This week I started joining right-wing militias again. It’s easy to find a variety of far-right “patriot” groups on Facebook, and most don’t screen their membership. I joined as many pages as I could, and monitored them for one thing: Was anyone planning to show up armed to Black Lives Matter protests? I also tracked several chats on Discord, a chatting app with text and audio capabilities, focused around “Boogaloo” ideology—the loose, mostly white supremacist movement whose most ardent desire is to spark a race war. (“Boogaloo” is derived from the 1984 breakdance movie sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and the movement is similarly focused around a sequel—a second civil war.) My goal there was the same: find out about specific plans and record the gear people said they had. One Discord group, for example, featured users boasting about their ARs, gunsights, SIG Sauers, and Glocks. And if any useful information cropped up, I could get in touch with people who would pass it on to activists on the ground.
I use a fake Facebook account, which I’ve used dozens of times for this and similar purposes. The name is false, and the profile is built out with an array of far-right groups, “patriotic” interests, and dog-whistle posts designed to maintain plausibility. I’ve made so many accounts on so many apps over the past few years that I have to take care not to lose track of my pseudonyms. Although it kicked into high gear during research for my book on the online far right, infiltrating hate groups isn’t just a strange hobby or a journalistic endeavor; it’s antifascism.
While the image that comes to mind when most people think about “antifa” is a legion of black-clad militants ready to throw punches, this kind of research is antifascist work too. In fact, monitoring is integral to antifascist operations. Antifa is a series of organizing tactics and an ethos, not any specific organization; while any decentralized group encompasses a variety of ideas, antifa consists of opposing fascist groups by any means available, including, if necessary, violence. For many antifascists, however, infiltration, monitoring, and research are their primary or sole ways of engaging in antifascism. Fighting militant fascist groups is a large and complicated endeavor, and while aiming a fist at a Nazi’s face can be part of that opposition, it is only one way. Just as other forms of social activism require a diversity of tactics—the protester who marches, the planner who puts together a city budget to defund police forces, the person who attends city council meetings—so too does antifascism. The research is unglamorous, exhausting, and involves psychologically torturous degrees of deception. You have to expose yourself to a disgusting mass of racist bile, which takes a grinding toll on the spirit. It also must be done carefully: Members of far-right groups can and do target activists and their families with death threats, harassment, and even violence.
But the work serves the sole purpose of antifa: preventing the escalation of far-right organizing and defending our communities from their hatred.
Antifascism online comes in a multitude of forms. Infiltrating far-right groups can help get the details of upcoming fascist marches. But in other instances, with false identities and nuanced understandings of the tensions between different racist groups, antifascists attempt to derail the far right by creating dissent from within. The journalist Aaron Gell reported in Medium’s GEN magazine that an antifascist operation prevented a sequel to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Through a scheme involving multiple fake personas and the careful stoking of conflict between paramilitary neo-Nazi groups and the more optics-oriented “alt-light,” antifascists culled a planned 2018 march of 1,000 far-rightists down to 20. Throwing punches isn’t the only way to protect communities: With a lot work and a little luck, you can throw fascists off their game.
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Another important tool of the antifascist researcher is the dox—identifying the real people behind fascist pseudonyms. Last month, an antifascist Twitter account posted documentation that appeared to show that a middle-school social studies teacher in South Carolina, Timothy Manning, was a key organizer of the 2017 Unite the Right rally. In a 20-tweet thread, the account, Identify Dixie—a spin on Identity Dixie, a neoconfederate group that describes themselves as the “true sons of the South”—meticulously tied Manning to Discord and Twitter posts by “SCNazi” and to enthusiastic planning of the 2017 Charlottesville rally. Online, Manning allegedly referred to “building showers” (i.e., gas chambers) for Jews, used images of SS iconography, and deplored “kike power.” Identify Dixie seems to show Manning arranging transportation and accommodation for the marchers who shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville. All the while, he taught children and coached the girls’ volleyball team at Pleasant Hill Middle School in Lexington, S.C. One day after the anonymous account posted the damning documentation, the school placed Manning on administrative leave, though Manning denied having Nazi ties. A further investigation by The State revealed other white supremacist social-media activity by Manning and his father. Last week, Manning quit rather than wait for a reinstatement.
I spoke to the person behind the Identify Dixie Twitter account, who wishes to remain anonymous, about the role of research in antifascism. “I feel that knowledge is power. The distance of being online has always allowed people to feel more comfortable saying and doing things they wouldn’t ever think about doing face to face,” the person told me by Twitter DM. “I use that same anonymity to show the extremist online abusers to their community. I feel community shame kept many from being bad before and I bring that aspect back to their lives.”
The online spaces where fascists congregate are spaces where hatred is open and gleeful. In the chats I’ve monitored, I’ve seen countless racial slurs, grisly videos of black people dying, the exchange of racist books and texts, and incitement to violence against Jews. But when these streams of invective are tied to a face and a name and revealed to neighbors and employers, a social cost is reimposed on such racist behavior.
The person behind the Identify Dixie Twitter account told me that since establishing the account in 2019, they have unmasked three different teachers, a Florida highway patrolman, and an active-duty military officer as being part of neo-Nazi and neoconfederate groups. Their primary sources are an archived edition of a Facebook vetting group that required would-be neoconfederates to confirm their real name and face before joining Identity Dixie; and the massive, searchable cache of far-right Discord chats leaked to the leftist media outlet Unicorn Riot. The rest is careful cross-referencing on social media and search engines from Google to Bing and Yandex. Over the course of two years, the activist has outed 30 members of Identity Dixie to their communities.
“I’m a Southerner,” they told me. “It’s why I target them mostly, and why their hate is a danger to me and those I love.”
The core of antifa is just that: protecting those you love from hatred. For those not temperamentally inclined or physically able to hit the streets (or to hit Nazis), there are ways to participate that are no less valuable or radical. Research and monitoring take fortitude, savvy, deception, and a willingness to engage in obsessive digital scouring, but are necessary work. This is not terrorism, as the Trump administration claims, but the prevention of terror. And if you’re willing, you too can be an antifascist from your couch.