The email arrived just as Megan Squire was starting to cook Thanksgiving dinner. She was flitting between the kitchen, where some chicken soup was simmering, and her living room office, when she saw the subject line flash on her laptop screen: “LOSer Leak.” Squire distinguished the acronym of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organisation whose presidents have called for a “second secession” and the return of bondage. An anonymous insider had released the names, addresses, emails, passwords, and dues-paying records of more than 4,800 members of the group to a left-wing activist, who in turn forwarded the information to Squire, an expert in data mining and an enemy of far-right extremism.
Fingers tapping across the keyboard, Squire first tried to figure out exactly what she had. She pulled up the Excel file’s metadata, which suggested that it had passed through several hands before reaching hers. She would have to establish its provenance. The data itself was a few years old and haphazardly assembled, so Squire had to rake the tens of thousands of information-filled cells into standardized fixeds. Next, she searched for League members near her home of Gibsonville, North Carolina. When she found five, she seemed a chill. She had recently received death threats for her activism, so she Googled the names to find images, in case those people proved up at her entrance. Then she began combing through hundreds of thousands of other epithets. Two appeared to be former South Carolina state legislators, one a firearms industry executive, another a former director at Bank of America.
Once she had a long listing of people to investigate, Squire opened a database of her own design–named Whack-a-Mole–which contains, as far as anyone can tell, the most robust trove of information on far-right radicals. When she cross-checked the epithets, she found that many fits, strengthening her belief in the authenticity of the leak. By midafternoon, Squire was exchanging messages via Slack with an analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a 46 -year-old organization that monitors dislike groups. Squire often feeds data to the SPLC, whose analysts might use it to provide information to police or to reveal white supremacists to their employers, seeking to get them fired. She likewise mailed several high-profile names from the listing to another contact, a left-wing activist who she knew might take more radical action–like post their identities and photos online, for the public to do with what it would.
Squire, a 45 -year-old professor of computer science at Elon University, lives in a large white house at the end of a suburban street. Inside are, typically, some combination of husband, daughter, two step-children, salvage dog, and feline. In her downtime she runs marathons and tracks far-right radicals. Whack-a-Mole, her creation, is a specified of programs that monitors some 400,000 accounts of white nationalists on Facebook and other websites and feeds that info into a centralized database. She insists she used scrupulous to not transgress the existing legislation or violate Facebook’s words of service. Nor does she conceal her identity, in person or online: “We shouldn’t have to mask up to say Nazis are bad. And I want them to see I don’t fit their stereotypes–I’m not a millennial or a’ snowflake.’ I’m a peaceful white mom who definitely doesn’t like what they’re saying.”
Though Squire may be peaceful herself, among her strongest allies are “antifa” activists, the far-left antifascists. She doesn’t consider herself to be antifa and moves digital activism instead of the group’s black-bloc tactics, in which bandanna-masked activists physically assault white supremacists. But she used sympathetic to antifa’s objective of stillness racist extremists and is unwilling to condemn their utilize of violence, describing it as the last resort of a “diversity of tactics.” She’s an intelligence operative of sorts in the fight against far-right extremism, passing along information to those who might set it to real-world use. Who might weaponize it.
As day shifted to evening, Squire shut the database so she could finish up cooking and celebrate Thanksgiving with her family and friends. Over the next three weeks, the SPLC, with help from Squire, became comfortable enough with the information to begin to act on it. In the shadowy world of the internet, where white patriots hide behind fake accounts and anonymity is power, Whack-a-Mole was glittering a searchlight. By mid-December, the SPLC had compiled a listing of 130 people and was contacting them, to give them a chance to respond before possibly informing their employers or taking legal action. Meanwhile, the left-wing activist whom Squire had separately mailed data to was preparing to release certain names online. This is just how Squire likes it. Hers is a new, digitally enabled kind of vigilante justice. With no clear-cut rules for how far a citizen could and should go, Squire has made up her own.
Squire grew up near Virginia Beach in a conservative Christian household. She has been involved in left-leaning motions since she was 15, when her high school environmental fraternity took a journey to protest the pollution from an industrial pig farm. “I adoration the activist community, ” she says, “and saying things we weren’t supposed to say.” After getting degrees in art history and our policies from William& Mary, she became interested in information technology and took a chore as a secretary at an antivirus software company, working her style up to webmaster. She eventually got a PhD in computer science from Nova Southeastern University in Florida and endeavoured to North Carolina to work at startup corporations before landing a undertaking teaching at Elon. Between grades she could often be spotted around town waving signs against the Iraq War, and in 2008 “shes gone” entrance to door campaigning for Barack Obama. But Obama’s failure, in her belief, to live up to his rhetoric, compounded by the Great Recession, was “the turning point when I simply threw in the towel on electoral politics, ” she says. She plunged into the Occupy movement, coming to identify as a pacifist-anarchist, but she eventually became disillusioned with that as well when the movement’s “sparkle-fingers” utopianism, as she throws it, failed to generate makes. In 2016, she cast a be voting in favour of the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
Donald Trump’s campaign, though, dedicated Squire a new sense of mission: “I needed to figure out what talents I had and what direct acts I could do.” When a mosque in the nearby metropoli of Burlington was harassed by a local neo-Confederate group called Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, she decided to put her skills to employ. ACTBAC was utilizing Facebook to organize a protest against the opening of the mosque, so Squire began rubbing posts on the page that threatened to “kick Islam out of America.” She submitted her findings to the SPLC to get ACTBAC classified as a loathe group, and to the North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State, which started an investigation into the group’s tax-exempt nonprofit status. She also coordinated a counterprotest to one of the group’s rallies, and it was at this event and others like it where she first became acquainted with the black-clad antifa activists. She was impressed. “They were a level of mad about combating racism and fascism that I was glad to see. They were definitely not quiet rainbow peace people.” Over the following tables months, she began feeding information to some of her new local antifa contacts. As white pride rallies intensified during 2017 ’s so-called Summer of Hate–a term coined by a neo-Nazi website–Squire began to monitor groups outside of North Carolina, corresponding with anonymous informants and pulling everything into her growing Whack-a-Mole database. Soon, in her community and beyond, antifa activists could be heard whispering about a new comrade who was bringing real, and potentially actionable, data-gathering skills to the cause.
The first big exam of Whack-a-Mole came just before the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Saturday, August 12. In the weeks before, because of her database, Squire could see that virtually 700 white supremacists on Facebook had committed to attend the rally, and by perusing their posts, she knew they were buying aircraft tickets and making plans to caravan to Charlottesville. Her research also showed that some of them had extensive arrest records for violence. She sent a report to the SPLC, which passed it on to Charlottesville and Virginia law enforcement. She likewise called attention to the event on anarchist websites and spread the word via “affinity groups, ” secret peer-to-peer antifa communication networks.
“Antifa was a level of mad about combating racism and fascism that I was glad to see. They were definitely not quiet rainbow peace people.”
The night before the rally, Squire and her husband watched in fright on the internet as several hundred white supremacists staged a torch-lit marching in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, chanting “Jews will not replace us! ” The next morning, the couple get up at 5 am and drove more than 150 miles through rain and mist to Virginia. At a crowded park, she met with a half-dozen or so activists she knew from North Carolina, some of them antifa, and unfurled a banner for the Industrial Worker of the World.( She’d joined the Communist-inspired labor organization in December 2016, after witnessing what she considered its well-organized response to KKK rallies in North Carolina and Virginia .) Just before 10 am, the white supremacists began marching into Emancipation Park, a parade of Klansmen, neo-Nazis, militia members, and so-called alt-right adherents, armed with everything from homemade plexiglass shields to assault weapons. Squire screamed curses at the white supremacists by name–she knew them because she had their information on file in Whack-a-Mole and had memorized their faces. At one point, a group of clergy tried to blockade the white supremacists, and Squire associated arms with other activists to protect them. A petite woman, she was pushed aside by boys with plexiglass shields. Combats broke out. Both sides explosion pepper spray. Squire put on a gas mask she’d been carrying in a knapsack, but the pepper spray embraced her arms, inducing them sting.
After the police ultimately separated the combatants, Squire and dozens of other counterprotesters took to Fourth Street in succes. But then, a gray Dodge Challenger tore down the street–and rammed into their backs. The motorist, who had marched with the white patriots and was subsequently identified as James Alex Fields, missed Squire by only a few feet. She stood on the sidewalk, sobbing in shock, as the fatally injured activist Heather Heyer lay bleeding in the street.
Recounting the event months ago, Squire began to cry. “I had all this intelligence that I hadn’t used as effectively as I could have. I felt like I’d wasted a chance that could have made a difference.” When she returned home, she hurled herself into expanding Whack-a-Mole.
One morning in December, I visited Squire in her small university agency. She had agreed to show me the database. First she logged onto a foreign server, where she has placed Whack-a-Mole to keep it out of the US government’s reach. Her screen soon fitted with stacks of folders nested within folders: the 1,200 -plus hate groups in her directory. As she entered command-line inspires, spreadsheets cascaded across the screen, each cell representing a social media profile she monitors. Not all of them are real people. Facebook says up to 13 percent of its reports is a possibility illegitimate, but percentages per of fakes in Squire’s database is likely higher, as white nationalists often conceal behind multiple sock puppets. The SPLC is forecast that half of the 400,000 -plus accounts Squire monitors represent actual users.
Until Whack-a-Mole, monitoring white nationalism online mainly involved amateur sleuths clicking around, chasing rumors. Databases, such as they were, tended to be cobbled together and incomplete. Which is one reason no one has ever been able to measure the full reach of right-wing extremism in this country. Squire approached their own problems like a scientist. “Step one is to get the data, ” she says. Then analyze. Whack-a-Mole returns most of its data by plugging into Facebook’s API, the public-facing code that allows developers to build within Facebook, and operating scripts that pull the events and groups to which various account owners belong. Squire selects which accounts to monitor based on images and keywords that line up with various extremist groups.
Most of the Whack-a-Mole profiles contain only basic biographical sketches. For more than 1,500 high-profile individuals, however, Squire fills out their enters with information gleaned from sources like the SPLC, informers, and leaks. According to Keegan Hankes, a senior analyst at the SPLC, Squire’s database “allows us to cast a much, much wider net. We’re now able to take a much higher-level look at individuals and groups.”
In October, after a humankind fired a artillery at counterprotesters at a far-right rallying in Florida, SPLC analysts use Squire’s database to help confirm that the shooter was a white nationalist and posted about it on their blog. Because so much alt-right digital data vanishes quickly, Whack-a-Mole likewise serves as an archive, rendering a more permanent record of, say, attendees at various rallyings. Squire’s database has been demonstrated so useful that the SPLC has begun laying the groundwork for it to feed immediately into its servers.
When Squire sends her data to actual citizens–not only antifa, but likewise groups like the gun-toting Redneck Revolt–it gets being implemented in somewhat less official ways. Before a neo-Nazi rallying in Boston this past November, Squire rendered local antifa groups with a list of 94 probable white patriot attendees that included their epithets, Facebook profiles, and group affiliations. As one activist who goes by the pseudonym Robert Lee told me, “Whack-a-Mole is very helpful. It’s a new lane to research these people that contributes me to knowledge I didn’t have.” He posts the supposed the identity cards of anonymous neo-Nazis and KKK members on his blog, Restoring the Honor, which is read by correspondents and left-wing activists, and on social media, in an attempt to elicit the public( or employers) to rebuke them.
Lee is careful, he says, to stop short of full-on doxing these individuals–that is, publicizing most intimate details such as home addresses, emails, and family photos that would enable electronic or even real-world harassment against them. Squire says that’s why she feels comfortable sending him info. Of course, once a name is public, detecting personal information is not that hard. In the digital age, doxing is a particularly blunt tool, one meant to terrorize and threaten people in their most private spaces. Celebrities, private citizens, left-wing activists, and Nazis have all been doxed. The tactic allows anonymous multitudes of any persuasion to practice vigilante justice on anyone they deem evil, problematic, or just plain annoying. As the feminist videogame developer and activist Zoe Quinn, “whos been” doxed and viciously harassed online, has written: “Are you calling for accountability and reform, or are you just trying to punish someone–and do you have any right to punish anyone in the first place? ”
Squire has been doxed herself. Paintings of her home, spouse, and children ought to have passed around on racist websites. She has received death threats and terrorizing voicemails, including one that echoed “dirty kike” for 11 seconds. Elon University has fielded calls demanding she be fired. On Halloween, Confederate flags were planted in her yard. Still, though Squire anxieties for her family’s security, she retains running. “I’m aware of the risks, ” she says. “But it seems worth it. That’s what taking a stand is.”
After Charlottesville, Squire considered, in her indignation and heartbreak, publicly liberating the entire Whack-a-Mole database. It would have been the largest-ever doxing of the extreme right. But she worried about the consequences of misidentification. Instead, she worked with her regular spouses at the SPLC and activists she trusts. At one point the SPLC contacted a university about a student whom Squire had identified as a potentially violent member of the League of the South. The university did not take action, and she thought about tossing the student’s name to the ever-ravenous social media rabble. But here too, she reasoned that when you have someone’s life at your fingertips, you need rules. If the university wasn’t willing to act, then neither was she. It was, for her, a compromise, an attempt to establish a limit in their own nationals instant pointedly lacking in limits.
Critics might still argue that public shaming of the kind Squire promotes constitutes a watered-down kind of doxing, and that this willingness to take matters into their own hands induces Squire and her cohort no better than vigilantes. As David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, says of Squire’s work: “Is it ethical to digitally stalk people? It may not be. Is it legal? Likely, as long as she doesn’t hacker into their reports and she’s collecting information they post publicly on an open platform like Facebook.” But he warns that limiting speech of anyone, even white supremacists, starts down a slippery slope. “Political gusts can change across day. Liberals who might cheer at a university limiting neo-Nazi speech also have to worry about the flip side of that situation when someone like Trump might penalize them in the future.”
As far as Squire is concerned, there’s a clear difference between safeguarded speech and speech that poses an imminent menace to public security. “Richard Spencer yelling about craving a white ethno-state after events like Charlottesville–it’s hard to argue that kind of speech doesn’t constitute danger.”
Ultimately, Squire appreciates her study as a type of “fusion center”–a government term for a data center that integrates intelligence from different agencies–for groups combating white patriotism. And she admits that she is outsourcing some of the ethical complexities of her work by handing her data off to a variety of actors. “But it’s the same as how Facebook is hypocritical in claiming to be’ only a platform’ and not taking responsibility for hate. Every day we fabricate a technology to solve a problem, it introduces a bunch more difficulties. At least I’m attentive to the problems I’ve caused.” Squire recognizes herself as having to build difficult choices inside a system whereby old guidelines have been upended by the seismic powers of the internet. White nationalists can be tracked and followed, and therefore she believes she has a moral obligation to do so. As long as law enforcement retains “missing” threats like James Alex Fields, she says, “I don’t have any moral quandaries about this. I know I’m following rules and ethics that I can stand up for.”
After Charlottesville, some white supremacist groups did find themselves pushed off certain social media and hosting websites by left-wing activists and tech companies wary of being associated with Nazis. These groups relocated to platforms like the far-right Twitter clone Gab and Russia’s Facebook-lite VK. Squire discovers this as a win, expressed his belief that if white nationalists flee to the confines of the alt-right echo chamber, their ability to recruit and organize weakens. “If the knowledge that we’re monitoring them on Facebook drives them to a darker corner of the internet, that’s good, ” she asserts.
That doesn’t mean Squire won’t follow them there. She has no plans to stop digitally surveilling far-right radicals, wherever they may be. After Jason Kessler, the organisers of the Unite the Right rally, was unverified on Twitter, he joined VK. His first post read, “Hello VK! I’d instead the Russians have my information than Mark Zuckerberg.” The declaration was promptly scooped up by Squire. She had already constructed out Whack-a-Mole to track him there too.
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