Meet Antifa’s Secret Weapon Against Far-Right Extremists

Doug Bock Clark, Wired, January 16, 2018

The email arrived just as Megan Squire was starting to cook Thanksgiving dinner. She was flitting between the kitchen, where some chicken soup was simmering, and her living room office, when she saw the subject line flash on her laptop screen: “LOSer Leak.” Squire recognized the acronym of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization whose leaders have called for a “second secession” and the return of slavery. An anonymous insider had released the names, addresses, emails, passwords, and dues-paying records of more than 4,800 members of the group to a left-wing activist, who in turn forwarded the information to Squire, an expert in data mining and an enemy of far-right extremism.

Fingers tapping across the keyboard, Squire first tried to figure out exactly what she had. She pulled up the Excel file’s metadata, which suggested that it had passed through several hands before reaching hers. She would have to establish its provenance. The data itself was a few years old and haphazardly assembled, so Squire had to rake the tens of thousands of information-filled cells into standardized sets. Next, she searched for League members near her home of Gibsonville, North Carolina. When she found five, she felt a shiver. She had recently received death threats for her activism, so she Googled the names to find images, in case those people showed up at her door. Then she began combing through the thousands of other names. Two appeared to be former South Carolina state legislators, one a firearms industry executive, another a former director at Bank of America.

Once she had a long list of people to investigate, Squire opened a database of her own design—named Whack-a-Mole—which contains, as far as anyone can tell, the most robust trove of information on far-right extremists. When she cross-checked the names, she found that many matched, strengthening her belief in the authenticity of the leak. By midafternoon, Squire was exchanging messages via Slack with an analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a 46-year-old organization that monitors hate groups. Squire often feeds data to the SPLC, whose analysts might use it to provide information to police or to reveal white supremacists to their employers, seeking to get them fired. She also sent several high-profile names from the list to another contact, a left-wing activist who she knew might take more radical action—like posting their identities and photos online, for the public to do with what it would.

{snip} Whack-a-Mole, her creation, is a set of programs that monitors some 400,000 accounts of white nationalists on Facebook and other websites and feeds that information into a centralized database. She insists she is scrupulous to not break the law or violate Facebook’s terms of service. Nor does she conceal her identity, in person or online: {snip}

Though Squire may be peaceful herself, among her strongest allies are “antifa” activists, the far-left antifascists. She doesn’t consider herself to be antifa and pushes digital activism instead of the group’s black-bloc tactics, in which bandanna-masked activists physically attack white supremacists. But she is sympathetic to antifa’s goal of silencing racist extremists and is unwilling to condemn their use of violence, describing it as the last resort of a “diversity of tactics.” She’s an intelligence operative of sorts in the battle against far-right extremism, passing along information to those who might put it to real-world use. Who might weaponize it.

{snip} Over the next three weeks, the SPLC, with help from Squire, became comfortable enough with the information to begin to act on it. In the shadowy world of the internet, where white nationalists hide behind fake accounts and anonymity is power, Whack-a-Mole was shining a searchlight. By mid-December, the SPLC had compiled a list of 130 people and was contacting them, to give them a chance to respond before possibly informing their employers or taking legal action. Meanwhile, the left-wing activist whom Squire had separately sent data to was preparing to release certain names online. {snip}

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The first big test of Whack-a-Mole came just before the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Saturday, August 12. In the weeks before, because of her database, Squire could see that nearly 700 white supremacists on Facebook had committed to attend the rally, and by perusing their posts, she knew they were buying plane tickets and making plans to caravan to Charlottesville. Her research also showed that some of them had extensive arrest records for violence. She sent a report to the SPLC, which passed it on to Charlottesville and Virginia law enforcement. She also called attention to the event on anarchist websites and spread the word via “affinity groups,” secret peer-to-peer antifa communication

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One morning in December, I visited Squire in her small university office. She had agreed to show me the database. First she logged onto a foreign server, where she has placed Whack-a-Mole to keep it out of the US government’s reach. Her screen soon filled with stacks of folders nested within folders: the 1,200-plus hate groups in her directory. As she entered command-line prompts, spreadsheets cascaded across the screen, each cell representing a social media profile she monitors. Not all of them are real people. Facebook says up to 13 percent of its accounts may be illegitimate, but the percentage of fakes in Squire’s database is probably higher, as white nationalists often hide behind multiple sock puppets. The SPLC estimates that half of the 400,000-plus accounts Squire monitors represent actual users.

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Most of the Whack-a-Mole profiles contain only basic biographical sketches. For more than 1,500 high-profile individuals, however, Squire fills out their entries with information gleaned from sources like the SPLC, informers, and leaks. According to Keegan Hankes, a senior analyst at the SPLC, Squire’s database “allows us to cast a much, much wider net. We’re now able to take a much higher-level look at individuals and groups.”

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When Squire sends her data to actual citizens—not only antifa, but also groups like the gun-toting Redneck Revolt—it gets used in somewhat less official ways. Before a neo-Nazi rally in Boston this past November, Squire provided local antifa groups with a list of 94 probable white nationalist attendees that included their names, Facebook profiles, and group affiliations. As one activist who goes by the pseudonym Robert Lee told me, “Whack-a-Mole is very helpful. It’s a new way to research these people that leads me to information I didn’t have.” He posts the supposed identities of anonymous neo-Nazis and KKK members on his blog, Restoring the Honor, which is read by journalists and left-wing activists, and on social media, in an effort to provoke the public (or employers) to rebuke them.

Lee is careful, he says, to stop short of full-on doxing these individuals—that is, publicizing more intimate details such as home addresses, emails, and family photos that would enable electronic or even real-world harassment against them. Squire says that’s why she feels comfortable sending him information. Of course, once a name is public, finding personal information is not that hard. In the digital age, doxing is a particularly blunt tool, one meant to terrorize and threaten people in their most private spaces. Celebrities, private citizens, left-wing activists, and Nazis have all been doxed. The tactic allows anonymous hordes of any persuasion to practice vigilante justice on anyone they deem evil, problematic, or just plain annoying. {snip}

Squire has been doxed herself. Pictures of her home, husband, and children have been passed around on racist websites. She has received death threats and terrorizing voicemails, including one that repeated “dirty kike” for 11 seconds. Elon University has fielded calls demanding she be fired. On Halloween, Confederate flags were planted in her yard. Still, though Squire fears for her family’s safety, she keeps going. {snip}

{snip} As David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, says of Squire’s work: “Is it ethical to digitally stalk people? It may not be. Is it legal? Probably, as long as she doesn’t hack into their accounts and she’s collecting information they post publicly on an open platform like Facebook.” But he warns that limiting speech of anyone, even white supremacists, starts down a slippery slope. “Political winds can shift across time. Liberals who might cheer at a university limiting neo-Nazi speech also have to worry about the flip side of that situation when someone like Trump might penalize them in the future.”

As far as Squire is concerned, there’s a clear difference between protected speech and speech that poses an imminent threat to public safety. “Richard Spencer yelling about wanting a white ethno-state after events like Charlottesville—it’s hard to argue that kind of speech doesn’t constitute danger.”

Ultimately, Squire sees her work as a type of “fusion center”—a government term for a data center that integrates intelligence from different agencies—for groups combating white nationalism. And she admits that she is outsourcing some of the ethical complexities of her work by handing her data off to a variety of actors. “But it’s the same as how Facebook is hypocritical in claiming to be ‘just a platform’ and not taking responsibility for hate. Every time we invent a technology to solve a problem, it introduces a bunch more problems. At least I’m attentive to the problems I’ve caused.” {snip}

After Charlottesville, some white supremacist groups did find themselves pushed off certain social media and hosting sites by left-wing activists and tech companies wary of being associated with Nazis. These groups relocated to platforms like the far-right Twitter clone Gab and Russia’s Facebook-lite VK. {snip}

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