In late June, as much of the nation mourned the killing of nine parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, was busy posting articles on a different issue: black crime against white people. "Adolescent Ape Jailed for Murdering White Man Out of Boredom," one headline blared.
And after Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old high school dropout and the apparent author of a vitriolic anti-black diatribe, was arrested and charged with the killings, commenters on another white supremacist site, Stormfront.org, lamented something else: the possibility of the massacre’s leading to gun control. "Jews want the white man’s guns. End of story," one person wrote from Utah.
In the wake of the church massacre, many white supremacist groups have rushed to disavow any link to Roof and any role in the murders. And while Roof appears to have been in contact with some white supremacists online, investigators say it does not appear that those people encouraged or assisted in the deadly shootings.
Still, the authorities say, Roof had clearly embraced their worldview. As investigators comb through the data streams of Roof’s electronic equipment, a four-page manifesto apparently written by him before the killings offers a virtual road map to modern-day white supremacy. It contains bitter complaints about black crime and immigration, espousing the virtues of segregation and debating the viability of an all-white enclave in the Pacific Northwest.
That manifesto has refocused attention on a shadowy movement that, for all its ideological connections to the white racists of the past, is more regionally diverse and sophisticated than its predecessors, experts say.
They say it is capable, through its robust online presence, of reaching an audience far wider than the small number of actual members attributed to it.
"There’s really not a lot out there as far as membership organizations," said Don Black, who runs a supremacist website, Stormfront.org. "But there is a huge number, I think more than ever, as far as people actively working in some way to promote our cause. Because they don’t have to join an organization now that we have this newfangled Internet."
Experts dispute the number of movement supporters but agree about its efforts to modernize. While the virulent racism of old can still be found online, the movement today also includes more button-down websites run by white nationalism think tanks with vanity publishing units. Most of the best-known organizations also claim to have disavowed the violence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Richard B. Spencer, the 37-year-old president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute in Whitefish, Montana, embodies this new generation.
He holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and studied for a doctorate in history at Duke University. Now he runs an organization that produces papers on issues like racial differences in intelligence and the crime rate among Hispanic immigrants.
"America as it is currently constituted – and I don’t just mean the government; I mean America as constituted spiritually and ideologically – is the fundamental problem," he said in an interview. "I don’t support and agree with much of anything America is doing in the world."
But precisely because the movement is more atomized and has been rendered more anonymous by the Internet, law enforcement officials say it has become harder to track potentially violent lone-wolf terrorists who might draw inspiration from white supremacist sites without being actively involved in the organizations.
"White supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy – separate from any formalized group – which hampers warning efforts," said a Department of Homeland Security report issued in 2009. The report came under fierce criticism from conservatives, who said it unfairly painted them as terrorists.
If the movement has a leading edge, it is Stormfront.org, an online discussion forum. With about 40,000 visitors a day, it is perhaps the most popular supremacist site in the world based on page views, with more than 1 million a month (a figure that includes repeat visitors).
Black, its 61-year-old proprietor, straddles the movement’s generational divide: a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama decades ago, he later ushered in the movement’s Internet era with Stormfront.org in 1995, and followed up with a two-hour weekday Internet radio show.
Stormfront’s website, operated by Black out of his home in West Palm Beach, Florida, features the slogan "White Pride World Wide." It is primarily a chat room, with discussion threads that range from innocuous cooking tips to diatribes against gays, immigrants, Jews and blacks.
Black said he had broken from the Klan because it had a history of "random and senseless violence." But he also said he could not rule out violent conflict as white people tried to promote what he called "our heritage, our values," and attempted to realize the dream of a separate all-white enclave.
"I personally would like to see it play out peacefully," he said. "Unfortunately I took too many history classes, and history is not filled with a lot of peace. America is becoming balkanized just like the Balkans; we are breaking apart because of Hispanics – particularly in the Southwest – and other races."
Black was visited last week by FBI agents seeking information about Roof’s online associates, though he said there was no evidence that anybody had encouraged Roof to commit murder.
"This could obviously become overly broad and become a First Amendment issue," Black said, adding that such inquiries could have a chilling effect on free expression in online posts. He would not comment when asked if he had been served with a subpoena, but said lawyers were involved.
A young challenger to Stormfront.org’s influence is The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi mixture of message boards and sarcastic commentary begun by 30-year-old Andrew Anglin in 2013. He started it amid a national uproar over the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black youth, by a white neighborhood watch monitor in Florida, George Zimmerman.
Anglin was born in 1984. Like Black, he has a podcast.
The Daily Stormer offers frequently updated content, much of it provocatively raw and written by Anglin, who declined to be interviewed for this article but is believed to run the site out of suburban Columbus, Ohio. In a post on Friday headlined "Spineless Jewpublicans Respond to the Donald," Anglin took to task virtually the entire Republican presidential field for criticizing Donald Trump’s statements on Mexican immigrants.
Several organizations – the National Policy Institute, American Renaissance, the Charles Martel Society and its website The Occidental Observer – try to take a more highbrow approach, couching white nationalist arguments as academic commentary on black inferiority, the immigration threat to whites and other racial issues.
There are also two prominent groups with deep ties to the South: the Council of Conservative Citizens, which evolved from the pro-segregationist White Citizens Councils, and the League of the South, a sparsely trafficked site for hard-core secessionists. The manifesto attributed to Roof cited the council’s website as a source of information about black-on-white crime.
Many groups are said to be financially challenged. For instance, Stormfront.org struggles to raise $7,500 a month from about 800 "sustaining members" to cover expenses, Black said.
The exceptions are found among the highbrow organizations: The National Policy Institute and the Martel Society were founded and have been aided by William H. Regnery II, heir to a far-right publishing empire who also oversees a brace of anti-immigration lobbying groups. The Pioneer Fund, a 78-year-old nonprofit foundation that has stoked controversy with its interest in eugenics, also has aided the policy institute and American Renaissance.
In 2004, leaders of the movement met in New Orleans, ostensibly to celebrate the release of David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who had been imprisoned for fraudulent fundraising. There, eight major organizations signed an agreement intended to define the modern supremacist movement according to three unifying principles: honorable behavior among all signatories, a high tone in public presentations and zero tolerance for violence.
The degree to which followers of those groups have maintained the nonviolence pledge remains in dispute.
But the manifesto attributed to Roof included a chilling complaint about the movement’s disavowal of violence. "We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet," the paper read. "Well, someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."
Supremacist groups remain divided by rivalries and philosophical disputes. Those differences sometimes obscure a common goal: to re-establish exclusive white control of the United States or, should that prove impossible as many groups now concede, to build an all-white enclave with its own government and an army to defend it.
The League of the South seeks a second Southern secession. The Daily Stormer’s Anglin last month proposed building a white city, possibly in a foreign venue.
Spencer, who runs the National Policy Institute, said in an interview that he fantasized about an Aryan revival in the style of the Roman Empire. Others have proposed a white enclave in the Pacific Northwest, or "little Europe" towns across America.
Stormfront’s Black does not just talk about such aspirations: He spent two years in federal prison for an ill-fated attempt in 1981 to seize the Caribbean island of Dominica for conversion into an all-white paradise, financed by brothels and casinos. The authorities stopped him and his group as they were boarding a yacht with plans to stage a Dominica coup.
Where the masses will be found to establish such audacious and widely condemned ventures is not clear, even to their proponents. But Spencer noted that Karl Marx had founded communism with no adherents and a simple manifesto.
Black said he believed the online supremacist movement was not merely large but growing.
The Anti-Defamation League has identified some 10,000 white supremacists on websites and on social media like Facebook. But many more are said to be more like Roof, invisible and surfacing online only to make anonymous comments. Stormfront claims 300,000 registered members, although Black said only a small fraction were active on the site. Some 95 percent of the site’s visitors, he said, are anonymous outsiders.
Among the dozen or so main white supremacist websites, daily page views range from fewer than 1,000 to as many as 40,000, although that figure includes repeat page views.
An analysis of traffic to several major supremacist websites shows that many attracted spikes in interest late last year, around the time that anger over the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was touching off protests in cities and towns across the nation. But it remains far from clear whether it translated into a larger following for any of the groups.
Estimating the size of the white supremacy movement is "a murky guessing game," said Donald P. Green, a Columbia University professor and expert on hate crimes, because many racists are unwilling to declare a belief that mainstream Americans find abhorrent.
Gauging its effect on the Charleston murders, he said, is even harder.
"The idea that you could reaffirm someone’s ideology and maybe even sharpen or focus it on a particular target is something these sites are capable of doing," Green said.
As for the church shooting suspect, Roof, "We don’t know whether that was a marker for his violent predispositions or might be the cause of them," Green said. "It might be both."