As cryptocurrencies become mainstream and frictionless, extremists are finding new ways to fundraise
Last modified on Mon 27 Dec 2021 22.16 GMT
There have never been more ways to ask for money on the internet. For rightwing extremists looking to monetise hate, that can be a big opportunity – and the earning potential of these digital assets hasn’t gone unnoticed in Australia.
Earlier this year, I traced funding networks associated with a sample of Australian channels that share rightwing extremist content on the chat app Telegram, and found links to at least 22 online funding tools. These included donation requests via wallet addresses for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, monero, ethereum and litecoin.
Of course an interest in cryptocurrencies is not on its own indicative of racism or extremism, but a recent analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found a cohort of white supremacists largely originating from North America has likely generated “a substantial profit” from bitcoin by getting in early, giving them access to funds “that would almost certainly be unavailable to them without cryptocurrency”.
Controversial Canadian “alt-right” figure Stefan Molyneux, who denies being a white supremacist but was pushed off YouTube for his commentary about women and “scientific racism”, has received at least 1,250 bitcoin from supporters according to the SPLC (one Bitcoin was worth A$68,647 at the time of writing).
As was posted in March on a Telegram channel associated with Blair Cottrell, who was convicted by a Victorian court of inciting hatred of Muslims in 2017: “crypto is actually making a lot of our guys rich.”
While bitcoin may have created eye watering profits for “early-adopter” rightwing extremists, privacy coins like monero – which attempt to obscure the origin and destination of transactions – also appear to be increasingly embraced by far-right groups.
After the National Socialist Network’s Thomas Sewell was charged with a number of offences this year in connection with an alleged assault and an alleged armed robbery, there was a donation drive to cover the Australian’s legal fees. In December alone, support requests for both bitcoin and monero donations were shared into Telegram channels associated with US and Australian far-right livestreamers with tens of thousands of followers, as well as accounts linked to Australia’s anti-lockdown movement. Sewell is pleading not guilty to the charges.
Donation requests by the Australian far right – albeit for legal fees as well as content creation or lifestyle needs – can serve to solidify ties with followers as well as provide the chance to engage with international networks.
While this activity isn’t illegal, the president of Insight Threat Intelligence and an expert on terrorism financing, Jessica Davis, says that in other cases regulators are challenged by the blurry line between fundraising that supports activities such as the creation of propaganda and the risk that some extremists may use it to support acts of terror.
One of the most prominent terrorist attacks associated with far-right ideology in recent years does not appear to have been directly supported by external funding. New Zealand’s royal commission into the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack concluded the terrorist was self-funded. But money was still an important part of the picture. The terrorist made at least 14 donations using PayPal and bitcoin to groups and individuals who promoted far-right views.
Davis says, in some cases, donating to extremists “does start to demonstrate how seriously people are taking that propaganda”.
It can be tempting to see far-right fundraising as something that happens far outside the financial systems we use to buy lunch or book flights. And yet, even in my Australian sample, mainstream services such as PayPal and crowdfunding sites like Buy Me a Coffee remain popular.
And as cryptocurrencies become more mainstream, their use becomes increasingly frictionless – an evolution that will have implications for tracking and regulation. A professor of computer science at Elon University and co-author of the SPLC analysis, Dr Megan Squire, points to website plugins like BitPay, which help facilitate smooth cryptocurrency payments.
“The technology and some simple interface solutions can start to … lower the barrier to entry, and make it easier for ‘Joe Blow’ user to actually donate,” she says.
Davis has also observed the growing adoption of what she calls “financial tradecraft” that makes it harder for investigators to follow the trail, including methods of obscuring which wallets are receiving funds.
Further complicating the picture are digital currencies created by entertainment and communication platforms. Perhaps the best known of these projects is Facebook’s troubled Libra project. The company behind the chat app Telegram also launched a blockchain project and cryptocurrency despite its reputation for failing to police extremist content. The company shut it down after pushback from the US Security and Exchange Commission.
Then there is the blockchain-based Odysee. Viewers can support content creators using a cryptocurrency called LBRY Credits or cash tips. While a number of Australian far-right content creators use Odysee’s video platform, the ultimate motive is unclear: it’s just as likely to be used as a backup for videos that could be removed from YouTube than as a fundraising tool.
But there are potential points of pressure and scrutiny for far-right fundraising, such as cryptocurrency exchanges – where fiat currencies can be converted. Some cryptocurrency exchanges already have terms of services that prohibit hate speech and other activities. Coinbase, for example, reportedly blocked transfers to the notorious neo-nazi site The Daily Stormer in 2017. Earlier this year, the company’s user agreement explicitly prohibited uses that “encourage hate, racial intolerance, or violent acts against others”.
The push to remove far-right individuals and groups from funding platforms has typically been the result of public pressure. Following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, for example, PayPal and other services were lobbied to remove accounts used by figures involved in the event. Similar pressure has come to bear after the 6 January insurrection, which was also used as an opportunity to make online content and ask for donations by a number of far-right actors. However, the power such payment tools have to remove accounts for all types of users, often without transparency and avenues for appeal, is of increasing concern.
Given this fresh spotlight, Squire says we may see a renewed push into cryptocurrencies by the far-right. “The tech for keeping yourself secret is a lot better now than it was in 2017 after Unite the Right in Charlottesville, which was the last big moment when a lot of these guys moved onto crypto,” she says.
“There are more coins, there are more services. It’s harder to get a handle on.”
Ariel Bogle is a researcher and journalist with a focus on technology and extremism. She owns a small amount of ethereum.