How White Nationalists See What They Want to See in DNA Tests

How White Nationalists See What They Want to See in DNA Tests
What happens when white supremacists on the hate site Stormfront learn that they’re not as white as they thought? Two researchers investigated.
By Heather Murphy
Jul 12 2019

On the hate site Stormfront, one of the largest online discussion forums dedicated to “white pride,” sharing DNA results with fellow members has become a rite of passage for some members.

But what happens when users’ results show that they fail to meet their own genetic criteria for whiteness? Are they still willing to post them? And if so, how do other users respond? 

Such questions have long intrigued the sociologists Aaron Panofsky, who studies the social implications of genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Joan Donovan, whose research at Harvard University focuses on how information is manipulated on the internet.

“We had a puzzle,” Dr. Panofsky said in an interview this week. “If Stormfront says, ‘You’ve got to be all white or we’ll kick you out,’ how do they deal with these anomalies?”

Their findings, outlined this month in a study in the journal Social Studies of Science, show that yes, even members who fail to meet their own genetic standards will sometimes share the results. 

In response, their fellow white nationalists tend to console them by offering potential reasons the results can’t be trusted. Among them: skepticism about the tests’ interpretations of the science or statistics, conspiracy theories about Jewish-owned genetic testing companies’ multicultural agendas, and reminders about alternative ways of measuring whiteness.

To Dr. Panofsky and Dr. Donovan, that meant trying to counter hate by getting white nationalists to consider that they actually are the people they hate was not going to work: Members of such groups are too determined to help each other see what they want to see.

The findings add to an already robust body of scholarship that shows how difficult it is to get people to alter pre-existing views, said Jonathan Baron, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. “People go to extraordinary lengths to maintain beliefs to which they are committed,” he said.

He pointed to a classic 1979 study that asked subjects to evaluate summaries of studies about whether the death penalty deters crime. In general, the subjects found flaws only in studies that contradicted their beliefs.

Hugo Mercier, a cognitive scientist and the author of the book “The Enigma of Reason,” said in an email that the new study reminded him of another example of so-called dissonance reduction involving people who planned their lives around the arrival of a flying saucer, which would save them from the coming apocalypse. 

“When the aliens didn’t show up (surprise), some group members left, but most stayed and found reasons to explain away their failed prophecy,” he wrote.

To construct the white nationalist study, the authors searched the Stormfront website using an array of keywords for every posting about a genetic test from 2004 to 2016. Amid requests for dating advice and proposals to start new political parties, they found around 650 items that qualified. 

Next, they coded the postings according to whether they challenged or confirmed the desired white identity, then did the same for the community responses. In about 100 out of 1,500 responses, users shamed the posters for failing to be white enough.

But Dr. Panofsky said he was struck by how many more responses focused on what he called “repairing conversation,” as in “Don’t worry about it; this is how you should think about it.”

In more than 1,200 responses, users suggested that there were other, more scientific ways to interpret the results. Part of what helped facilitate this argument is that genetic data about ancestry can often be interpreted in many conflicting ways. And plenty of white nationalists are well versed in the scientific research. But as in the death penalty study, the results were far more likely to be questionable when they didn’t tell the story that users wanted them to tell. 

In hundreds of other responses, users delegitimized the testing company and genetic tests generally or suggested the possibilities of statistical or technical errors.

“Science cannot save us,” Dr. Panofsky said, noting that in the years since he first began working on this study, genetic tests have increasingly been used to encourage the “mainstreamification” of white nationalism. “The political problem of white nationalism needs to be confronted on the level of values and law enforcement,” he said.


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