Ousted from mainstream sites, neo-Nazis find new ways to raise money

Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, KKK and members of the "alt-right" hurl water bottles against counter-demonstrators during the Unite the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Boxed out of mainstream crowdfunding sites, hate groups have taken a new tack: They're building their own financing platforms.

Big-name internet companies moved quickly to boot neo-Nazis after violent clashes between white nationalists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia left three dead in August. Crowdfunding platforms, like Patreon and GoFundMe, shuttered fundraisers for far-right causes, while Apple Pay and PayPal cut off services to white nationalists and merchants selling items that promote racism, like clothes bearing Nazi symbols.

To fill the void, neo-Nazi entrepreneurs are building crowdfunding sites of their own. The websites list free speech and fighting censorship as motivation. But critics say their names -- Counter.Fund, Goyfundme and Hatreon -- underscore a darker purpose: financing hate speech.

"The rise of these things is the reflection of a larger crackdown on hate," said Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. "They're scrambling to create an alternative ecosystem to do the same things they used to do with PayPal and Facebook and Google Ads and whatnot."

The radical right, which includes the grab bag of neo-Nazis and white supremacists known as the "alt-right," has wormed its way into the mainstream for five decades, according to the SPLC, and has succeeded "in a way that had seemed unimaginable" since George Wallace ran for president on a platform of racial segregation in 1968. A recent New York Times profile of Tony Hovater, a young Nazi sympathizer in Ohio, highlighted the evolution of the hate movement, fueling concern that beliefs considered extreme not all that long ago are being normalized.

The internet has helped neo-Nazis reach more potential followers. Between 2012 and 2016, white supremacist groups saw their Twitter followers grow by 600 percent, according to a study by George Washington University. Radical ideas were once passed around in photocopied booklets. Now they can reach thousands of people from a website or in the dark corners of chan culture, the unfiltered and often hateful behavior found on anonymous message boards. 

But maintaining neo-Nazi publications online takes money, and the August clampdown, part of what the alt-right calls the "The Great Shuttening," hit hatred in the wallet.

Funding the haters

Hatreon is one of these new crowdfunding platforms. It looks a lot like well-known crowdfunding sites and works in a similar way. "Patrons" support "creators" on a monthly or per-project basis, and the site takes a cut of any money raised, just like Patreon, from which it takes its name, as well as other sites. Hatreon, whose Twitter account was opened in June, charges 5 percent and docks another 5 percent for transaction fees.

Hatreon says it was "established in contradistinction to the inexcusable content policing" of other crowdfunding sites, and name-checks Patreon. Among those using the site: Richard Spencer, the white nationalist credited with coining the term "alt-right," and Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer.

Anglin, whose publication is called "the top hate site in America" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has 224 patrons pledging a total of more than $3,800 a month to support the site. The Daily Stormer, which takes its name from a notorious Nazi-era publication, has bounced around the web after losing its registration in the wake of the Charlottesville melee and is the subject of three lawsuits.

Hatreon currently isn't taking pledges as it undergoes an upgrade. The site didn't respond to a request for comment.

Patreon, which launched in 2013 and lets users pledge money per month or per project, is aware of the site and doesn't endorse it, a spokeswoman said in an email. "We do not allow hate speech or hate groups on Patreon and strongly condemn any attempts to assemble those groups on our platform," she said.

The rise of far-right funding sites follows a well-established pattern dating from the dawn of social media, says Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. Radicals with early-adopter habits use sites like Twitter and attract significant followings before getting banned. Then they strike out on their own to form copycat services with their own rules, often known by the name alt-tech.

Voat, established in 2014, is an alternative to online community Reddit, which shut down an alt-right thread after Charlottesville. On its About page, Voat says, "No legal subject in this universe should be out of bounds."

There's also Gab, which bills itself as "a social network that champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online." It launched in 2016 as an alternative to Twitter, which banned some high-profile users with ties to the alt-right in November of that year. It has few restrictions on what users can post. Gab, whose mascot is a green frog reminiscent of the Pepe cartoon character that's been co-opted as a hate symbol, says it has a community of more than 215,000.

Utsav Sanduja, Gab's chief operating officer, says the site appeals to the alt right because of a "suppression of speech" at big social media platforms.

"Silicon Valley is showing their true colors as a very strong left-wing institution that does not care for everyone," Sanduja said. "It just caters to their political allies and people they agree with."

Pitcavage says we're seeing the same pattern played out with crowdfunding.

WeSearchr is one of the granddaddies of extremist fundraising and has hosted several campaigns that raised more than $100,000. The site got its start as a quasi-journalistic endeavor and expanded into more general fundraising activity.

People ask questions -- one currently being funded asks if French President Emmanuel Macron is gay, while others have sought to identify anti-Trump protesters -- and pay other people to find the answers for them. One early "bounty," which is how WeSearchr describes its projects, focused on who punched Spencer in a January incident caught on video. (Money was raised, but no one successfully identified Spencer's attacker.)

Bounties also include crowdfunding activities, like fundraising for legal defenses. They raise anywhere from a few dollars to six-figure amounts.

A bounty for Defend Europe, whose goal was to charter a ship to intercept illegal immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, generated pledges of $234,456. Another bounty, for funds to defend Anglin's Daily Stormer from a lawsuit brought by the SPLC, has raised nearly $160,000 since June 2017. (Anglin's lawyers reportedly filed a motion to dismiss the suit last week.)

When asked about the rise of these crowdfunding sites, WeSearchr co-founder Chuck Johnson responded with an email calling out Silicon Valley for "illegally censoring us based upon our viewpoints."

Of course, many neo-Nazi and hate groups don't need financial intermediaries to fund themselves. Tech-savvy and computer-literate, some sites, including The Stormer, ask for donations in bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that's nearly effortless to transfer and is perceived to be private. (Bitcoin is also in the midst of a speculative frenzy that pushed its price above $11,000.)

After Charlottesville, John Bambenek, a threat intelligence manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, repurposed code his company used to track ransom payments linked to the WannaCry attack to follow bitcoin payments to suspected neo-Nazis. Now it automatically updates a Twitter account, Neonazi BTC Tracker, that displays bitcoin payments to suspected neo-Nazi and extremist sites.

Bitcoin users don't always realize transactions tied to a bitcoin wallet ID are essentially public. After all, if you want donations in bitcoin, you have to give out your bitcoin wallet ID.

"Bitcoin is the ideal medium for them to be raising money," says Bambenek, noting the currency lacks the same regulations as traditional banking. "It's also the ideal medium for them to have their currency tied up in because I can see what they're spending it on and I can see who's donating to whom."  

The problem with hate funding

Setting up an alternative crowdfunding platform isn't easy. Sites can run into problems finding a credit card processor comfortable working with them. And generally they're working with fewer resources than mainstream crowdfunding sites to begin with, the ADL's Pitcavage says.

The SPLC's Beirich says hate-funding sites have had to find new credit card processors, even in recent weeks, because "mainstream companies like banks and credit card companies don't want to do business with these people."

Sites like RootBocks and Counter.Fund, which split from WeSearchr, have had issues getting off the ground, including finding a payment processor, according to researchers. RootBocks tweeted updates to its followers, which currently total 805 accounts, when it lost payment services from Paypal and Stripe, as well as bitcoin platform Coinbase.

RootBocks didn't respond to a tweet seeking contact information. In an email, Counter.Fund's Pax Dickinson said, "We don't talk to fake news 'journalists' like you."

Ultimately, crowdfunding platforms work only if there are enough people willing to pay up and support the activities seeking money, Pitcavage said. Researchers are still trying to figure out the size of the white supremacist movement and its net worth, but the SPLC counts about 199 neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups in the US.

That means "celebrity" white nationalists -- the Andrew Anglins and Richard Spencers -- will have an easier time raising money.

"It's clear that a very small number of white supremacists can benefit to an appreciable degree or another," the ADL's Pitcavage said, adding that even the "celebrities" are raising just a few thousand dollars at a pop.

Still, the hate-funding sites keep mimicking the crowdfunding industry that inspired them.

Goyfundme's model, like Kickstarter's or IndieGoGo's, lets creators describe a project and offer incentives to prospective backers, who can then donate money to the campaign.

The site recently went down for maintenance and currently isn't accepting pledges for campaigns. Its nondiscrimination policy, however, says it doesn't "endorse" or "promote" the political ideologies of its fundraisers.

Projects being funded aren't currently visible. But as of last week, the staff had highlighted several campaigns, some of which were started by site administrators, including The Unite the Right Defense fund and Occult Nationalism Sticker Pack #1, that suggest its operators sympathize with the alt-right. (Unite the Right was the name of the Charlottesville rally, at which several alt-right members were arrested. The Occult Nationalism Sticker Pack includes an image of Pepe, whose sad face is omnipresent in the alt-right world.) 

The site's name is a play on GoFundMe, a popular fundraising site that's been in operation since 2010. Its founders, who didn't respond to multiple efforts to contact them, use the Yiddish word "goy," which means "non-Jewish," in its title. Unsurprisingly, neo-Nazis are particularly preoccupied with Jewish people.

Goyfundme didn't respond to a request for comment. The site's About page, which is still available, says it won't shut a project down because it's "unpopular, controversial, politically incorrect, or because we receive complaints about the person and/or group that created it."

Many of Goyfundme's campaigns that were visible last week had generated just a few dollars. But some, like the 1433 Justice Fund, had pledges from nearly 450 backers totaling more than $29,000. The 1433 Justice Fund's page didn't say what the creator will use the money for, but the website of Chris Cantwell, a high-profile member of the alt-right who was arrested after the Charlottesville rally, links back to the campaign, suggesting it's raising funds for him.

Tony Hovater, the subject of The New York Times profile, is also the beneficiary of a Goyfundme campaign. Three days after the story ran, a Goyfundme page reported that both Hovater and his wife had lost their jobs because of the coverage. "Unfortunately, as a result, the Hovaters are suddenly without an income and are going to have to leave their home," it says.

It had raised pledges of more than $8,000 as of last week.

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This article originally appeared on CNET as "Here's where Nazi sympathizers go to raise money."