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'Unite The Right' White Nationalist Rally Drowned Out By Counterprotesters


They promised 400. They delivered a few dozen. A small turnout for the white nationalist rally yesterday here in Washington, D.C. They were unable to muster the numbers of the violent Unite the Right rally last year. And those who did show up were confronted by hundreds and hundreds of counterprotesters. NPR's Tim Mak is here to talk about the D.C. rally, the internal disputes within white nationalism and how social media can distort the true reach of extremist viewpoints. Tim's here in the studio. Hey, there.


KELLY: So give us a fuller picture of who actually did turn up yesterday.

MAK: So there were approximately a few dozen white nationalist demonstrators. They arrived in Washington, D.C., yesterday. But they were vastly outnumbered by the number of police assigned to protect them. They were vastly outnumbered by the number of reporters present to observe them. And they were certainly outnumbered by the many, many counterprotesters whose chants just drowned them out. Other prominent white nationalists - like David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK, he declined to come. And, you know, last year - you compare it to last year when white nationalists were able to rally hundreds of supporters in Charlottesville with disastrous and violent results.

KELLY: So why? I mean, why didn't we see numbers this past weekend on the same level as we saw in Charlottesville last year?

MAK: So there's a big divide right now, interestingly enough, among white nationalists about whether public demonstrations are actually the best strategy for them. Many have argued that the violent clashes in Charlottesville last year, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, was actually a serious disaster for their cause. White nationalists that showed up, their faces were in some cases identified, and they lost their jobs. Two men were convicted in the beating of a black man in Charlottesville. And the white nationalist accused of killing Heather Heyer now faces trial in that case this November. One prominent white nationalist website argued actually, before the march this year, that the only way to grow their ranks is to do so in a culture war, not in public demonstrations. And they actually said their followers should not attend this year's protests.

KELLY: It sounds like what you're saying is, just because we didn't see that many people out on the streets yesterday, we should not necessarily leap to the conclusion that this movement has fizzled out - that it's losing steam.

MAK: Yeah, I think it's a bad conclusion to say, oh, well, there's less of a threat now than there was before - just that the preferred tactics for white nationalists have been deeply shaped by the events in Charlottesville last year. The folks who spend their professional life monitoring extremist groups, they say that there's actually an increased concern for violence as the movement becomes more splintered, more volatile and harder to predict. Here's how one person on a white supremacist message board argued would be more effective than attending rallies, like the one we saw yesterday - that they should popularize white nationalism, quote, "discreetly and slowly educating those around them," unquote.

KELLY: Interesting. OK, so they're thinking hard about their tactics. One thing that leapt out at me was that, even though there was a very small turnout, as we've noted, this white nationalist event was all over my Twitter feed yesterday. It was prominent all over social media. How should we read that?

MAK: It's really interesting because - you remember - two weeks ago, Facebook removed more than 30 accounts from their networks. And these accounts were linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency troll farms. And they were apparently trying to boost counterprotests to the white nationalist rally. It looked like a bid to up the chaos factor here in Washington, D.C. We've learned a lot about how social media interacts with our democracy, with protests and with popular movements over the last couple of years. And that interaction doesn't always yield positive results.

There's a big problem in believing that social media is actually a good reflection of the world around us because you can see that social media can be used by everyone - from white nationalists to the Russian government to antifa extremists - to boost their signals and seem larger than they actually are. I mean, I'll give you an example. At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month, the CEO of a social media organization said that automated accounts on the extreme left and extreme right produces 25 to 30 times the amount of messages that genuine accounts produce.

KELLY: Interesting, lots still to study there in terms of social media and its interaction with this white nationalist movement and others. NPR's Tim Mak reporting. Thanks very much.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONO'S "DREAM ODYSSEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.