Is It Unethical To Pose as an Alt-Righter?

A 25-year-old graduate student went undercover, yielding captivating footage of extremists—and a moral dilemma.

White power tattoo is seen at a far-right festival in the village of Viereck, north of Berlin.
White power tattoo is seen at a far-right festival in the village of Viereck, north of Berlin. (Thomas Peter / Reuters)

The hidden-camera videos released this week by Patrik Hermansson show creepy people at their creepiest. White supremacists spoke to Hermansson, a 25-year-old Swede who first approached them a year ago, as if he were one of their own. To them, he presented an irresistible recruitment target: a real Aryan, with impeccable pigmentary credentials, studying white supremacists for a master’s project. The racists lapped up his presence, like alley-cats around a saucer of milk. He found roughly what you’d expect. The racists are racist, “to the point of being genocidal,” Hermansson told me—and they are even more racist when they think they’re among friends.

But the means he used to ingratiate himself to those groups has made a few researchers wonder whether he and his anti-racist organization, the U.K.-based Hope Not Hate, acted unethically by (in the words of Jesse Singal in The New York Times) “posing as a student writing a thesis about the suppression of right-wing speech.” On Monday, the jihadism scholar Thomas Hegghammer tweeted that the project “strikes me as highly unethical. Posing as Ph.D. student [with a] fake project makes other scholars’ fieldwork harder and more dangerous.” Dozens of other experts retweeted his concern.

Real academic researchers undergo multiple rounds of ethical review before they can interact with human subjects. These ethical reviews have become so bureaucratically stultifying that sensible people have called for their abolition. (Here are two cases, both from physicians, one of whom spent years being denied permission to test anonymous donors’ urine, a substance that would be forgotten forever, literally flushed down the toilet, if not put to use.) Among the things review boards demand is transparency—assurance that those being researched are, to the extent possible, made aware of the risks of their participation in the research and shielded from them. One of the many concerns about a scholar’s misrepresenting himself is the effect on the credibility of other researchers: The next time someone enters a room full of Nazis and says he’s a Ph.D. student, the Nazis might not sign his consent forms, and might beat him to death instead.

“This sort of research wouldn’t have passed the ethics panels at a university,” Hope Not Hate’s senior researcher, Joe Mulhall, told me. But he and Hermansson insisted that scholarly and public interest justified the slackening of those ethical lines. “The [racist] movements have a front of house and back of house,” Mulhall said. “They present one image to the world and another internally,” and to get at the latter, Hope Not Hate had to be dishonest.

“There are ethical concerns in the whole project,” Hermansson said. “We wouldn’t justify going into any organization [like this]. They are promoting violence against large groups of people, and that leads to violence and murder.” By that standard, of course, one could excuse lying and misrepresenting oneself to many, many groups that the researchers themselves consider odious. Since the odious groups are highly likely also to be the ones who would batter a legitimate researcher, it’s hard to see how the benefits of Hope Not Hate’s methods have been measured against their costs.

Hermansson said he began his ruse by posing not as “a researcher,” but merely as a “sympathetic person.” (Sympathetic to the white supremacists and no one else, that is.) The academic posture came later. That raises another question: Would his subterfuge have been permissible if he hadn’t donned the mantle of scholarship, and instead just fibbed about being sympathetic to Nazism?

I cannot object nearly so strenuously to a false profession of sympathy, without the false claim also to be a scholar. As a journalist, and indeed as a human being, I often search for areas of agreement between the people I speak to—including the many ISIS members and supporters I’ve interviewed—and me. With ISIS supporters as with white supremacists, that overlapping territory is minuscule. But a good conversation often starts with a foothold in it. ISIS supporters do the same with outsiders—leading the conversation onto territory of agreement—as a means to get recruits to shift their weight, until eventually they realize they are standing on ISIS or racist ground, and nowhere else.

“If we don’t appear like angry misfits, then we will end up making friendships with people who don’t agree with us,” one alt-righter told Hermansson. This technique of not looking like angry misfits, and instead focusing on commonalities, is a textbook method of indoctrination. In my case, these professions of limited sympathy (“I too find the Trinity a confusing element of Christian theology”) have been real, and unlike Hermansson, I have always introduced myself as a writer.

Surreptitious recording of private conversation is, of course, a journalistic taboo (and in some jurisdictions and circumstances, a crime as well), and outright misrepresentation of one’s views often feels, to use a precise ethnographic term, icky. An essay by Roger Homan, who did covert sociological research among Pentecostals, notes that the author (not a Pentecostal himself) considered undertaking false baptism or speaking in tongues, but scruples forced him to back out. These lies would be, he wrote, “inordinately fraudulent,” and an occasion for a “crisis of conscience.” After his research ended, he worried that prolonged dishonesty could cause a researcher to have “serious problems” developing “open and honest relationships” with other people. Of course, a psychopathic sociologist might obtain better data than a conscience-ridden one, and a journalist willing to lie his way into Raqqah would probably have emerged (assuming he emerged at all) with tales to tell.

What strikes me about some of these covert conversations, however, is that they require no covert methods at all. Common ground may be a good start, but in my experience hardened jihadists and racists relish a good debate, and will be mostly truthful if challenged frontally. Indeed, they will say more to a reluctant recruit than to a convinced one.

Hermansson’s report maps out the organization of European and U.S. white supremacist groups admirably, and he gets footage of Greg Johnson, an alt-right leader who (unlike, say, Richard Spencer) avoids journalists. The footage is captivating and accomplishes the most basic goal of documentary film, which is to show things that are real, and that people don’t usually get to see.

But here is what Hermansson calls the “key lesson” of his research: “Allowing these hateful ideas to go unchallenged allows them to become normal. It brings about the creeping acceptance of alt-right and far-right ideas in the mainstream.” Was this lesson, which sounds suspiciously like liberal consensus, worth the moral compromise? To find out, we may have to wait until the next time a researcher attempts an ethnography of the extreme right. Let’s see how the Nazis react to those consent forms.