A Spotter’s Guide to the Alt-Right

Here is a presentation I gave to UNC students and community members last night about A Spotter’s Guide to Signs & Symbols of the Alt-Right, as it exists in 2017. The focus is on local events and those that I have personal familiarity with (e.g. Charlottesville).

A most heartfelt thanks to everyone who supplied photos for this presentation – I could not have made this without their diligence and beautiful camera work.

Learning to notice white supremacist symbolism

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a comprehensive guide to symbols used by hate groups, including the KKK and white supremacist groups.

The first time I saw some of these symbols and logos around my own neighborhood, I was very surprised. But the more I looked around, the more I saw. I decided to begin documenting the evidence of far-right “signaling” that I see around my own neighborhood. White supremacy is not some abstract, far-away phenomenon, but is alive and happening right here, right now.

 

The 3rd National

Sometimes folks with unpopular beliefs want to fly just a little bit under the radar. The “3rd National”, aka the “Blood Stained Banner”, is a popular choice for the discerning neo-Confederate who is worried about what the neighbors will think if s/he flies the regular ol’ Confederate flag. Here is an example of the 3rd National flag, flying on a corner lot located about 3 blocks from my house:

3rd National Flag

Since the “3rd National” was the last official flag of the Confederacy, you might fly it if you believe that the South never should have surrendered. In fact, this is the flag that flew in front of the “last capital of the Confederacy” in Danville, VA until recently. Every Saturday, “flaggers” still show up in Danville to insist that this particular flag be returned to fly in front of the Capitol building.

Protesters asking that the 3rd national flag of the Confederacy fly in Danville once again

Patriots and Militias

On my run one day, I spotted this flag hanging from a window in some student housing one block from Elon’s campus. It has three capital letter I inside a Betsy-Ross style flag.

III%, 3%, Three Percent flag
3% flag

The “three-percenters” are a Patriot-style militia movement (wikipedia). The name refers to the group’s claim that only 3% of American colonists took up arms against the British in the American Revolution. Examples of militias include:

  • The Oath Keepers (nationwide),
  • The Alamance Rangers, and
  • The NC Tactical Response Force Militia, which has provided security for multiple alt-right/neo-Confederate events such as when ACTBAC protested the removal of the Confederate flag from schools in Orange County.

The ADL has some additional history about the ties between the Oath Keepers and the 3% movement, and the site explains that 3%-ers “also represent the three percent of the population of American gun owners ‘who will not disarm’.” The SPLC has more on the Oath Keepers, calling it “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.”

Speaking of militias, less than 1 mile from my house hangs this interesting flag with red and blue stripes and a white field with 8-pointed stars. (Yes, I spotted this one while running too – I guess runners see things we didn’t really want to see…)

guilford courthouse militia flag
Guilford Courthouse militia flag

This is the Guilford Courthouse flag, “a North Carolina militia banner” that was flown at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse during the Revolutionary War. How is that anything harmful? Well, sometimes its name is shortened to the “North Carolina Militia Flag”, as explained in this National Parks Service Word doc, and sometimes militia groups decide to fly this flag at their events.

For example, just last weekend (June 10, 2017), we spotted this distinctive flag in Raleigh at an anti-Islam rally hosted by the anti-Muslim group “Act for America”.

Guilford Courthouse Flag, aka NC Militia Flag, at the Act For America rally. Raleigh, NC June 10 2017

These anti-Muslim rallies were held in more than 20 cities nationwide, with Oath Keepers and militias providing “security” for the events.

The Guilford Courthouse flag is also used as the Facebook profile photo for the “Guilford News Network”, which is a Facebook-based right-wing news propagation network.

GNN has threatened to doxx and harass protestors following the May 20, 2017 Graham Confederate Memorial Day.

Guilford News Network threatens to doxx protestors after the May 20 Confederate Memorial Day event

GNN is also promoting the ‘Unite the Right’ free speech rally to be held on August 12 in Charlottesville. This rally has a speakers list full of notorious neo-Nazis, white supremacists, including Matthew Heimbach (Traditionalist Workers Party), Michael Hill (League of the South), and so on.

The contemporary use of this particular flag as a right-wing militia/hate symbol could be confusing to Greensboro-area history buffs who also fly it as a legitimate historical marker of a Revolutionary War event. The question we are struggling with is: Why was it also flown by militia members at the Anti-Muslim “Act for America” event and why is it flown by a group with ties to the TWP and League of the South? Perhaps, like so many other historical symbols (the swastika comes to mind here, also Pepe the frog), this one is in the early stages of being co-opted for a new purpose.

If history buffs don’t want to see this flag co-opted by right-wing militia groups, they need to be vocal about it, and call out its inappropriate use.

Identity Evropa

While we were protesting the Raleigh anti-Islam event, we noticed that a newer white supremacist group, Identity Evropa, had posted dozens of flyers around the city. They also took credit for posting these flyers on their Twitter feed.

About a month earlier, similar flyers were spotted on UNC-Chapel Hill Campus:

Identity Evropa flyer found at UNC Chapel Hill

If Chapel Hill and Raleigh seem too far away to bother you, consider that on May 20, 2017, at a Confederate Flag Rally in Graham (right here in Alamance County!) two US Marines acting on behalf of Identity Evropa were arrested after trespassing on a building to drop a banner with a quote from George Orwell and the abbreviation “YWNRU” (“You Will Not Replace Us”), the slogan of Identity Evropa.

Identity Evropa banner dropped in Graham, NC

The YWNRU slogan was used on banners and in chants at the Charlottesville, VA torch lighting last month. Extra credit if you can spot the “3rd National” in the photo below.

Identity Evropa with their “You will not replace us” banner in Charlottesville, VA

The KKK

Maybe these newfangled groups like Identity Evropa are too artsy for some folks. For those who want to keep their hatred old-school, the KKK has a long history in Alamance County. Just today I was reading Elaine Frantz Parsons’ book Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction and didn’t even make it past the first paragraph of the “here’s how the KKK got started” section before Alamance County was mentioned (and not in a good way):

Alamance County mentioned almost immediately in Parsons’ book

Surely the KKK can’t still be relevant in this day and age? In Alamance County? Well, at the same Graham, NC rally – the Alamance County seat, about 10 miles from my house – in the same spot where the Identity Evropa banner was unfurled, and on the same day, we spotted these lovely homemade t-shirts sporting the KKK triangle logo:

Woman wearing homemade t-shirt with KKK triangles logo
Man wearing homemade KKK shirt with triangle logo

The signs and symbols are everywhere if you know what you’re looking for.

Linguistic analysis of a local neo-confederate group’s Facebook posts

Earlier I showed how to extract the postings from a given Facebook page. Here, I will show you how to do some basic text mining on the posts you found. For practice, I will use the messages of a local neo-Confederate group called ACTBAC (“Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County”). Their antics have been covered in local media, but with their re-branding in light of the Trump election and the rise of the alt-right, many people in our area are still wondering just what this group is all about. Perhaps text mining can help illuminate some of their beliefs and strategies for us.

Overview

I ran the script on their “ALAMANCEOURS” Facebook page, and it yielded 1017 messages beginning in June, 2015. Here is the spreadsheet (actbac.csv) in case anyone wants to play around with it.

Top 50 words most used in their FB posts

I wrote a program to count frequencies and remove stopwords (stopwords are boring words like ‘a’, ‘to’, ‘it’, ‘is’). Then I highlighted the most interesting words (to me) in yellow. Each word is shown with its count next to it.

From these, we can see many predictable words for a county-based neo-Confederate group (county, state, southern, cause, carolina). However, I was most intrigued by the prominence of the word ‘stand’.

Usage of the word ‘stand’

Stand can be both a noun (“take a stand”) and a verb (“stand up for yourself”). With this group, ‘stand’ is the most common verb used in their messages (not counting stopwords like ‘be’ or ‘is’). My hypothesis is that, as a verb, this word ‘stand’ conveys a lot of the power of their movement. Why?

To help understand how they use ‘stand’, I wrote a program to generate a concordance to show how the word is used in their messages. The first few lines of the concordance look like this:

The word of interest (shown in red) is placed in the center of each line. The concordance then shows each collection of words around that word.

From this, I learned that the word ‘stand’ is used 291 times in 1017 messages, most commonly as follows:

In addition, there are another 41 uses of “stood” and 86 uses of “standing”.

It would be interesting to compare this usage to other Confederate and non-Confederate groups to see whether this is a uniquely ACTBAC thing (I doubt it), or – more likely – it is a rhetorical device used more broadly by all Confederate groups. I would guess that their defensive “stand up for your beliefs, no matter how unpopular” plea has great power in a neo-Confederate setting. After all, the “Lost Cause” narrative also describes a heroic, virtuous South fighting against all odds, and ultimately unfairly defeated in the American Civil War.

Topic modeling

Next, just for fun, I wrote a program to build a topic model of the postings. A topic model tells us what words frequently co-occur in sentences, and tries to make groupings of those words into possible “topics”. Inside the program, you can fiddle with the number of topics, and the number of words generated for each.

After running a few experiments, I settled on 3 topics with 4 words each. These topics weren’t terribly interesting, as you can see below, but we can still learn a few interesting things. First, when ‘stand’ is mentioned, it is often used with ‘southern’ and ‘state’, and it seems to be ‘people’ who are doing the standing (makes sense). Additionally, the topic we could call ‘Confederate battle flag’ emerges (labeled Topic 3 below):

Text Difficulty

Finally, I looked at how difficult the text was to read. These are fairly simple analyses based on sentence structure, number of “difficult” words, and how many syllables are in the words.

The FKRE is the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease metric, which tells you how “easy” a document is to read, and then this number (71.55, or “fairly easy”) can be converted to a grade level metric (7th grade). I also ran an overall readability summary, which integrates several other difficulty measures in addition to FKRE. That one also puts this text at right around 6th or 7th grade.

I hope you enjoyed this quick tour of text mining – perhaps you will find some interesting techniques to use on your own projects!

Analysis of the latest 1000 Facebook posts by the Times-News (Aug-Dec)

I was playing around with some code today from Mastering Social Media Mining with Python (by Marco Bonzanini, and published by the same company that published my last two books), and I came up with this snazzy set of scripts (postGetter.py, fileParser.py) that mines the last X posts from any public Facebook page, creates a clickable FB url for each, sorts them in order of most interactions (shares + likes), and creates a spreadsheet with the results.

Here are the results when run for the last 1000 posts by the Times-News of Burlington, our local newspaper: timesNews.csv.

Findings?

Not that surprising or shocking, but here goes. The last 1000 only goes back to August or so (modify the params at the top of the code to make it scrape more), but the top five posts for August-December based on interactions seem to be:

  1. The death of Tim-Bob from Graham Cinema
  2. The abduction of a middle schooler from a bus stop
  3. Kmart closing
  4. 25-minute Christmas Lights show on Maple Ridge Dr.
  5. Housing emergency at Burlington Animal Services

No election-related or weather-related items cracked the top 20.

The NC GOP & Pointy-headed Professors

The other day on This American Life, Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina GOP, dismissed evidence that vote fraud in the state was basically non-existent:

Don’t show me studies. Academics, I mean, a bunch of knuckleheads, pointy-headed professors. We deal in the real world.

Since I’ve done prior academic work on insults, I was very intrigued at the possibility of my being simultaneously pointy-headed and knuckle-headed, living in an unreality where I and my cranially-challenged colleagues churn out reams of useless studies in order retain Total World Domination.

As it turns out, the origin of knucklehead was a U.S. Army PR/recruitment program’s Goofus-type character (like the old Highlights magazine “Goofus and Gallant”) named R.F. Knucklehead. He was never portrayed as smart, and was always making bad decisions. Here is a cartoon showing Aviation Cadet Knucklehead working hard at signing a simple signature:

Incidentally, knucklehead was also the word chosen by President Obama to describe the prostitute-hiring Secret Service agent shenanigans in Cartagena.

The origin of pointy-headed was George Wallace in 1968 (good company you’re keeping there, Dallas). The word is a play on the shape of an egg, as in eggheadThe Washington Post explains the Wallace usage:

He sneered from the campaign podium at the “long-haired men and short-skirted women” of the 1960s and derided “pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.”

I wonder what happened in the bicycle parking lot between Wallace and some unlucky academic. We’ll never know. But The New York Times brings back the “pointy-head” quote for our times, comparing Wallace’s use of anti-intellectual populist insults to Trump’s.

Chronicle of Higher Ed ran an article back in 2012 listing additional stereotypes that politicians use to describe the hated professor. The article includes a really nice egghead pun from Adlai Stevenson (“Eggheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks.”), who was often criticized for being one himself.

Interestingly, Google users seem to think differently about professors (for those wondering if these results were influenced by my login, they weren’t: this was an incognito browser window).

Anyway, I hope this little etymological excursion shows what a professor does when she hears something idiotic: we brush aside the insult and instead we ask lots of questions, look up the answers, synthesize the results into a conclusion, maybe ask additional questions, cite our sources, then teach what we learned to others.