This piece originally appeared in Alma.
After over a year of immersing herself into the darkest depths of white supremacy on the internet, Talia Lavin remains hopeful. Lavin, a Jewish reporter, went undercover into some of the most toxic chatrooms the “alt-right” has to offer — and is now telling her story, and the story of the rise of white supremacy in America, in “Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.”
“When I became the target of the far right, I felt my identity sort of burning inside of me,” Lavin explained to me one afternoon in late August. “As a Jewish woman, I was the brunt of all this anti-Semitism and misogyny. The misogyny is very overt — the threats and abuses are incredibly sexualized. It’s very keyed to my appearance. It’s really hard to disentangle these things, but because of my identity, I was targeted with a viciousness. And because of that viciousness, I decided to turn around and dive in. Not to disengage, but rather to turn towards the darkness — and to fight it.”
Lavin, who previously worked for Alma’s parent company 70 Faces Media, credits her experience at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as something that made her “re-conceive of anti-Semitism as something that was alive and present, and particularly thriving, on the internet.”
We discussed going undercover, social media platforms, bringing white supremacists into “the light” and collecting swords, among many other things.
This conversation has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
I love how, in the intro of your book, you write that to describe white supremacists is deprive them of the power to organize in total darkness — that writing about them is bringing them into the light. Can you talk about this concept?
One of the things that the people who are attracted to far right extremism crave is inspiring fear — being the boogeyman. And I [do] think they are quite dangerous. But to give them this mystique, and to say it’s this insurmountable problem — that it’s not even worth understanding the details — gives them the power that they haven’t earned, and shouldn’t have.
When you really delve into the details, when you look at the roots, when you expose where these sentiments are coming from, what they’re rooted in, who is expressing them and why, you get a better sense of the threat, and you also rob it of this sense of mystery. That is so crucial. So much of far right extremist imagery is the skull mask, the shields, and these sort of elements of disguise. When you pull off that skull mask, and you show the face beneath, I think that you rob them of the power of that sort of vicious Cheshire grin.
How do you personally navigate the internet and social media? How do you deal with your trolls?
Well, I collect swords and I have a crippling panic disorder.
No, but seriously. I got my first sword courtesy of my dad at a…
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