The Urgent Reality of Online Extremism

How the New York Times let a Facebook fascist off the hook.

White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right exchange insults with counterprotesters during the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The national pile-on over the New York Times’ profile of muffin-loving, cat-owning Nazi Tony Hovater has been robust and well-deserved. A few days out, the piece has been lampooned, deconstructed, trashed, called out, and deeply fact-checked, in the press and on Twitter. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted Monday, there is nothing radical or new about the racists living among us. The piece was a mess for so many reasons it’s tempting to let the thing just curl up and die.

But discussions about the “hole at the heart” of the article, as its author, Richard Fausset, put it in an editorial note published almost contemporaneously with the piece, seem to have missed one other essential problem with the reporting. Fausset—either consciously or unconsciously—allowed himself to fall into the trap of imagining that his Nazi has two fully separate personae: the real-life Nazi and his nastier, online version. This is emblematic of a divide we have allowed to open up in our daily political discourse, one in which actual people get married, eat at Panera, and say anodyne things to reporters, and then take on profoundly dangerous and violent personalities online, which can be dismissed as “humor” or “ironic” performance.

Fausset falls neatly into this trap. He engages with Hovater as a spouse, a thinker, a voter, and a consumer of turkey products, and then almost blithely pivots from his subject’s real-life claims to be a “white nationalist” (as opposed to the worse-sounding “white supremacist”) to the almost banal observation: “Online it is uglier.” When the profile turns to what Hovater has posted on Facebook—“a streetscape full of happy white people, a bustling American-style diner and swastikas everywhere,” as the Times described it, accompanied by Hovater’s observation: “What part is supposed to look unappealing?”—you would think Fausset is writing about a pretend character. And when Hovater celebrates the August white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was mowed down by a white nationalist in a car, with the gleeful online comment “We made history. Hail victory,” Fausset notes mildly that “In German, ‘Hail victory’ is ‘Sieg heil.’ ” There is no conclusion drawn or point made, beyond noting that this is “different.” Um, yes. But different how? (Waves hands, blurrily.)

Several critics have already observed how insane it was to suggest that Hovater is in fact two separate people—one of whom is “an organizer, an occasional podcast guest on a website called Radio Aryan, and a self-described ‘social media villain,’ ” while the other is, in person, a man whose “Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother.” As Charlie Warzel notes at BuzzFeed, looking at Hovater the person as separate from his online persona disregards the ways in which the internet radicalizes and amplifies violence and hate. When Warzel challenged Hovater on some of his post-Charlottesville activity online, Hovater predictably replied, “I mostly use facebook for fun, tbh.” At CNet, Connie Guglielmo explicitly condemns the Times for failing to take Hovater’s online influences as seriously as it takes the books he reads and the tender stories he tells about himself when being interviewed on the record.

If the problem were simply one of old-school framing—that people are defined by their in-person interactions and what they say and do online is some gauzy other activity best understood by gamers and middle-schoolers—then one could dismiss the Times as an adorable media dinosaur. But of course, the idea that a person can be separated from his online presence lies at the core of Donald Trump’s self-defense and is a central contention of his defenders. Whether it’s Trump lawyers attempting to brush off his tweets and statements as immaterial, or claims that his online threats aren’t real, we have come to inhabit a bifurcated world in which a crazy person performs online distractions, and a different person pretends to be the commander in chief.

I have argued for a long time now that Trump’s words matter, his tweets matter, and that dismissing them as jokes, or performance art, or as side-car fun speech that has no consequence is an act of violence against both the English language and truth. Ron Klain made this same point earlier this month in a Washington Post column: “During the campaign, Trump’s reckless words insulting women, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mexicans, the Khan family, Judge Gonzalo Curiel and more stoked outrage in some people and enthusiasm in others—but also an apathetic reaction in yet another group. It was these ‘words don’t matter’ voters who were the underappreciated dynamic in 2016.” And as Klain further observed, Trump defended his own bragging about sexual assault in the Access Hollywood tapes by further devaluing any correlation between his language and truth: “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words,” he said. “That was locker-room talk.”

It’s a short hop from the claim that some words are mere “locker-room talk” and some other words are “just words,” and the claim advanced a year later that maybe the whole Access Hollywood tape is a forgery, and perhaps anything posted online or tweeted is de facto humorous and benign. As soon as certain words are “just words,” and we begin chasing each other down ontological wormholes about whether “Pocahontas” is an insult or a joke, we have already tumbled into the dark world in which truth and language are all subject to debate, and all meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

The problem isn’t just that a significant proportion of Americans now accept the preposterous claim that Donald Trump’s tweets and spoken comments are somehow different in nature from his presidential words and actions. The problem is that we have the effects of this kind of speech completely wrong: For most Americans, the tweets and speeches are the only things they hear from the president. We get it exactly upside down when we suggest that lives lived online are somehow occasional and incidental. For the people who listen to and believe Alex Jones, or follow Tony Hovater online, or listen to him on podcasts, that person—the one who claims he simply uses Facebook “for fun”—is actually the only real Tony Hovater they will know. Alex Jones likes to pretend that his listeners are in on the joke. We know for a certainty they are not. And to fail to account for that in any way, because we like to think that everything that happens online and on TV is pretend, is to fundamentally misunderstand that this is how most Americans know most other Americans every single day.

In a much better version of the genre we now know as the Nazi Next Door, the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser earlier this month tracked down a different Charlottesville white supremacist, Bob Martin, in York, Pennsylvania. In this instance, Martin eventually lost his job delivering pizzas at Carryout Courier, a York delivery service, when photos of him marching with white nationalists in Charlottesville surfaced. The article attempts to reconstruct how that happened.

In part because Martin declined to be interviewed in the Globe piece, the focus of Viser’s scrutiny is his radicalization as a Trump follower, his increasingly offensive and heated Facebook posts (many of which were removed for violations of terms of service), and his online posts about his plans to be armed for the Charlottesville rally, along with videos of his participation there. In some sense, Viser encounters his Nazi the way most Americans would have encountered him: online, acting out, performing racism with a kind of earnest cluelessness that there could be any real-world consequences. This is not just an imagined world for Martin. It is as much his reality as the family members and friends who give interviews for the piece. This isn’t a normalization or “humanization” of an online troll. The story works its way backward from the human into the online creature Martin has become.

The conclusion of the Globe story is utterly depressing. Martin loses his job; his former employer decides that politics and the media are crushingly intrusive and overheated and decides to just “tune out” all media for a while. The activist who spearheaded the campaign to have Martin fired goes underground for a time because the threats against her are so frightening. Taken together those repercussions do serve as a useful reminder that what happens online never stays online—it ripples outward to change the lives of everyone touched by a story. Whether that serves to tell the cautionary tale about how life online touches on “real life” too much or too little, at least it acknowledges that for every person who sees 4chan and Facebook as pretend, there are thousands for whom it is more salient than daily reality.

We can no more separate a president from his tweets than we can separate a white supremacist from his Facebook postings. That has massive implications for the First Amendment that we haven’t yet begun to contemplate. The Supreme Court edged right up to analyzing how one’s internet persona is treated for free speech purposes a few years ago, then backed away. As is often the case, the courts have not yet solved foundational issues that new technology can create. But the problem with imagining a world in which what one puts online is never more than comedy or performance is that this is no longer true for most of us, if it was ever true at all. Media helped create this problem. We should not be continuing to make it worse.