So You’ve Been Mistaken as a White Nationalist

Biomedical engineer Kyle Quinn fends off a frenzied Internet mob after being wrongly identified as a Charlottesville protester.

By | August 18, 2017

JENNIFER MORTENSENIt was a case of mistaken identity of Internet-size proportions. Last Saturday afternoon, just around the time that Heather Heyer, a counter-protester to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, lost her life to a Nazi sympathizer who plowed his car through a crowd, Kyle Quinn returned a call from an unknown number on his cell phone.

A member of the university relations office at the University of Arkansas, where Quinn runs a biomedical engineering lab, was on the other end of the line. She informed him that he had been identified as one of the white nationalist marchers—photographed with tiki torch and red Arkansas Engineering t-shirt—in Charlottesville the night before.

“I was just shocked,” Quinn tells The Scientist. “I didn’t really know how bad things were going to get.”

Quinn’s lab researches wound healing, focusing on diagnosing diabetic foot ulcers using multi-photon microscopy. Part of his work is developing methods to take subjectivity out of diagnostic image analysis—“which is kind of ironic, given the situation I’m in.”

Quinn’s first concern when he heard he’d been fingered as a white nationalist marcher was his career. “I’ve got a couple of federal grants coming in this month and . . . I’m looking to scale up my lab.” The assistant professor then wondered, “How am I going to recruit students if they Google my name, and this is what they find?” (Not to mention, his values do not align with those of white nationalists, Nazis, or the like.)

TWITTER, @KAYHEDRICKJDBut as Quinn’s name and university faculty photo circulated with viral ferocity alongside the picture of the man with the Arkansas shirt, angry emails and voice messages started coming in. He was called names. Threats were made. Someone even “doxxed” him, released his home address and phone number. “Then it just became making sure everyone is safe,” Quinn says.

Quinn hadn’t been at the Charlottesville rally on the night of August 11. He was at an art gallery near his home with colleagues. A dean at the University of Arkansas had spotted him there.

The university quickly stepped in to help manage the situation. “There are things that a university can do that as an individual you don’t have the manpower to do,” he says. For instance, where Quinn’s wife failed to get erroneous pictures identifying Quinn as a Charlottesville marcher taken down from Instagram, the university relations office succeeded.

The University of Arkansas police monitored his lab, and the college got the local police to keep watch over his home. Quinn took down information about his lab members so they wouldn’t be swept into the torrent of misdirected disgust.

The deluge of abuse has now calmed to a trickle. And in the midst of the chaos and anger, kindness broke through. Quinn received numerous messages from colleagues and strangers alike offering to help correct the record. A CNN reporter advised him to freeze his credit. Eventually, the story of mistaken identity began to overtake the story of a white supremacist professor. “Luckily now, when people are going to Google my name, if anything it’s going to be ‘professor mistakenly identified.’ So I think that’s a much better search result.”

Quinn might try to make a little lemonade out of his ordeal. In a class in which he teaches coding for image analysis he includes visual aides. This time, he can use his own, misappropriated face. “I’m a human example of a false positive.”

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Avatar of: Salticidologist

Salticidologist

Posts: 51

August 18, 2017

This is really just a sign of things to come.  As has already happened in South Africa, the call for people of European ancestry to "go back to Europe" will only increase as they become a minority in the United States.  Speakers in the South African parliament openly call for legislation to accelerate the exodus of these people, and current demographic trends will see their removal in the not-too-distant future in any case.  The naive assumption made by people of European ancestry everywhere, probably because of their recent domination of the world economy, is 1) that they are the only people with racial or cultural bias and 2) that everyone vaues their presence in society.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 83

August 18, 2017

Implicit in Salticidologist's comment is an alarming conflation of political extremism and European ancestry.  Dr. Quinn's situation has almost nothing to do with his race or the continent of his ancestral origin.  He was being vilified because of (mistakenly attributed) political extremism.  

Avatar of: dumbdumb

dumbdumb

Posts: 94

August 18, 2017

Still puzzled by the combination of the cunning resemblance and the wearing of the Arkansas engineering shirt. I find hard to believe it is just a coincidence. Any news, if the lookalike guy is actually affiliated with the university?

Avatar of: KerryGrens

KerryGrens

Posts: 759

Replied to a comment from dumbdumb made on August 18, 2017

August 18, 2017

Yes, it was just a coincidence. In addition to numerous people confirming Quinn was in Arkansas during the rally in Virginia, the man in the photo has been identified.

http://www.thv11.com/news/local/u-of-a-confirms-man-wearing-engineering-shirt-in-charlottesville-rally-was-once-a-graduate-student/465103557

Thanks for reading.

Kerry

Avatar of: JohnnyMorales

JohnnyMorales

Posts: 30

August 18, 2017

Just proof that idiots will take a blurry photo and see what they want to see.

Only in the most general sense to they look alike. Sure they both have the same beard and air color, but in the details they differ quite a bit, starting with the fact that Quinn has a full head hair on the top of his head, while the guy at the protest is suffering from early male pattern baldness.

Avatar of: JohnnyMorales

JohnnyMorales

Posts: 30

August 18, 2017

Just proof that idiots will take a blurry photo and see what they want to see.

Only in the most general sense to they look alike. Sure they both have the same beard and hair color, but in the details they differ quite a bit, starting with the fact that Quinn has a full head hair on the top of his head, while the guy at the protest is suffering from early male pattern baldness.

Avatar of: Matt A.

Matt A.

Posts: 1

August 18, 2017

Are there any studies out there relating to the use of the phrase "just a coincidence" & how allusions like that may affect people's judgement?

eg. "I was on the phone to my brother & we agreed to each toss a coin at exactly the same time: they both came up heads... 'just a coincidence', eh?"

Well, yes, obviously ...; but is there any data on how loaded/poor/improper phraseology influences people's decisions?

Avatar of: xtsam

xtsam

Posts: 8

August 19, 2017

Are you saying the left is just as violent as the right? Are we looking into the mirror accusing ourselves? What a hypocrite society!

Avatar of: JonRichfield

JonRichfield

Posts: 135

Replied to a comment from mightythor made on August 18, 2017

August 27, 2017

And...???

DO get real.

What is alarming about that assumed conflation?

The problem is not what he is being vilified for, but the means, the sociological and ethical background, and the technological infrastructure that facilitate this type of targeting and self-indulgent, self-righteous, mob response.  Do you reckon that it is all OK as long as it is not about political extremism but instead about ancestry?

Tell them that in Rwanda...

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