The white-nationalist forum Stormfront hosts discussions on a wide range of topics, from politics to guns to The Lord of the Rings. And of particular and enduring interest: genetic ancestry tests. For white nationalists, DNA tests are a way to prove their racial purity. Of course, their results don’t always come back that way. And how white nationalists try to explain away non-European ancestry is rather illuminating of their beliefs.
Two years ago—before Donald Trump was elected president, before white nationalism had become central to the political conversation—Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, sociologists then at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to study Stormfront forum posts about genetic ancestry tests. They presented their study at the American Sociological Association meeting this Monday. After the events in Charlottesville this week, their research struck a particular chord with the audience.
“For academics, there was some uneasiness around hearing that science is being used in this way and that some of the critiques that white nationalists are making of genetics are the same critiques social scientists make of genetics,” says Donovan, who recently took up a position at the Data & Society Research Institute. On Stormfront, the researchers did encounter conspiracy theories and racist rants, but some white-nationalist interpretations of genetic ancestry tests were in fact quite sophisticated—and their views cannot all be easily dismissed as ignorance.