by Ye Bin Won and Meghan Conroy
In 2014, the Post reported on a study that found that almost 60% of Americans surveyed admitted that they did not watch, read, or hear any news stories beyond the headlines in the previous week. A few years later, the Post reported on another study that found that almost 60% of people surveyed only read the headline of an article before sharing it on social media. Clearly, the need for headlines to be accurate has been proven repeatedly by this paper and its peers, especially considering the possibility for misleading headlines to contribute to the spread of mis-, dis-, and malinformation (MDM). Despite this, a recent headline published by this paper has heightened our concern that this insight is not being put into practice, even for the most sensitive subjects.
On January 30th, the Post published an article regarding a proposal from the Biden administration that seeks to give those of Latin American and Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent more options for identifying their racial identity on the U.S. census. Currently, these populations do not have distinct census categories and are instead categorized as “white.”
This potential policy will — as the article in question points out — create more opportunities for non-white Americans to finally be accurately represented in the census. Let us briefly put aside the unresolved definitional differentiation of race and ethnicity, the U.S. government’s fraught history of racial categorization, and the multiracial makeup of the Hispanic community. Even then, this revision will allow people of Latin American and MENA descent to tick a box that more closely mirrors their heritage and lived experiences. According to the Post article, the new system will consequently afford these groups improved access to community programs, federal funding, and other support services. Of course, an accurate census would in no way impact the actual racial and ethnic demographics of the U.S.
And yet, the Post landed on this headline: “The White population count could decrease under a new Biden proposal.”
We were not the only ones whose jaws dropped upon reading the headline. Replies to the article on the Post’s website, Twitter, and Facebook are overrun with condemnations of the headline, specifically because of its ability to serve as fuel for false conspiracy theories of white replacement by non-whites. Our group chats with other extremism researchers were flooded with anxious text bubbles.
The reason for our concern? The headline provided an opportunity for extremists to point to apparent “evidence” of the Great Replacement Theory.
The Great Replacement Theory is a conspiracy theory that argues that elites are attempting to force demographic change in Western countries by bringing non-white immigrants into countries with white majorities. Alongside Eurabia and white genocide, it is one of several conspiracy theories that allege some form of “white replacement.” The Great Replacement Theory also has deep antisemitic roots, with many variations accusing Jewish people of orchestrating immigration of non-white people, interracial marriages, and other means to “marginalize” the white population. Such theories aren’t entirely fringe: a May 2022 poll revealing that 32% of American adults are concerned that immigrants are intentionally being brought into the U.S. by a powerful group of people for political purposes — the key tenet of the Great Replacement theory.
Conspiracy theories that allege replacement of those of European descent by non-white people have fueled at least ten terrorist attacks to date. In May 2022, a gunman who described himself as motivated by the Great Replacement theory selected a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, specifically for its large Black population. Before killing 10 people, the shooter wrote in his Discord logs that he wanted to inspire others to follow in his footsteps in preventing the “Great Replacement.” The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto directly copied large portions of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto — titled “The Great Replacement” — which was released before the New Zealand-based gunman murdered 51 people in two mosques in 2019.
These violent extremists learn from and emulate one another. While the races, ethnicities, and religions of their targets may vary, the throughline tying their attacks together is their motivation to stop white people being intentionally “replaced” by non-white people.
While the headline did specify that the white population count could decrease, that nuance is likely to be overlooked. Considering the prevalence of the narrative that white Americans are being oppressed and the violent threat posed by those willing to take up arms in response, this headline is irresponsible at best and harmful at worst.
Since its publication on Monday, we have seen the article shared in neo-Nazi channels and on far-right platforms. But worrying conversations are happening on mainstream platforms too. Commenting on the Facebook post where the Post shared the article, a user quoted the headline to argue that white replacement isn’t just a conspiracy. Another commented that white Americans are experiencing a calculated genocide. One pontificated that soon, the “socialist democratic party” will begin sterilizing white people.
The cost of mainstreaming the Great Replacement theory has been proven to be deadly. It is absolutely critical that journalists and editors take extra care when discussing issues related to demographics, race, and immigration – the lives of innocent people may very well depend on it.
Ye Bin Won is a researcher of digital extremist communities, with a focus on male supremacist, white supremacist, and Christian nationalist groups.
Meghan Conroy is the US Research Fellow at DFRLab and recently served as an Investigator on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.