Well hey there What Now-ers! It’s the start of what’s shaping up to be a particularly hot and muggy next few days here where I am, so I’m bringing this week’s newsletter to you from my new, temporary workspace directly in front of an A/C, blasting me directly in the face at full power. Here’s hoping I can finish this email before I succumb to the heat, and melt away like an Indiana Jones villain.
Speaking of villains, this week’s What Now interview is with an expert on the dizzying digital network of white nationalists, Nazis, incels, and militia members. In her book Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, author Talia Lavin describes her experience infiltrating some of the worst corners of the internet’s underbelly to catfish and disrupt the safe spaces that racists have constructed for themselves. Talia was nice enough to chat with me about her time trolling racist chatrooms, as well as her love for Moby Dick and her sincerely impressive collection of massive swords. For more of Talia, you can find her on Twitter at @Chick_in_Kiev, and on Patreon.
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I’m curious about the nuts and bolts process involved in catfishing these white nationalists and Nazis. If it doesn’t reveal too many trade secrets, can you share a little bit about your research routine and preparations you go through before you actually create a persona and dive into these ultra-right spaces? And what about after? Once you’re done trolling a random Nazi in some chatroom, how do you get back to a less-fraught mental place? Or is that even possible, once you’ve immersed yourself in that sort of environment?
The book contains a lot of “gonzo journalism” in large part because I couldn’t get in the front door, traditional journalism style. As a Jewish woman and an outspoken antifascist, who’s been the target of a lot of far right smears, I just couldn’t get fascists to talk to me. Not that I’d take what they say on faith anyway. What I do now is largely squat in fashy chatrooms on Telegram and other apps. I have so many sock puppets, alts and emails, some fleshed out with life stories, others just a bare avatar and some redpilled sounding name. I dip in and out of groups and conversations, but right now I’m not tracking as immersively as I was during the writing of the book–where I was looking at specific communities and individuals. If I’m writing a story I’ll spend more time. It’s a fast moving world and channels get banned and regroup at a dizzying pace so you do have to keep up to some extent. There are lots of little weird forums too, some that make you submit ID or do a voice or video chat. I’ve done voice screenings, as when I joined the channel for the III% Security Force Militia, but never a video screening yet, maybe I’ll get a wig and some contacts for that. I have a fake document for ID screening. I use VPNs. I’m learning as I go and it’s all improv to some degree. I use male and female personas as seems fitting for a particular infiltration. If I’m claiming I’m from a certain place I’ll try to familiarize myself with it first, and I develop an emotional arc for each persona. I try to get a feel for a subgroup’s jargon and beefs before speaking. And I don’t speak unless I have to, like if a group is kicking out inactive users or if there’s someone I want to speak to and learn about in particular – someone who seems particularly interesting. Or dangerous.
As to my mental health, well. It’s a bit of a mess but I do therapy and try not to despair. It’s easier now that the book’s out. When it was eight, nine hours a day of this stuff every day for a year it was harder. An airless bell jar of hate I was stuck in. Now I can take breaks and write about body image or soup or whatever. Even other depressing stories are a break.
Do you feel as if your Jewish identity gives you a unique perspective on the work you do? Is there something in what you do that might not come as naturally to others who work in the same space as you, but who don’t carry that personal relationship to the long history of antisemitism and bigotry?
The names I’ve gotten called in the past few years as a Jew are so weird — crypto, ghost, shapeshifter. All these terms center on this obsession with the idea that Jews have permeated inviolable, pure whiteness, with the goal of taking it down from within. I think it is a perennial surprise how utterly central, focal antisemitism is to white nationalism. How completely inextricable from racism it is. In many ways antisemitism is the intellectual backbone of their worldview. Its scaffolding. Their hatred is obsessive and byzantine.