a banner image of graffiti art showing swastikas being thrown in the trash

Swastika Monitoring: Developing Digital Research Tools to Track Visual Rhetorics of Hate

Laurie Gries


story-map thumbnail
A story-map of Swastika-related incidents between February 1, 2016, and August 31, 2017. WARNING: This story-map contains pictures of swastika-related incidents, which may trigger stress and trauma to some readers.
Enter Story-Map

As reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the New York Times, and other sources, since the 2016 presidential election, we have witnessed a rise in incidents of hate and bias in the United States—from the increase of threats against Jewish community centers to the increase in personally-mediated attacks against Muslim, Latino, and gay students. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in fact, reports that nearly 900 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation occurred in the United States in the ten days after the November 8 election, and, in many of these cases, Donald Trump’s name was invoked, "making it clear that the outbreak of hate stemmed in large part from his electoral success." Due to such increased violence, a number of organizations, such as the SPLC, ProPublica, Think Progress, and New American Media, have begun to document incidents of hate and bias in order to help account for this troubling phenomenon. SPLC, for instance, has generated an interactive, digital map that documents hate groups currently operating in the United States. Such data activism is necessary, ProPublica explains, because at this point, "there is simply no reliable national data on hate crimes. And no governmental agency documents lower-level incidents of harassment and intimidation.” As such, ProPublica argues, we need to generate “new, more creative approaches” to document and understand both high-level and low-level incidents of hate—“from hate-inspired murders to anti-Semitic graffiti to racist online trolling.”

As a visual rhetoric scholar, my research takes up ProPublica’s call by tracing and analyzing the troubling wave of swastikas that is currently sweeping across the United States. While certainly not new to the context of the United States, the swastika’s recent proliferation is drawing intense concern, as news reports emerge almost daily to report various sightings. While writing the first draft of this chapter (July 2017), for instance, news outlets reported that a man drew a swastika on a menu and handed it to an African American waitress at a private party in Atlanta. Two weeks prior to that, an unidentified male, caught on video, carved 30 swastikas into wet cement in Brooklyn, New York just steps away from a Jewish Center and a Chabad. And six days prior to that, a large swastika was spray painted on the hood of a vehicle parked at a chapel in Edmonds, Washington. Data collected thus far indicates that such swastika incidents are targeting a wide range of marginalized peoples and communities, often going so far as to make explicit, violent threats when delivered with accompanying text. Simultaneously, swastikas are surfacing in relation to Trump, sometimes to show support, and other times to critique his widely-acknowledged appeals to white nationalism. Considering such diverse functions, how do we keep track and make sense of the swastika’s role in our current socio-political climate?

To help address this question, I am using iconographic tracking to account for the swastikas that have erupted “on the streets” of America since the 2016 Republican presidential primaries—research that will be extended over the next couple years by tracking the swastika's circulation in digital and physical forms since the turn of the 21st century. My goal here is twofold. First, I aim to contribute to long standing scholarly efforts to understand the swastika’s role in visual and political culture. Much historical research has explored how the swastika has circulated and functioned as a religious and/or spiritual symbol; as a symbol of the Aryan race; as an emblem of the Nazi party; and as a powerful graphic design (see Wilson; Quinn; Heller). In their ethnography of various white power groups in the United States, Pete Simi and Robert Futrell (published in 2015) have also disclosed how American Aryans often brandish the swastika in their homes, on their clothing, and on organizational fliers and websites as a means of identification and demonstration of commitment. We do not have a clear grasp, however, as to how and to what effect the swastika is currently circulating and functioning in public space, particularly in relation to the rising surge of far-right nationalism in the United States. This research will help clarify that role as well as help account for the wide range of actions in which the swastika is currently participating—from satirizing and protesting against Trump to targeting gay students at high schools to communicating messages of hate on Latino homes, bodies, and gravestones.

Second, I aim to contribute to ongoing, open data efforts to track the rise of hate incidents in the United States by using my research to develop an online swastika tracker called The Swastika Monitor. It is important to emphasize that, for many cultures both within and outside the United States, the swastika functions as a sacred and highly spiritual symbol. But as The Swastika Monitor will disclose, in many cases, the swastika functions as a visual rhetoric of hate, which we might understand as a pictorially-dominant act of discrimination and harassment that targets members of specific groups because of their race, religious identity, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability status, and/or political identification. The Swastika Monitor focuses on this specific role so we can learn more details about who is being targeting by swastikas, where, and how—details that are especially important to better understand the recent wave of post-election violence that has swept across the United States. Also, many claim that the swastika’s rhetorical activity has surged since Trump’s election in November 2016. But, as of yet, we have no quantitative evidence to validate such claims. The Swastika Monitor will help provide reliable data on such matters, as it seeks to document and understand how this low-level incident of hate with high-level stakes is contributing to what many perceive to be a growing tide of intolerance in the United States.

In what follows, I briefly describe The Swastika Monitor project, detailing my methodological commitments as well as the scope of the project and methods of data collection, analysis, and visualization. I then show and discuss some of my preliminary research findings, specifically identifying—with the help of geographical maps, graphs, and word clouds—the locations and places in which swastikas are showing up, the most common texts surfacing alongside swastikas, and the rising and falling trend of swastika incidents across the United States. Finally, I discuss the implications of this research for “making future matters.” In articulating my efforts to track circulating swastikas, I especially hope to model how writing and rhetoric scholars can make our work matter within a cultural climate of increasing incidents of discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.