STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm Steve Inskeep with the back story of a white supremacist. His name is Andrew Anglin. He founded the Nazi website the Daily Stormer. Journalist Luke O'Brien began wondering how Anglin did what he did.
LUKE O'BRIEN: He created this army - the Stormer troll army, he calls it - thousands of angry young men all gathering together online to plot various anti-Semitic harassment campaigns, if not violent insurrection in the United States.
INSKEEP: Anglin's propaganda apparently inspired many marchers at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., that ended with the death of a counterprotester. Writing for The Atlantic, O'Brien asked about the 33-year-old's past.
O'BRIEN: He grew up in Worthington, Ohio, which is a upper-middle-class suburb of Columbus. And as a boy, he was not troubled. He had a very normal childhood. He collected comics. He played with his friends. He was a very well-adjusted kid in preschool and elementary school. As he got a little older, he started to go off the rails.
INSKEEP: At what point did he start banging his head into walls, which is a behavior you describe?
O'BRIEN: Yes, the self-harming - it was the beginning of high school, and the self-harming accelerated. It wasn't just banging his head into walls. He was burning himself with a lighter, and he would entice other people to attack him. He would just let them punch him in the face until he was knocked down. But he would laugh while this was happening.
INSKEEP: What was going on with him?
O'BRIEN: It's hard to say - perhaps a early onset of a type of mental illness.
INSKEEP: And then you describe a young man who seems to be seeking something. What was he looking for?
O'BRIEN: I think he was looking for significance in his life, for something that would make him feel important.
INSKEEP: Did he go straight to white supremacy?
O'BRIEN: No, he went first into what I like to call trutherville (ph) - this kind of horror-scape (ph) of conspiracy theorists and raving lunatics online, the most notable figure among them being Alex Jones and...
INSKEEP: This is the conspiracy theorist who has been praised by President Trump, and the president has appeared on his program.
O'BRIEN: Right. And I think what a lot of people don't realize about Alex Jones is that he actually is a gateway into white nationalism because a lot of these white nationalists arrive at their hateful views through conspiracy theories. And his ideology is starting to take shape over time as he dwells in these echo chambers online. And he was trying to create his own echo chamber and attract disciples to it so that he could then have his own following.
INSKEEP: So when he got unhappy with somebody who was criticizing Donald Trump or just saying things that Anglin didn't like, what would happen to that person?
O'BRIEN: Well, that person would wake up one morning or be woken up in the middle of the night, the phone ringing and a Nazi on the other end hissing, growling, threatening...
INSKEEP: Firing gunshots.
O'BRIEN: ...Firing gunshots. That person would be inundated by dozens, if not hundreds, of hateful messages, emails. That person would have his or her personal life exposed online as much as Anglin could dig into it.
INSKEEP: Meaning pictures of your children would appear or your address or whatever else.
O'BRIEN: Exactly. Your address, your - the license plate of your car, pictures of your kids...
INSKEEP: So he's a big Donald Trump supporter. You write that he resolved to vote in 2016 even though he wasn't in the country. Where was he?
O'BRIEN: Russia is where his absentee ballot was mailed from. As best I can tell from information that I was given by someone close to his family, he wound up in Russia in 2015.
INSKEEP: Was he connected in any way with the Russians who were very active online during the 2016 election?
O'BRIEN: Yes. He would deny it, but we have the data to show it. I worked with a team of data scientists to look at how Daily Stormer articles were being passed around on Twitter. And what we found was that a suspected Russian bot network was pushing Andrew Anglin's content fairly regularly. And that network shuts down from about midnight to 6:30 a.m. Moscow, St. Petersburg, time.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) They just happened to be on that time zone for whatever reason.
O'BRIEN: Yeah. His site - prior to being a pro-Trump propaganda site, it was a pro-Putin propaganda site for years. So you have to imagine that the Russian government would be fully aware of an American - not just any American, but one of the world's most prominent neo-Nazis - running the world's most prominent neo-Nazi site from within Russia while praising Putin.
INSKEEP: What did he say about Putin?
O'BRIEN: He loves Putin. He thinks Putin is the - is a great white savior. He's a strong, authoritarian white man. And all these alt-right guys feel this way. This American white nationalist movement - they really are devoted to Russia and to Putinism in general. They view that as kind of the last stronghold of Western civilization.
INSKEEP: Has anybody targeted you since you started writing about this man?
O'BRIEN: Oh, yeah. He targeted me extensively. You know, I'd get the calls, I would get the emails. But I decided that I wanted to try to talk to these people.
INSKEEP: What did you learn when you talked with some of these callers?
O'BRIEN: Oh, what I learned is that a lot of them are conspiracy theorists themselves, and that helped corroborate some of my reporting on Andrew Anglin. He is not just an isolated case of a young man gone astray and turning to neo-Nazism. He has been following a path that's well-trod by others.
INSKEEP: You have a detail in your article about your conversations with these, I guess, men who are calling you - and say that you found out that a lot of them were people who were social misfits who had trouble with women. I'm trying to imagine the conversation that starts out threatening you, but somehow ends up with them describing their dating life, or lack of one.
INSKEEP: Is that really how it went?
O'BRIEN: Yes, with a few of them and...
INSKEEP: That makes them sound really, really lonely.
O'BRIEN: Yes. There is some common pain that they are all expressing here in the most hideous fashion. And it's the root of that pain that we need to address, I think, if we're going to fix this problem.
INSKEEP: Luke O'Brien is the author of "The Making Of An American Nazi," an article in The Atlantic. Thanks very much.
O'BRIEN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOREST SWORDS' "WAR IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.