Attention and White Nationalist Discourse

Getting and Focusing Attention among White Nationalist Organizations  (dissertation project)

My dissertation, co-chaired by Omar Lizardo and Ann Mische, is an examination of how white nationalist organizations in the U.S. South distributed their attention across grievances and other organizations in their field between 1980 and 2008. I ask two main research questions. First, why do organizations focus their attention on one set of grievances at the expense of others? I refer to this as grievance-based attention-focusing. Second, why are some organizations more likely to be taken as a point of reference by other organizations in their field? I refer to this as peer attention-getting. I use a combination of archival data, natural language processing, network analysis, and statistical modeling to address these questions.

In the case of grievance-based attention-focusing, I put forth a theory outlining the conditions under which white nationalist organizations are more likely to shift attention to borders- and immigration-related issues. I find that borders and immigration issues became the focus of attention when there was a high number of domestic non-right-wing terror events relative to the size of the organization’s non-Hispanic/Latino community size, but only when the organization was disposed toward a cognitive style emphasizing the perception of threats and opportunities for action as proximate. These results highlight the interplay of environmental and cultural-cognitive factors in determining the focus of attention of extreme right-wing groups.

Picture2In the case of peer attention-getting, I posit that any given organization has a higher capacity for peer attention-getting when they also have leaders that are high status enough to warrant countermovement rival attention—but that the attention-getting capacity for these groups is positively moderated to the extent that the organization presents itself discursively with fearful language. I find support for this theory, and also find that attention-rich organizations are most inclined to divvy out attention to their peers that communicate with fearful language because of their own proclivity for using fear as an attention-getting mechanism. These results point to the interplay between structural position the use of specific negative emotions as a framing device in determining which actors become prominent in social movement fields.

I conclude with implications for culture and cognition studies, computational social science, and broader discussions of organized racism in the contemporary United States.

A five-grievance representation of the white nationalist discursive field (as represented by my data) is available here, using the LDAvis tool by Carson Sievert and Kenneth E. Shirley.