Students place flowers outside the Pines Trail Center in Parkland, Fla., where a candlelight vigil was held Thursday for victims of a school shooting. Credit: Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

In this week’s roundup: lots of confusion over whether the Florida school shooter was a white supremacist, the argument for being friends with racists and more.

This issue of The Hate Report begins with a deep, world-weary sigh.

On Thursday, news broke that Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old suspect in the Florida school shooting, had trained with a white supremacist militia called the Republic of Florida. By the end of the day, the story began to fall apart.

Here’s what we know:

  • An anonymous user on the anarchic far-right message board 4chan posted a message Wednesday, the day of the shooting, claiming to be a former member of Republic of Florida and that Cruz was also part of the group.
  • The Anti-Defamation League saw the 4chan post, visited the group’s website and called the contact phone number listed. Over the phone, the group’s leader, Jordan Jereb, said Cruz was a member of the Tallahassee-based hate group and had participated in some of its military-style training exercises. The league published a blog post with its findings Thursday morning.
  • Jereb gave additional interviews with other media outlets, such as The Daily Beast and The Associated Press, and claimed that another member of the group had purchased a gun for Cruz, though not the one used in the shooting.
  • ABC News reported that three of Cruz’s classmates said he was a member of the Republic of Florida.

At this point, things start to go sideways:

  • Law enforcement officials told the Tallahassee Democrat they had found no connection between Cruz and the Republic of Florida.
  • 4chan users began to openly talk about how the entire thing was a hoax designed to trick journalists into accidentally reporting fake news. 4chan has a long history of intentional deceptions, so both the initial assertion of a connection between Cruz and Republic of Florida, as well as the claims that it was a hoax, could be fake.
  • A thread on the white supremacist site The Right Stuff claimed a private group on the video gaming chat platform Discord, in which Jereb participates, was responsible for the hoax. As with 4chan, everything about these claims should be treated with extreme skepticism.
  • Posting on the alt-right social network Gab, Jereb claimed the entire thing was “a legit misunderstanding because we have MULTIPLE people named Nicholas in ROF, And I got a bunch of conflicting information and I have not slept for like 2 days.” Naturally, he blamed the “lying Jew media” for the mix-up. We reached out to Jereb to figure out what’s actually happening, but he did not respond.

So where does that leave us?

The two things we know for sure are that 17 people were shot dead at a Florida high school and Jereb is involved with a hate group called the Republic of Florida. Whether those two facts are in any way connected is inconclusive. Regardless of the connection, several of the suspect’s former classmates told The Daily Beast that Cruz did harbor racist views, and BuzzFeed News reported that he wrote racist posts online.

There are some lessons we all should take away from this incident:

1. It’s often difficult for the media to get accurate information in the wake of a mass shooting. Refer to On The Media’s Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook when there’s a mass shooting in the news. It’s crucial information for how to process what you’re reading.  

2. Whenever you read about anything having to do with 4chan, remember the site’s users love nothing more than lying to outsiders for kicks.

3. Take all public statements from white supremacist leaders with a grain of salt. Many of these groups seek the spotlight to increase their profile. In a 2014 blog post, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that Jereb was desperate for attention, begging the organization repeatedly to get mentioned on its list of hate groups.  

4. The internet was a mistake.

A little more background on Republic of Florida

The group proudly promotes violence in support of white supremacy. A code of conduct on the its website urges members to prepare themselves to engage in violence:

If battle is to become necessary I pledge to fight to the best of my ability, And to train to become better. I will do my best to maintain a level of physical fitness- You cannot fight if you are tired and weak.

Here’s a screenshot from an FAQ hosted on the site:

The group, which labels itself a militia, posted a low-quality video showing members doing military training exercises and shooting guns last year. The lyrics of the song playing over the montage say, “Am I ready to fight for race and land? / We are marching on the streets at night. / We’re racists and we’re ready to fight.” The video was removed Thursday morning.

One aspect of the group highlights a growing trend within the white supremacist ecosystem: Republic of Florida’s website indicates it is officially a Christian organization; however, its membership is nearly half Odinists. A neopagan religion based on Nordic mythology, Odinism increasingly has become a driving spiritual force within the white supremacist movement.

As we reported last year, professed racist Odinists have been convicted of plotting – or pulling off – domestic terrorism attacks in at least six cases since 2001.

To befriend a Nazi?

On Tuesday, The New York Times announced it had hired Quinn Norton to write for its editorial pages about the consequences of technology.  

Within minutes of the announcement, Quinn’s friendship with neo-Nazi Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer stirred up backlash to the announcement. Auernheimer is a computer hacker and notorious internet troll who serves as the webmaster of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, which is dedicated to anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic writing. The site is being sued over unleashing a targeted harassment campaign against a Jewish family.

Norton had written about her friendship with Auernheimer, claiming that she’s repeatedly pushed him to abandon white supremacy. However, those assertions weren’t enough, and her history of homophobic tweets certainly didn’t help matters. The Times said it was unaware of this part of Norton’s past and cut ties with her within hours.

That raises the question: Should you be friends with neo-Nazis? Maybe not, if you’re writing house editorials for one of the world’s most important newspapers.

But Brad Galloway, a former neo-Nazi who left the movement and now studies it from the outside, told us that friendships with people outside the hate movement – people who remained his friends even though they knew his associations – were a major factor that pushed him to leave.

Galloway said:

One of the main things for me in leaving the movement was waking up every day and having to hate someone. You’ve go to be involved in this mentally, day in and day out. I’m thinking about all these people who I know from minority communities, who I work with on a daily basis, who are fantastic people. But, in my other life, I have to hate them? It’s hard to bring yourself to hate people who treat you with compassion, who treat you well, who treat you like an individual. Some of these people I still talk to. Even though I was involved in all that stuff, they’re still willing to treat me with respect. How could I hate these people?

Maintaining ties with a white supremacist is certainly easier for a white person, such as Norton, than for a person of color, who may fear for his or her personal safety when standing directly in front of someone espousing neo-Nazi rhetoric. In a 2017 blog post, Norton argued it was the obligation of every white person to confront the racism of the people in their lives, rather than hide by turning their backs on friends and loved ones with abhorrent beliefs.

“The work white people need to do right now is sitting with, and engaging with, the racists who care about what we think,” she wrote.

Pete Simi, a professor at Chapman University, interviewed dozens of former white supremacists for a paper looking at why they left the movement. He found positive personal relationships with people outside the movement were a major factor in inducing them to exit hate groups.

“If you purely stigmatize people and don’t offer them opportunities for redemption and reintegration, then you create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Simi said. “You prevent the possibility that the person might leave or change because you’ve given them no opportunity.”

If those involved in white supremacy are shunned by everyone in their lives outside of the movement, the only people still talking to them are other racists who only reinforce their hate.

The trick, Simi noted, is avoiding sending mixed messages. Maintaining connections with someone in a hate group is one thing, but condoning that part of their lives, even implicitly, is another.

Odinists coming to Tennessee

White supremacist group Wotans Nation reportedly has purchased a 40-acre plot in rural Tennessee with plans to build a closed community for “folkish heathens,” according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

While there is no hard data on how many practicing Odinists or Wotanists exist in the U.S., former members of the white supremacist movement and experts who study it say this twisted version of Nordic beliefs is fast becoming the de facto religion of America’s racist far right.    

In our reporting, we learned that self-described Wotanists (the term derives from the Germanic name for the god Odin) are especially likely to also identify as white supremacists. WOTAN is also an acronym for Will of The Aryan Nation, a term coined by former white supremacist leader David Lane, who died in prison in 2007. Lane also coined the “14 words,” a popular motto among modern neo-Nazis and white supremacists.    

As soon as the Times Free Press story came out, both the Wotans Nation Facebook page and website shut down. It’s unclear whether the compound project will continue. We’ll be watching.  

Far left and far right are fighting again

Remember last summer when every week seemed to bring a big showdown between America’s far right and far left? Anti-fascists and white supremacists traded blows perhaps most notably in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in successive battles in Berkeley, California, that led to arrests and prosecutions.

Then things went quiet for a few months. Apart from a few small scuffles and half-hearted rallies, we haven’t heard much from far-right provocateurs or their black-clad antifa nemeses.

That changed Saturday. A rally hosted by the College Republicans at the University of Washington in Seattle turned violent about 75 minutes in, resulting in five arrests and several fights. A rally there last year by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos also turned violent, with multiple arrests and one protester being shot and injured.

The recent violence followed a similar pattern. Anti-fascist protesters remained largely peaceful until members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, who had been invited to the event, left an area that had been cordoned off and walked into the opposing crowd.

“Swearing, spitting, shouting and fighting followed,” The Seattle Times reported.

Joey Gibson, who runs Patriot Prayer, instigated a similar fight in September in Berkeley when he and a supporter bypassed thousands of peaceful marchers to walk directly into a group of angry protesters.

We dedicated a full podcast hour to telling the story of Gibson’s provocations in Berkeley and the melee that ensued.

A duo of hate crimes

Two notable hate-related crimes caught our attention this week:

  • In Cincinnati, an SUV was spray-painted with swastikas and the words “go home,” “terrorist” and “Trump America.” The community later held an impromptu rally in support of the car’s owner.
  • An Uber passenger in Moline, Illinois, is accused of pointing a gun at the head of his Sikh driver and saying, “I hate turban people. I hate beard people.” Officials are looking into filing hate crime charges.

Dunking on hate

After a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student appeared in an online video touting violent white nationalism, the school’s basketball team wasn’t standing for it. While the school declined to expel the student, citing his constitutionally protected right to free speech, the team presented a united front.

Every member of the team tweeted, “Hate will never win.”

“What I’m proud of is, they’re taking a strong stand in putting a positive message out against hate, racism, prejudice,” coach Tim Miles told the Lincoln Journal Star. “This is not a one-time thing. This is something we want to continue, to champion that cause, and I’m proud of the guys for that.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this story misstated where the Uber hate incident occurred. It was in Moline, Illinois. An earlier version also incorrectly included a 2014 hate incident in a list of the week’s notable hate crimes.

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Aaron Sankin is a reporter for Reveal covering online extremism, election administration and technology policy. Before joining Reveal, he was a founding editor of The Huffington Post's San Francisco vertical and a senior staff writer on The Daily Dot's politics team. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Time, The Motley Fool, Mashable, Business Insider, San Francisco magazine and The Onion. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Sankin studied history and sociology at Rice University. His work at The Daily Dot was a finalist in Digiday's 2015 publisher of the year award, and a story he wrote about a Midwestern family being terrorized by a teenage hacker was labeled by The Atlantic as an essential piece of journalism for 2015. Sankin is based in Seattle.

Will Carless was a correspondent for Reveal covering extremism. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia and South America. Prior to joining Reveal, he was a senior correspondent for Public Radio International’s Global Post team based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before that, Will spent eight years at the Voice of San Diego, where he worked as an investigative reporter and head of investigations. During his tenure in San Diego, Will was awarded several prizes, including a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has been a finalist for the Livingston Awards for young journalists twice in the last five years. He surfs, spends time with his family, travels to silly places and pretends he’s writing a novel.