Our new blog contributor, Danielle Dirks, wrote her inaugural post for us about the SPLC’s report on the rise in hate groups, which other bloggers have noted as well. I wanted to say just a bit more about one aspect of that story, the presence of racism and white supremacy online in the Obama era. I’ve referred to this here and elsewhere as cyber racism.
While one conservative blogger claims to “debunk” the SPLC’s Intelligence Report and Don Black’s assertions about his website’s traffic using Alexa web trafficking data, the fact is that using Alexa’s data supports the claim of an increased interested in white supremacy online driven by the election of President Obama. Take a look at this graph of the last six months of traffic to the site:
As you can see, there’s a significant uptick in traffic to Stormfront around the time of the election and then again a few weeks after that. However, web traffic to the site seems to be falling off more recently (I’d predict a slight uptick following all this coverage).
Now, data from Alexa can be tricky and shouldn’t be taken at face value. Let me explain. The way Alexa is able to track web traffic is by getting information from people that have downloaded the Alexa Toolbar to their browser, as the plainly state on their site:
Alexa’s traffic rankings are based on the usage patterns of Alexa Toolbar users and data collected from other, diverse sources over a rolling 3 month period.
Ok, show of hands…how many of you reading this have downloaded the Alexa Toolbar? Right. Not that many. So, in effect, Alexa is estimating web traffic based on the statistical probability of the behavior of toolbar users; this is what they call “Data Normalization” :
We correct for potential biases in the data collected from our Alexa Toolbar to better represent those types of site visitors who might not use an Alexa Toolbar.
Alexa is a standard, and fairly reliable, tool that web designers, marketing folks and even sociologists (I included a few Alexa graphs in my forthcoming book), but it’s important to know that as a statistical measure it has some limitations. Faced with an imperfect measurement tool, sociologists often do what’s called “triangulation” which is just another way of saying they find another tool to double-check the first one. In this case, if you wanted to double-check the traffic at Stormfront using a source that was separate from their reporting, you could use Big Boards, a site that keeps track of web traffic for sites that use discussion board software, like the vBulletin software that Stormfront uses. By looking at Big Boards, you can see verification of the upward trend at Stormfront over the last few months:
As you can see from these two charts generated by Big Boards (not Stormfront), the trend in traffic is clearly upward over time. Furthermore, the statistics for registered users for Stormfront according to Big Boards is: 160,516. When my book went to press a couple of months ago, I’d listed the number of registered users as Stormfront as “over 124,000” and in the CNN report, Don Black actually underestimates the number of members as “110,000.” So, there does seem to be evidence to support the idea that the election of President Obama has spurred an increase in traffic to these sites. The key idea to keep in mind here is not that the Internet is luring people into white supremacy online, it’s that people are seeking out these kinds of ideas in response to our first African American president.
One final note about the methodology of the SPLC report. The authors of the Intelligence Report explain their method, in less than sufficient detail, here:
This list was compiled using hate group publications and websites, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports. Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing. Websites appearing to be merely the work of a single individual, rather than the publication of a group, are not included in this list.
While this is maddeningly little detail by sociological standards, what this snippet does suggest is that we should be cautious about conflating “registered users” and “social movement membership.” In other words, just because someone is a frequent visitor to a racist website doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re members of the white supremacist social movement. But then, that’s a post for another time.