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Lone Wolves Connected Online: A History of Modern White Supremacy

In 1982, Louis Beam drove 500 miles from a rugged patch of Texas land near the Gulf of Mexico to another rugged patch of land in the Arkansas Ozarks. He was headed to “the Farm,” a remote 250-acre commune of white supremacists calling themselves the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord. The C.S.A. was stockpiling weapons and training in guerrilla tactics to prepare for an imminent race war.

Mr. Beam was a small man, with a meticulously trimmed mustache. A former Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he was by the early 1980s more concerned with networking and organizing strategies than membership in any one group. Across the country — in Idaho, Washington State, California and Arkansas — there were “patriots” ready and willing to do anything for the white cause, it was just a matter of connecting them. Mr. Beam and other white supremacist leaders wanted to harness their followers’ racist zeal without inviting the prying eyes of law enforcement.

The solution was in Mr. Beam’s car: a Commodore 64, one of the earliest personal computers. Using a dial-up modem and a phone line, anyone could sign on to a bulletin board system and read or write racist screeds. He was traveling the country to share the good news of the early internet.

“Imagine, if you will, all the great minds of the patriotic Christian movement linked together and joined into one computer,” Mr. Beam wrote in one of his early online essays. “Imagine any patriot in the country being able to call up and access these minds.”

Mr. Beam had an appointment with Kerry Noble, the second-in-command of the C.S.A., to discuss bringing the group “online.” Mr. Noble, a strapping and bearded man, listened as Mr. Beam brought the computer into the C.S.A.’s “sanctuary” building and talked of all the machine could do.

Mr. Noble, who has since renounced his white supremacist past, remembered thinking it was a preposterous idea. C.S.A. members were construction workers, loggers and mechanics in the rural South. Their organization’s name evoked the crusades, not the digital abstractions of the Commodore’s neon type. He told Mr. Beam: “This is never going to fly. People are not going to sit there and tell the computer what to do.”

“You know, of course they did,” Mr. Noble said recently.

Noble was not alone in this skepticism. In 1985, the Anti-Defamation League issued a report on the emergence of hate speech online, saying “there is little to suggest that this represents a great leap forward in the spread of anti-Semitic and racist propaganda.”

But back then, it would have been hard to imagine the power of what Mr. Beam had in mind for connecting white supremacist cells online. Today, he lives quietly in a suburb of San Antonio and does not speak to reporters (including for this article), but a look back at the strategies that he and his contemporaries set in motion reveals that law enforcement and the general public are still battling his vision for white nationalism. Today, the militant right has moved from PCs and rural compounds to platforms like Gab, 8chan and Parler on smartphones across the country.

For the past 40 years, there have been dueling narratives about white supremacists in the U.S.: dangerous or farcical. They are alternately seen as a hillbilly fringe with outsize ambitions for political revolution, and a savvy movement demanding constant vigilance. While the media, nonprofits and law enforcement have juggled these two ideas, white-power organizers have been busy connecting, recruiting and working at the digital grindstone — speaking to and expanding their base for decades.

Read entire article at New York Times