Expert Commentary

White supremacy: Research on cyber-racism and domestic terrorism

This updated collection of research aims to help journalists better understand and ask more probing questions about white supremacy and far-right organizations.

white supremacy research racism domestic terrorism
(Flickr/Joe Piette) Protesters in Philadelphia speak out against a white supremacist rally there in 2018.

This roundup of research on white supremacy, originally published in July 2019, has been updated with new information and research to assist journalists covering the Buffalo mass shooting on May 14.

In his speech Tuesday in Buffalo, where 10 people died in a mass shooting in a majority-Black neighborhood, President Joe Biden called white supremacy a “poison” that has “been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes.”

The May 14 massacre is among a string of mass shootings spurred by racial hatred in recent years. The lone suspect, an 18-year-old white man, allegedly shot and killed 10 people and injured three others at the Tops Friendly Market after researching New York communities with the biggest Black populations. Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia has said the attack will be prosecuted as a hate crime.

The gunman livestreamed the killings from a helmet camera as he moved from the parking lot into the supermarket, armed with an AR-15-style rifle with the N-word painted on its barrel, according to officials.

“What happened here is simple and straightforward: terrorism. Terrorism. Domestic terrorism,” Biden told journalists, community leaders and others gathered at the Delavan Grider Community Center on May 17. “Violence inflicted in the service of hate and a vicious thirst for power that defines one group of people being inherently inferior to any other group.”

The killing spree in Buffalo in many ways resembles the mass shooting in the Texas border city of El Paso in 2019.  An armed gunman motivated by hate killed 23 people and injured about two dozen more at a local Walmart. The 21-year-old white man who confessed to the crime told police he had targeted Mexicans.

Like the El Paso shooter, it appears the Buffalo shooter published a racist screed online prior to the attack. Officials are trying to verify the authenticity of the 180-page document, which includes details about the planned supermarket killings.

“A document circulated widely online seemingly outlines [his] racist, anti-immigrant and antisemitic beliefs,” The Associated Press reports. “Among them was a desire to drive all people not of European descent from the U.S.”

Reporting on white supremacy and providing appropriate context is difficult but critical work. The Journalist’s Resource encourages news outlets to look to academic research as a necessary tool in covering complex topics such as domestic terrorism, the mainstreaming of white supremacy and their consequences. Research will help newsrooms ground their coverage and ask more probing questions.

Below, we’ve summarized a sampling of published studies and working papers that examine white supremacy and far-right organizations, including their online recruitment strategies and use of genetic ancestry tests to establish race. We also summarized a book chapter from the Handbook of Global Media Ethics, released late last year, that offers insights into how journalists can improve their coverage. We will update this collection as scholars publish new data and research on these topics.

At the bottom of this page, you’ll find additional resources we hope you’ll find helpful — for example, links to research organizations investigating these topics, an Anti-Defamation League database of hate symbols and 10 tips for covering white supremacy and far-right extremists.


Covering white supremacy and racism

News Coverage of Racism, White Supremacy, and Hate Speech
Katherine M. Bell and Andrea Cervantez. Chapter in Handbook of Global Media Ethics, 2021.

In this chapter of a book on media ethics, researcher Katherine M. Bell looks at how journalistic norms help preserve racist ideas and maintain “an ideological privileging of whiteness.” One problem: Although research indicates right-wing extremists pose a bigger threat in the U.S. than radicalized Muslims, journalists often have portrayed this form of terrorism as a minor threat — isolated incidents involving troubled individuals, she writes.

Bell also argues that traditional journalism practices “such as objectivity, event-based news routines, and a slavish reliance on official sources” have facilitated populism and overt white supremacy. So do newsroom policies guiding word choice.

Many journalists do not use the term “terrorism” in their coverage unless official sources such as police investigators use it, explains Bell, an associate professor of communication at California State University, East Bay. This, she writes, “means that the media embed the motives and institutional biases of public officials into their coverage. These include racial profiling of suspects and a known contingent of white supremacists on police forces and other government agencies.”

She urges journalists to name racism and xenophobia when they encounter it and stop allowing politicians and others to define those terms. She also warns against propagating the myths that racism is an aberration and racism is rooted in ignorance that can be corrected with education.

“A mainstream media portrayal of Donald Trump as singularly foul malefactor or a mentally declining fool is an ethical choice,” she writes, adding that portraying actors such as Trump as “nuts” makes it easy for progressive-minded individuals to ridicule and brush off their behavior.

Factors influencing right-wing terrorism

The Determinants of Domestic Right-Wing Terrorism in the USA: Economic Grievance, Societal Change and Political Resentment
Piazza, James A. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 2017.

In this study, James A. Piazza, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University, looks at the impact of a variety of economic, social and political factors on domestic, right-wing terrorism over four decades. He focuses on three categories of possible predictors of terrorism: economic hardships and grievance; societal changes aimed at empowering and including women and racial minorities and reducing white male privilege; and resentment toward the U.S. government and political system.

The main findings: Rising abortion rates and female participation in the labor force precipitate right-wing terrorist attacks in the U.S., as does the election of a Democratic president. Meanwhile, there is not a statistically significant link between the growth of minority populations and domestic terrorism. Piazza finds that poverty, Democratic control of state government and increased federal income tax rates also are not predictors of domestic terrorism.

Piazza analyzed 578 incidents of right-wing terrorism in the U.S. between 1970 and 2011, which were documented by the Global Terrorism Database, maintained by the University of Maryland’s Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Data for the year 1993 were unavailable, however, because that information was lost during an office move.

Piazza defines domestic terrorism as “attacks occurring within the boundaries of the 50 states, perpetrated by U.S. citizens or residents against other U.S. citizens or residents with the intention of influencing a primarily domestic, U.S. audience.” Almost one-quarter of terrorist attacks during this period were by people and organizations motivated by right-wing ideology.

He finds that for every one point increase in a state’s abortion rate, right-wing terrorist incidents rose by 7.5%. But women entering the workforce and the election of a Democratic president have a greater impact. “For every 1% increase in female participation in the workforce, right-wing terrorist incidents increase by 153.1%, and attacks increase by 241.2% in years when the President is a Democrat,” Piazza writes.

“The results clearly highlight the social factors driving right-wing terrorism,” he writes. “Right-wing extremist rhetoric squarely places the source of ills afflicting ‘traditional’ American society and the proscriptive dominance of white males on the new, more prominent and more empowered place carved out for women in American life. As it turns out, the empowerment of women directly boosts right-wing terrorism.”

The Rhetoric of White Supremacist Terror: Assessing the Attribution of Threat
Blessing, Jason; Roberts, Elise. Working paper for Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, 2018.

In this paper, researchers at Syracuse University look at who white supremacist terror groups portray as threats in their propaganda literature. They focus on three terror groups: the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and the Christian Identity movement. For this project, the researchers traveled to the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements at the University of Kansas, which houses one of the largest collections of literature and media from right-wing political movements in the U.S.

The researchers examined documents circulated among the general public by leaders within these three groups. They note that the 1,297 pages they examined aren’t representative of the overall body of materials available, but offer insights into the kinds of themes presented in white supremacist propaganda.

The authors explain that two primary themes emerged from their analysis: “(1) African-Americans as a threat to conceptions of White self-identity; and (2) Jews as … the main political threat to the White Supremacist Movement.”

“Elites from the KKK, Neo-Nazi, and Christian Identity factions repeatedly call for whites to carry out violence against Blacks and Jews,” the authors write. “Rhetoric regarding other racial and ethnic populations, while present to some degree, pales in comparison to rhetoric regarding Jews and Blacks.”

The researchers explain that even as the country undergoes economic and demographic changes, white supremacists continue to focus on black and Jewish communities.

“This suggests that, despite the rhetoric devoted to immigrant communities and poor economic conditions, violent White Supremacist organizations may be mobilizing in response to what they see as traditional and long-standing threats/enemies to their goals,” the researchers write. “As such, the law enforcement community should remain focused on protecting the African-American and Jewish communities — communities that have been the dominant focus of calls to arms by White Supremacists.”

Cyber racism

Online Networks of Racial Hate: A Systematic Review of 10 Years of Research on Cyber-Racism
Bliuc, Ana-Maria; et al. Computers in Human Behavior, 2018.

A team of researchers examines dozens of studies published between Jan. 1, 2005 and Dec. 31, 2015 to understand the goals and strategies of racists on the internet. The researchers point out that most of the 31 studies they examined involve text analyses of “online phenomena that involve racial hate, aggression and prejudice.”

The researchers find that cyber-racism tends to come from two groups: racist organizations and individuals who often act anonymously. Racist organizations tend to use websites to communicate racist messages and ideas. They also communicate via online games located on racist websites. The authors write: “Racist groups use these channels to reach, not only general, but also very specific audiences. For instance, the video games made available to the public from far-right groups’ sites are often used as hidden opportunities to present a more attractive image of racist groups to existing and potential members, particularly targeting a younger audience.”

Individuals acting independently post racist content on a wider array of channels, including news websites, blogs, discussion forums, chat rooms and social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. “The Internet allows racist messages to be communicated, not only by text, static images and symbols, but also by downloadable videos, music, and interactive online games,” the authors explain.

They find that racist organizations carefully plan out their communication to achieve three primary goals: to strengthen the group by increasing the commitment of existing members and recruiting new ones, to disseminate racist propaganda, and to create a sense of transnational identity. Individuals have a different aim — to validate their racist views and hurt the “outgroup,” typically racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

The authors find that the two categories of racists also have different strategies for achieving their goals. Organizations stress intergroup conflict, reframe racism as a natural response to white oppression and use humor to try to make racism mainstream. The strategies of individuals include trivializing racism, reframing the meaning of news coverage and creating “moral panic” about the outgroup.

Cyberhate: A Review and Content Analysis of Intervention Strategies
Blaya, Catherine. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2018.

In this research review, Catherine Blaya, president of the International Observatory of Violence in School at Nice Sophia Antipolis University in France, examines efforts to prevent or counter cyberhate in various countries. She looks specifically at efforts to fight cyberhate against children, teenagers and young adults who are racial, ethnic or religious minorities. A key takeaway: While many programs have been launched, none have been found to be effective. “Although intentions are good,” she writes, “we have no evidence that the steps that are undertaken are effective in preventing and reducing cyberhate.”

Blaya examined 18 academic papers and reports, including those from human rights-related organizations and think tanks. They focus on four types of interventions — new policies that regulate free expression online; the use of technology to filter, block or address aggressive or hateful content; programs that teach young people how to evaluate online hate speech and address it; and programs that encourage “counterspeech” and prompt young people to respond to it with “counter-narrative campaigns.”

Blaya stresses the need to “develop research and rigorous evaluation protocols for the evaluation of interventions to prevent and counter cyberhate.” She encourages international and inter-agency cooperation. “Hate online is a multifactorial issue that cannot be prevented or tackled unilaterally and locally,” she writes.

Use of genetic ancestry testing

Genetic Ancestry Testing Among White Nationalists: From Identity Repair to Citizen Science
Panofsky, Aaron; Donovan, Joan. Social Studies of Science. 2019.

How do white supremacists react when their peers’ genetic ancestry tests show they have non-white ancestry? To find out, researchers examined conversations about genetic tests on the white supremacist website According to the study, the website’s users were more likely to critique the genetic test or testing company than support or shame the people who posted what they considered to be disappointing results.

The researchers — Aaron Panosky, a sociologist at the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, and Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy — examined 639 posts dated between 2004 and 2016 in which users disclosed the results of their genetic ancestry tests. The posts occurred within 70 different discussion threads.

“The main finding here is that there are vastly more reactions about the interpretation of GATs [genetic ancestry tests] themselves than reactions to the individuals posting the results,” the authors write. “The wide range of discussion suggests GATs don’t have a clear meaning and represent a problem to be worked through by Stormfront users. Furthermore, emotionally supportive responses roughly balance out responses that take the results literally (as opposed to suspiciously) and shame, exclude or denounce the poster as not white.”

The study offers insights into the ways the website’s users criticize and support one another and measure “whiteness.” The posts also offer insight into the conspiracy theories the website’s users share and discuss.

The researchers note that the ancestry tests have encouraged white supremacists to further educate themselves about racial genetics, including genetic markers. The researchers suggest the tests could change how white supremacists compare themselves to others. “Consumer genetic tests are increasingly offering genetic trait prediction — from hair and eye color to tasting preferences to IQ — which will soon provide white nationalists ample material for adding notions of ‘genetic quality’ to their evolving identities, boundaries and racial theories.”

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This image was obtained from the Flickr account of Joe Piette and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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