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'It's a toxic place.' How the online world of white nationalists distorts population genetics

May 23,2018 02:33

A little more than a year ago, Jedidiah Carlson was searching online for a 2008 paper in Nature analyzing hundreds of thousands of point mutations in various human population groups around the world. Heady stuff, but fascinating to the bioinformatics ...



White supremacists, such as these marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, gather in online forums to discuss population genetics research.

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A little more than a year ago, Jedidiah Carlson was searching online for a 2008 paper in Nature analyzing hundreds of thousands of point mutations in various human population groups around the world. Heady stuff, but fascinating to the bioinformatics graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As he scanned the list of search results, an unusual one stood out: a link to a forum post on the website Stormfront, one of the internet’s oldest and most notorious hangouts for white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis.
“Curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see what they had to say about this [paper],” Carlson says.
Following the link, he found forum users involved in a rather in-depth discussion of the paper’s genetics and how these mutations supposedly shaped the emergence of different human races. There were a few problems, though. Somehow, many in the forum thought they were debating an entirely different 2008 Nature paper, leading to what Carlson calls “a convoluted mess.”
And then, of course, the conversation was peppered with abhorrent insinuations about nonwhite races and the researchers themselves—“These are NOT scientists. These are Anti-Whites” wrote one Stormfront poster—and numerous fundamental misunderstandings about the science and its implications.
Digging further, Carlson discovered this was not an isolated incident. Stormfront and similar online forums, as well as the comment sections on “alt-right” news websites and Twitter accounts, regularly host what he’s dubbed “informal journal clubs,” dedicated to dissecting population genetics papers and sorting them into those that support a white nationalist ideology and those that don’t. For more than a year, he has followed the evolution of this strange, racist trend. Carlson was scheduled to speak to a population genetics conference last week about those findings, but couldn’t make the talk. He did, however, discuss with Science what he’s learned about these groups. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jedidiah Carlson

Jedidiah Carlson

Q: Do any of the white nationalists discussing these papers actually know what they’re talking about?
A: There’s a range of expertise and familiarity. Some are fairly familiar with some of the science. It behooves them to know the science so they can feel like they are going toe-to-toe with the people actually doing the science. There are even some users who have graduate degrees. They aren’t population geneticists, but some of them are quite well-educated, both formally and informally.
Q: How do they learn about these papers in the first place?
A: Often someone will post a link in a forum to a sort of lower-level news article about some topic they either agree or don’t agree with. Then someone will say, “Who knows the science here? Explain it to me.” And there are several people there who are somewhat familiar with the literature and follow it.
Q: How do they misappropriate the work?
A: People will grab figures from scientific papers and edit them in several different ways to make them look like they support the white nationalist ideology. For instance, in a 2008 Science paper, researchers published a figure with a plot inferring regional ancestry of dozens of different populations around the world. Based on the genetic compositions of hundreds of individuals, the figure divided the populations into clusters that revealed patterns in their ancestral population structure.
So [people on the forums] take this plot and add some subtle text like “The genetic reality of race,” with no context showing what the scientists were actually looking at, and ignoring the fact that there’s a continuum among the individuals. Then they turn these images into memes and try to make them go viral (see example, below).
And in the ways that memes evolve, some go through a second stage of edits. People will add additional information to the figures. For example, there was a different plot showing the ancestry of Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Native Americans and then somebody had added a little arrow pointing to the Native American cluster and annotated it with, “Elizabeth Warren” [referring to controversy surrounding the Massachusetts senator’s ancestry].
Q: Are there specific types of population genetics studies that get their attention?
A: They’re interested in anything that would reinforce traditional, discrete racial categories. Intelligence is probably the number one topic that they gravitate toward. And anything pertaining to history of human migrations, or things that play into traditional classifications of racial phenotypes like facial morphology or skin color. There was a paper on lactose tolerance in Europeans and that turned into this weird viral YouTube trend where white nationalists were chugging bottles of milk, presumably to flaunt their European heritage.
Q: Right after you first noticed this trend and posted about it on Twitter, you were interviewed for a piece in The Atlantic. Did the white nationalists comment on that, as well?
A: After that piece came out, I wanted to know what they were going to say about it on Stormfront, so I was on the website refreshing it over and over, which really isn’t a healthy thing to do. It’s a toxic place. When they finally saw it, the first few comments were actually rather celebratory, as they saw the article as evidence that the “liberal, biased, Jew-controlled media” are nervous about the growth of white nationalism. About me, there were comments like, “He says he’s a grad student, but he’s probably never even seen a principal component analysis plot,” which is ironic because that’s about half of my dissertation. And it was pretty alarming seeing my name on the site. After that, I took a break from doing this work for a while for my own mental health.
Q: Can scientists do anything to prevent their work from being misused by these groups?
A: I don’t think engaging them directly will work. In an argument between a logical person and illogical person, the logical person is always going to lose because the illogical person isn’t playing by the same rules. The misappropriations and misinterpretations run so deep that you’ll just get shouted down and personally attacked, and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind.
But I think there’s growing recognition that we as scientists bear some responsibility for guiding the public interpretation of our work. In the broad scheme of things, people are excited about the work we’re doing. The genomic revolution is still well underway. But I think because of precisely that, we need to think more carefully about not just our own interpretation of the work, but anticipating how our work might be misinterpreted and trying to preemptively patch up the holes in that logic.
*Correction, 22 May, 5:30 p.m.: This article originally incorrectly stated that Carlson intends to incorporate these findings into his dissertation.

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