Far-Right Extremist Use of Bitcoin and Dark Web Platforms: The Dark Network Links of tPP Cases
There has been a mass movement by far-right extremists to dark web social media platforms and an increased use of cryptocurrencies as a means to crowdsource. This move has largely been due to the initiatives of big tech companies to stymie the current of extremist content on their websites by removing users who express extremist views or are otherwise connected to extremist organizations. Many on the far-right have publicly renounced Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies claiming that their actions to remove extremist content, especially that iterated from the far-right, infringes on Americans’ right to free speech .
Although there are detailed user agreements that place constraints on the content that is broadcasted by users, prohibiting the kind of insulting and hateful speech that is often expressed by those on the far-right have allowed right-wing leaders and organizers to gain momentum by politicizing this phenomenon. However, new sites have arisen to paradoxically give far-right extremists a “safe haven” to express their views. The creator of the social media platform Gab has told media outlets that the purpose of Gab was to create an online platform specifically for conservatives and the far-right, whom he believes have been treated unfairly by big tech. The site’s lackadaisical regulations on what would normatively be considered hate speech and its targeted advertising towards conservatives have combined to create the perfect storm or, in other words, a “hate-filled echo chamber full of racism and conspiracy theories” .
Likewise, 8chan, an imageboard and offshoot of 4chan, is another well-known site that harbors extremist content. Purportedly, the manifesto released by 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, the man who murdered 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was circulated via 8chan and fell into the hands of another impressionable extremist. John Earnest, a 19-year-old who has been indicted on 113 hate crime charges, carried out an attack on a synagogue in late April 2019, leaving one dead and three injured. According to a Vox article detailing the apparent perils of 8chan, Earnest was inspired to carry out the attack, in part, due to the radical ideology outlined in Tarrant’s manifesto .
Financial technology companies have pursued similar action against extremist users. Mainstream digital fundraising sites, such as PayPal and Amazon, have been proactively identifying and denying access to those users utilizing their sites to fundraise for nefarious purposes. Richard Spencer and prominent voices on the far-right reveled at the spectacularity of Bitcoin to fundraise for their unsettling online platforms. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are unique due to their peer-to-peer (P2P) transactional features. It is, in part, due to this feature that makes it easy to hide under the guise of anonymity while extorting money for various purposes . Though the apparent anonymity benefits of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been cited by law enforcement and those using Bitcoin as a means to fundraise as the defining feature of the platform, scholars have asserted that Bitcoin is one knock below anonymous. Rather, Bitcoin and many of its crypto-counterparts are pseudonymous due to endpoint identification in straightforward transactions.
An ambition of many open-source intelligence analysts is to be able to identify and track the financial networks of far-right actors. Certainly, open-source intelligence analysts have been highly successful at identifying traditional transactional networks and, recently, crypto transactional networks. John Bambenek, an open-source intelligence researcher and professor of cybersecurity at the iSchool in Illinois, does just that . Specifically, Bambenek tracks the donations received by white nationalist BTC wallets, the amount spent, and their balance, which he records in a daily wallet summary report via his Twitter account called Neonazi BTC Tracker (@NeonaziWallets) . Bambenek also records whenever a withdrawal or a substantial donation is made to one of the white nationalist BTC wallets in a separate tweet. For all of the apparent anonymity benefits of using BTC, highly-skilled computer scientists are able to identify and track specific BTC wallets using mathematical algorithms and the fact that the BTC transaction log is public by design.
Keeping in mind tPP while researching the shift of far-right actors to cryptocurrencies and dark web platforms, it was an ambition of mine to be able to identify individuals in the tPP database that exist in a crypto transactional network with some prominent members of the far-right that have risen to prominence in recent years, and have, in fact, gained traction in the Bitcoin and dark web realms. However, due to my limited capabilities in being able to identify users who send donations via Bitcoin to these prominent far-right actors and the sheer volume of transactions that occur between their accounts, I found it an improbable task to carry out in a limited amount of time.
However, I did find that individuals in the tPP database who are coded as “Rightist: Identity-focused” under the variable “Ideological Affiliation,” especially those occurring after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, had maintained a presence on dark web forums and were, perhaps, inspired by extremist media purveyed on these forums. Wanting to delve deeper into the dark web links of individuals in the tPP database, I took an exploratory sample of defendants coded as “Rightist: Identity-focused” whose crimes occurred after August 12th, 2017. I created a link analysis that identified how various actors in the exploratory sample connected with one another.
To do so, I collected open-source data on the individuals via court documents, newspaper articles, and examination of dark web content that had been released online. Though the results were rather underwhelming – most individuals who were linked to one another were linked through organizational ties – I did find that several members of my exploratory sample had maintained ties with prominent far-right organizers, such as Richard Spencer and Eli Mosley, or others in the tPP database who had carried out high-profile attacks, such as Dylann Roof and Robert Bowers. In fact, Bowers allegedly decried the prosecutions of various members of the Rise Above Movement (RAM), described as “a Southern California-based racist fight club” , who appeared in the exploratory sample and had allegedly interchanged with the leader of RAM, Robert Rundo, via Gab.
Though the subject sample was small and the findings marginally supportive of a dark web network that exists between tPP cases, my paper revealed that there are demonstrable links between right-wing actors through dark web social media platforms like Gab, Discord, and 8chan. Further studies can and should be carried out in order to better understand how individuals in the tPP database interact and position themselves in the far-right movement through dark web participation.
Notes Kirkland, “Relegated To Fringe Platforms, White Nationalists Stuck In Own Echo Chamber”; “Big Tech, the Alt-Right and the Unknown Future of the Internet”; “Inside the Hate-Filled Echo Chamber of Racism and Conspiracy Theories | Media | The Guardian.”  “Inside the Hate-Filled Echo Chamber of Racism and Conspiracy Theories | Media | The Guardian.”  Stewart, “8chan, Explained.”  Mabunda, “Cryptocurrency.”  Matsakis, Koebler, and Pearson, “This Twitter Bot Tracks Neo-Nazi Bitcoin Transactions.”  Tracker, “New Payment to Henrik Palmgren (Http://RedIce.Tv): 0.00519921 BTC ($20.16)” Https://Blockchain.Info/Tx/127b726aa6ad4c43d41b1b6783d1a71e05c27deeae7a393b44ced91a032948a7  “Rise Above Movement.”