Otto Warmbier, White Supremacists, and the Ugliness of Internet Speech

Contributors to white supremacist Internet sites are basking in the tragic ordeal of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier.  A brief foray into the world of the far-right Internet raises the specter that unregulated speech leads not to truth, but to poorly reasoned vitriol (and sometimes much worse).  Fighting speech with speech does not seem to work here.  The more these sites proliferate, the more women and minorities may fear expressing their opinions publicly (these sites even encourage readers to harass people).  Allowing the speech of the far right may thus chill the speech of others.  There is no great solution to this problem, an unfathomable sector of angry people echoing their own views.  Their presence on the Internet can, however, help us understand our own pathologies in discourse, and remind us of the justifications for First Amendment protections.  Plus, there are things we can and should do to engage with these websites.


The details of Otto Warmbier’s detention and release in North Korea have captured the nation – and for good reason. North Korea’s treatment of highly intelligent, accomplished, and regarded Otto Warmbier demonstrates the injustices perpetrated by a country seeking to achieve a “single-minded unity.”  Otto’s imprisonment, forced confession, and show trial, for a piddling “crime” he may not even have committed, violate the due process values central to the most basic system of justice.  The tour company he used – run by Brits and Aussies – refused to condemn North Korea’s actions, and continued to run drinking tours through the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as usual.  Otto’s release in a comatose state, which began over a year ago and of which his parents were unaware until recently, is further evidence that North Korea is the most authoritarian and backwards regime on the planet.  The abject horror of what Otto experienced has been experienced by hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.

Yet, in one part of the Internet, white supremacists mock Otto’s plight, discuss his “Jew privilege,” and wish him death.  They peddle in misinformation – calling him a crybaby with no understanding that North Korea tells its captors to project tearful, dramatic confessions.   Some of the sites heavily moderate their comments to achieve an echo chamber of racists, anti-Semites, sexists, and homophobes.  The proliferation of these websites allows like-minded bigots to amplify their generalizations, stereotypes, resentment, and rage.

I accidentally stumbled upon these websites after days of pouring over information about Otto Warmbier, because I am unable, like many, to forget him.  I was unaware that Otto had a connection to Judaism until the alt-right told me so, along with their theories that the ACLU and Communism are Jewish enterprises.  If you haven’t visited sites like stormfront and 4chan, I suggest checking them out.  They are indefatigable in their desire to repeat the same hateful generalizations.

Visiting these websites validates the view of some scholars that robust free speech rights are not the path to truth or enlightenment.  I question that view, and also subscribe to the deontological argument that free speech is the right of autonomous moral agents and is not of solely instrumental value.

The problem with calls to restrict these white supremacist sites, of course, is that their speech cannot be regulated without compromising all sorts of other speech.  Arguably, there are principled reasons for targeting hateful speech for regulation; lots of other countries do so.   But a major argument in support of free speech values, even for hateful, offensive speech, is that the desire to restrict objectionable speech – in order to advance what is considered a worthwhile agenda — lives in all of us, not just in North Korean dictators.  We must remain wary of that drive.

These white supremacist sites differ from the rest of the angry, ill-informed internet only in their views.  Plenty of other types of speech lead, somewhere along an attenuated chain of causation, to harm, and plenty of other speakers on the Internet are obnoxiously angry and factually self-serving.  The real difference between alt-right sites and the rest of the Internet is the viewpoints expressed.  First Amendment rights and rule of law principles – two concepts which profoundly separate us from North Korea – require that this speech not be treated differently based on its viewpoint.  If we cannot regulate other Internet sites with narrative-confirming speakers across the political spectrum, we cannot target these websites for punishment.  So, the alt-right speech stays.  But we can do something, and we can learn from it.

Here’s what I think people should do.  Visit these sites and see what their communities believe.  Then comment, respectfully, to refute some of their generalizations.  I would do this anonymously to avoid doxing (and there are ways to hide an Internet trail). For example, “Hi, I am Erica, but I am not a Communist, and I should not be held responsible for atrocities committed by people who happened to be members of my ethnicity (along with many other ethnicities) decades before I was born.”  This seems absurd, but confirmatory bias can eventually be overcome.  You can diversify the discourse on these polarized sites.  At the very least, the racist moderator will know you exist.  These sites can be flooded by those who disagree, instead of avoided because they are so terrible.

There are also lessons to be learned from even brief visits to these websites.  We should learn to be suspicious of blogs with heavily moderated comments, and of our own tendencies to congregate around others who share our views.  Alt-right websites offer deeply disturbing evidence of how biases perpetuate – through extrapolations from data without attending to counterarguments.  This is a problem not just for white supremacists, but for the views of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians as well.  We should learn the harms of ideological bubbles and their capacity to eviscerate good reasoning.  We should try to be less certain of our opinions, because we all have blindspots yet to be uncovered.  We should note the dangerous desire to have one’s views fully affirmed, no matter how insidious.  We should observe what happens when people feel alienated from the mainstream, because certain perspectives are unwelcome.

And we can learn the opposite- that there needs to be protected spaces for people to congregate with those who share their views.  The ability to connect with like-minded people fosters community and amplifies voices.  There is a value in affirming your own views and realizing you’re not alone – but that value is perilous if you don’t also allow those views to be challenged and potentially undermined.


A great wish of mine is that we also learn to be nicer to each other in discourse.  The sarcasm and snideness that permeates our discourse, even among the most sophisticated, is borne of a sense of certainty – often misplaced —  in one’s views.  It is also borne of contempt for others, and contempt destroys both relationships and discourse.

To Otto and his family, I am so terribly sorry for what you have experienced.  At this moment, all I can offer is to continue working to keep this country from becoming anything resembling North Korea.

[Edit: Otto Warmbier has died.  My deepest condolences and sorrow to the family.]