A fringe white supremacist website based in West Palm Beach and run by a former Ku Klux Klan leader and ex-con has emerged at the center of the widening national controversy over deadly Neo-Nazi violence in Virginia.
The site is called Stormfront.org, and after steadily building a small but loyal following over the last two decades, its audience has suddenly tripled over the last few days to some 300,000 page views a day. It has become a go-to forum for racists to share pictures and social-media posts cheering the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and also to praise President Donald Trump — especially for his initial refusal to condemn the so-called alt-right and instead blame the violence on “many sides.”
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A day later, the president did issue a sharp rebuke of white supremacist groups — but on Tuesday, he shifted positions again in a heated press conference, heaping equal blame on the “alt-left.”
That was music to the ears of the audience on Stormfront. After Trump’s presser, one commenter wrote, “Ha … he says the very same thing I said on here earlier today — Confederate statues today, George Washington statues tomorrow. Trump is reading SF!” He added a smiley face emoji.
Posts on Stormfront and another racist site, The Daily Stormer, have been highlighted on national newscasts and even Jon Oliver’s HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” elevating the status of a site that had already grown into a digital gathering space for racists across the nation, said Adam Klein, an assistant professor of communications study at Pace University in New York who has written extensively about the white supremacist movement online.
“Stormfront was, in its own way, really revolutionary,” Klein said.
Unlike other hate sites, which functioned basically as brochures for their hateful ideologies, Stormfront, which bills itself “the voice of the new, embattled White minority,” was the first to function as an open forum. It gave racists a place to chat and radicalize from the comfort of their own home.
Before Charlottesville, the site promoted the gathering and organized housing and rides after AirBnB kicked members of the protest group off of its service. As the protest and ensuing violence unfolded, Stormfront users kept each other updated and bemoaned the tone of media coverage.
Stormfront creator Stephen “Don” Black also hosts a daily radio show, and on Monday he complained that the media “doesn’t mention anything about how vile the antifa are,” referring to a group known as Anti-Fascists that counter-protests at many white supremacist gatherings.
Black did note that the car attack, where a 32-year-old counter-protester was killed, “should have been avoided.”
“Did this help us? I don’t think so,” said Black, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Black created Stormfront in 1995 after he was released from federal prison and moved to West Palm Beach with his new bride, David Duke’s ex-wife. He spent three years behind bars after authorities caught him and nine other white nationalists on a yacht full of dynamite, high-powered rifles, and Nazi and Confederate flags, foiling their attempt to take over the tiny island nation of Dominica and impose white rule on the black inhabitants.
The hate site grew from around 5,000 members in 2002 to about 300,000 registered users by 2015, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. SPLC’s hate tracker lists 63 active groups in Florida, which ranks the Sunshine State second in the nation for the amount of such organizations.
Stormfront paved the way, Klein said, but in recent years a younger, flashier and more virulently hateful site has taken the spotlight: The Daily Stormer. The site, which SPLC once called the Buzzfeed to Stormfront’s New York Times, publishes articles on politics and pop culture with a white supremacist bent.
The Daily Stormer site was kicked off hosting platform GoDaddy on Monday after the head of the site wrote a disparaging story about the young woman killed in the car attack, then from Google servers and Youtube in quick succession. The site has moved to the dark web, the Verge reported Tuesday.
Increasingly, the movement to find new readers for hate sites like The Daily Stormer is moving to social media.
“In society today, there’s more of a place for this heated rhetoric against political correctness and multiculturalism. Especially on social media,” Klein said. “That’s a good recipe for groups that want to grow.”
Social media lets neo-Nazis bump shoulders online with someone who would never dream of visiting the Klan’s website but who might agree with a klansman on the growing issue of “PC culture” or the validity of a political candidate.
Everyday debates over the decision to cast a black man as a storm trooper in Star Wars or the upcoming fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor are cast by these hate groups as part of a black vs. white narrative.
“You can make all kinds of inroads with hashtags and whatever is trending,” Klein said. “It invites someone who’s interested in taking a side, but it isn’t always clear they’re on the side of white nationalists.”
The search for more information on race-related issues can lead people right to the arms of white supremacist or Nazi groups, even if they don’t realize it at first.
Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine black people in a Charleston church, began his radicalization with searches for “black on white crime,” Klein said. That led him to a neo-Nazi website masquerading as a conservative news outlet that only posted stories about crimes involving an African-American aggressor and a white victim.
From there, he went on to commit a horrible act of racism and violence. And although not everyone who logs on to these sites does the same, the number of active users on hate sites who goes on to kill people is not insignificant. A SPLC report from 2014 found that active members of Stormfront had killed about 100 people in recent years.
Membership on sites like Stormfront is low and has been for years, but that’s not what worries experts at hate-watching organizations like SPLC or the Anti-Defamation league.
For every active member who proudly posts their racism on public forums, there are dozens sitting behind their keyboards that agree, said Lonny Wilk, the associate regional director for the ADL of Florida.
“The hate that exists did not begin at the rally in Charlottesville,” he said. “If hate goes unchallenged, it can end in violence, and it’s up to us as Americans to stand up to it at every level we can.”