, McIlwain, and their academic peers make the case that an open and equal internet should include different shades, voices, and backgrounds, rather than trying to wash out color altogether.