Thursday, 17 August 2017

STAT/Eric Boodnman: White nationalists are flocking to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like what they find


White nationalists are flocking to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like what they find   

By Eric Boodman @ericboodman

August 16, 2017   

White supremacist Craig Cobb found out on a daytime TV show that DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.”
Kevin Cederstrom/AP

It was a strange moment of triumph against racism: The gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb, dressed up for daytime TV in a dark suit and red tie, hearing that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered. And Cobb — who was, in 2013, charged with terrorizing people while trying to create an all-white enclave in North Dakota — reacted like a sore loser in the schoolyard.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute,” he said, trying to put on an all-knowing smile. “This is called statistical noise.”

Then, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he took to the white nationalist website Stormfront to dispute those results. That’s not uncommon: With the rise of spit-in-a-cup genetic testing, there’s a trend of white nationalists using these services to prove their racial identity, and then using online forums to discuss the results.

But like Cobb, many are disappointed to find out that their ancestry is not as “white” as they’d hoped. In a new study, sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan examined years’ worth of posts on Stormfront to see how members dealt with the news.

It’s striking, they say, that white nationalists would post these results online at all. After all, as Panofsky put it, “they will basically say if you want to be a member of Stormfront you have to be 100 percent white European, not Jewish.”
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But instead of rejecting members who get contrary results, Donovan said, the conversations are “overwhelmingly” focused on helping the person to rethink the validity of the genetic test. And some of those critiques — while emerging from deep-seated racism — are close to scientists’ own qualms about commercial genetic ancestry testing.

Panofsky and Donovan presented their findings at a sociology conference in Montreal on Monday. The timing of the talk — some 48 hours after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — was coincidental. But the analysis provides a useful, if frightening, window into how these extremist groups think about their genes.
Reckoning with results

Stormfront was launched in the mid-1990s by Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His skills in computer programming were directly related to his criminal activities: He learned them while in prison for trying to invade the Caribbean island nation of Dominica in 1981, and then worked as a web developer after he got out. That means this website dates back to the early years of the internet, forming a kind of deep archive of online hate.

To find relevant comments in the 12 million posts written by over 300,000 members, the authors enlisted a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, to search for terms like “DNA test,” “haplotype,” “23andMe,” and “National Geographic.” Then the researchers combed through the posts they found, not to mention many others as background. Donovan, who has moved from UCLA to the Data & Society Research Institute, estimated that she spent some four hours a day reading Stormfront in 2016. The team winnowed their results down to 70 discussion threads in which 153 users posted their genetic ancestry test results, with over 3,000 individual posts.

About a third of the people posting their results were pleased with what they found. “Pretty damn pure blood,” said a user with the username Sloth. But the majority didn’t find themselves in that situation. Instead, the community often helped them reject the test, or argue with its results.
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Some rejected the tests entirely, saying that an individual’s knowledge about his or her own genealogy is better than whatever a genetic test can reveal. “They will talk about the mirror test,” said Panofsky, who is a sociologist of science at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. “They will say things like, ‘If you see a Jew in the mirror looking back at you, that’s a problem; if you don’t, you’re fine.'” Others, he said, responded to unwanted genetic results by saying that those kinds of tests don’t matter if you are truly committed to being a white nationalist. Yet others tried to discredit the genetic tests as a Jewish conspiracy “that is trying to confuse true white Americans about their ancestry,” Panofsky said.

But some took a more scientific angle in their critiques, calling into doubt the method by which these companies determine ancestry — specifically how companies pick those people whose genetic material will be considered the reference for a particular geographical group.

And that criticism, though motivated by very different ideas, is one that some researchers have made as well, even as other scientists have used similar data to better understand how populations move and change.

“There is a mainstream critical literature on genetic ancestry tests — geneticists and anthropologists and sociologists who have said precisely those things: that these tests give an illusion of certainty, but once you know how the sausage is made, you should be much more cautious about these results,” said Panofsky.
A community’s genetic rules

Companies like and 23andMe are meticulous in how they analyze your genetic material. As points of comparison, they use both preexisting datasets as well as some reference populations that they have recruited themselves. The protocol includes genetic material from thousands of individuals, and looks at thousands of genetic variations.

“When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the country isn’t a colonial nation like the U.S., Canada, or Australia — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data,” explained Jhulianna Cintron, a product specialist at 23andMe. Then, she went on, the company excludes close relatives, as that could distort the data, and removes outliers whose genetic data don’t seem to match with what they wrote on their survey.

But specialists both inside and outside these companies recognize that the geopolitical boundaries we use now are pretty new, and so consumers may be using imprecise categories when thinking about their own genetic ancestry within the sweeping history of human migration. And users’ ancestry results can change depending on the dataset to which their genetic material is being compared — a fact which some Stormfront users said they took advantage of, uploading their data to various sites to get a more “white” result.

J. Scott Roberts, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who has studied consumer use of genetic tests and was not involved with the study, said the companies tend to be reliable at identifying genetic variants. Interpreting them in terms of health risk or ancestry, though, is another story. “The science is often murky in those areas and gives ambiguous information,” he said. “They try to give specific percentages from this region, or x percent disease risk, and my sense is that that is an artificially precise estimate.”
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For the study authors, what was most interesting was to watch this online community negotiating its own boundaries, rethinking who counts as “white.” That involved plenty of contradictions. They saw people excluded for their genetic test results, often in very nasty (and unquotable) ways, but that tended to happen for newer members of the anonymous online community, Panofsky said, and not so much for longtime, trusted members. Others were told that they could remain part of white nationalist groups, in spite of the ancestry they revealed, as long as they didn’t “mate,” or only had children with certain ethnic groups. Still others used these test results to put forth a twisted notion of diversity, one “that allows them to say, ‘No, we’re really diverse and we don’t need non-white people to have a diverse society,'” said Panofsky.

That’s a far cry from the message of reconciliation that genetic ancestry testing companies hope to promote.

“Sweetheart, you have a little black in you,” the talk show host Trisha Goddard told Craig Cobb on that day in 2013. But that didn’t stop him from redoing the test with a different company, trying to alter or parse the data until it matched his racist worldview.

Eric Boodman is a general assignment reporter.

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    August 17, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Typical of the Alt-right to reject scientific evidence when they don’t like the conclusion to which it points.

    “I’ll see it when I believe it.”
    Matthew Hartman
    August 17, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    Semi related, Trump asks a reporter if we should take down statues of Jefferson because he was a huge slave owner?

    I say yes. Founding father or not, owning human beings as property is morally and spirtually wrong and celebrating a person who practiced those ideals IS immoral, regardless if in his time it was “normalized”. What if we found out Jefferson also molested and trafficked children as sex slaves? How would we view and celebrate him then?

    Symbols like statues that represent oppression of others have no business sitting next to public buildings like courthouses that are supposed to represent all of it’s citizens, according to the ideals of the United States. Put them in a museum if they must serve as a reminder of how not to be a decent human being.
    Matthew Hartman
    August 17, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    What many don’t realize is that the science on genetics and population shifts is not conclusive by any means. Science is still, in 2017 trying to understand the extent of cross-breading with an entirely seperate hominoid species, we know as the Neanderthals, (there are about 16 other humanoid species discovered besides Homosapien I believe, maybe more or more to be discovered) and we have missing links between the evolution chain of ape to human, let alone the invasion and cross breeding of racial groups, societies and tribes that happened countless times throughout history.

    The point is the science is not fully baked. And does that stop any of us from living a good and positive life right now? The only way one could be limited is mentally.

    Does it really matter where any of us come from that determines any kind of limitations one can’t overcome, besides perhaps geo political?

    People commonly confuse nationalism and geographical customs with genetics. By this period in our history, hardly anyone alive is genetically “pure”, unless one desries to be a Chimpanzee.

    In fact, we need to remove the word “pure” from our mental vocabulary. Genetics are about DNA and it’s variance is where the science becomes particulary interesting.

    Religion has done a lot of damage to cement ideas and concepts of “us against them”. The quicker we as a global society can remove ideas of “good vs. evil”, the quicker we can treat one another as relative to ourselves, and the quicker we will realize our full potential and strength as a species, and may have a shot at saving it.

    These white supremacist are practicing a ritual that was created before we had concrete science. Customs and ideas like this have no intelligent place in society in 2017. It’s akin to still believing the Earth is flat. It’s time to graduate.
        Brent Holman
        August 17, 2017 at 3:15 pm

        Everyone has 3-5% Neanderthal DNA, Except Some Africans Living In Africa That Have None, Which Makes Them The Purest Form Of Homo-Sapiens
        On The Planet. Kinda Knocks The White Supremacists’ Ideology Out.
        Accident Of History Is Why White Europeans Ended Up On Top Anyway.
        The Fine Print Says OWNS The DNA People Send In Forever, By The Way
    August 17, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    I used and discovered that I am 100% European. I wasn’t surprised about that, but I did discover that I had ancestors from Poland and Finland (which I knew), England, Russia, Ireland and Scandinavia. Very interesting.
    Charles Ludmer
    August 17, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    These pathetic losers have nothing going for them except, hey, they were clever enough to get born. They are the schoolyard bullies, who are so insecure that they have to find something, anything, to distinguish themselves and to antagonize others. The hatred that arises from their insecurity actually reflects their recognition that others are brighter, better athletes or simply better human beings than they are.
        Brent Holman
        August 17, 2017 at 3:19 pm

        Losers Following Losers; A Lost Cause. Someone Pointed Out Nazis/Confederates Lost Wars To Other Whites & Somehow Blame POC
        Most Of Them Are 3rd Gen Euro-Trash At Best; No One Could Stand Them In Europe, Now They’re Here Causing Trouble
        My Ancestor Fought In The Civil War To Preserve The Union HIS Ancestor Helped Create In The War For Independance
        Matthew Hartman
        August 17, 2017 at 3:25 pm

        @Charles Ludmer:

        I agree about subconscious insecurities, but not all white supremacists fit that persona, and I think we should be careful in attaching a board prescription like this upon them all.

        At our core, we are all insecure or afraid of something, and we need to draw upon these commonalities to help these people get past their destructive and ignorant viewpoints. A lot of them have been indoctrinated form birth, but that does not mean they’re throw away trash. It means they need help from those of us that see what they are unable or unwilling to see. Wishing harm, hate or even death upon them closes your own spiritual path towards liberation from suffering.

        The first victim of the car that plowed into the crowd that killed a beautiful young woman is actually the driver. His karmic record is dark, and he will suffer the most, and endlessly until he choices to become more educated and more compassionate of others. It’s this type of big picture view that is needed to bring this issue this country faces to healing.

        I know this is a hard line to tow in a country that is steep in self interest, but it is the ONLY way out.
    August 17, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Setting aside the undeniable scadenfreude at the racists’ results, mistakes do happen. An African-American friend of my was identified as being exclusively Chinese and Hawaiian! No idea how that happened, but I do wonder if someone is sitting on the Big Island scratching their head in utter bafflement.

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