There have never been so many ways to ask for money on the internet. This can be a great opportunity for right-wing extremists looking to monetize hate – and the earning potential of these digital assets has not gone unnoticed in Australia.
Earlier this year I’ve been following funding networks connected to a sample of Australian channels sharing far-right content on the Telegram chat app and found links to at least 22 online funding tools. This included donation requests via wallet addresses for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Monero, Ethereum and Litecoin.
Of course, an interest in cryptocurrencies alone is not an indication of racism or extremism, but a recent analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that a cohort of white racists, largely from North America, likely “made a significant profit” from Bitcoin by they get in early and give them access to funds “that would almost certainly not be available to them without cryptocurrency”.
Controversial Canadian “alt-right” character Stefan Molyneux who denies being a white racist but was Ousted from YouTube for commenting on 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).
Australia’s extreme right is paying attention
As posted in March on a Telegram channel linked to Blair Cottrell, convicted in 2017 by a Victorian court of incitement to hatred of Muslims: “Crypto actually makes a lot of our people rich.”
While Bitcoin may have generated staggering profits for “early adopters” right-wing extremists, privacy coins like Monero – which attempt to disguise the origin and destination of transactions – seem to be increasingly embraced by far-right groups as well.
After Thomas Sewell was charged with multiple offenses by the National Socialist Network earlier this year on alleged assault and armed robbery, a fundraiser was held to help cover the Australian’s legal fees. In December alone, support requests for Bitcoin and Monero donations were shared on Telegram channels connected to U.S. and Australian far-right livestreamers with tens of thousands of followers, as well as through accounts linked to Australia’s anti-lockdown movement. Sewell pleads not guilty to the charges.
Donation requests from the Australian right-wing extremists – albeit for legal fees, content creation or lifestyle needs – can serve to strengthen the bond with the followers and offer the opportunity to exchange ideas with international networks.
“It’s easier for Joe Blow to donate”
While this activity isn’t illegal, Insight Threat Intelligence president and terrorist financing expert Jessica Davis says that in other cases, regulators are challenged by the blurred line between fundraising, which supports activities like propaganda creation, and risk that some extremists could use it to support acts of terrorism.
One of the most prominent terrorist attacks in connection with right-wing extremist ideologies in recent years does not seem to have been directly supported by third-party funds. New Zealand’s Royal Commission on the 2019 Christchurch Terrorist Attack concluded that the terrorist was self-financed. But money was still an important part of the picture. The terrorist Made at least 14 donations Using PayPal and Bitcoin for groups and individuals who promoted far-right views.
Davis says that in some cases, donations to extremists “appear to demonstrate how seriously people take this propaganda.”
It can be tempting to think of far-right fundraising as something that happens way outside of the financial systems we use to buy lunch or book flights. And yet, in my Australian sample, mainstream services like PayPal and crowdfunding sites like Buy Me a Coffee remain popular.
And as cryptocurrencies become more mainstream, their use becomes more and more smooth – a development that will have an impact on tracking and regulation. A professor of computer science at Elon University and co-author of the SPLC analysis, Dr. Megan Squire, points out website plugins like BitPay that help enable smooth payments in cryptocurrency.
“The technology and some simple interface solutions can begin to … lower the barrier to entry and make it easier for Joe Blow users to actually donate,” she says.
Davis has also seen the rise in adoption of what she calls “financial tradecraft,” which makes it difficult for investigators to follow the trail, including methods to disguise which wallets are receiving funds.
To make matters worse, digital currencies are 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 has also started a blockchain project and a cryptocurrency despite its reputation for failure to monitor extremist content. The enterprise shut it down after a pushback by the US Security and Stock Exchange Commission.
Then there is the blockchain-based odyssey. Viewers can support content creators with 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 is just as likely to be used as a backup for videos that could be removed from YouTube as it is as a fundraising tool.
“Keeping yourself a secret is now easier”
But there are potential pressure and control points for far-right fundraising, such as cryptocurrency exchanges – where fiat currencies can be exchanged. Some cryptocurrency exchanges already have terms of service that prohibit hate speech and other activities. Coinbase, for example allegedly blocked transfers to the infamous neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer in 2017. Earlier this year the company Usage agreement expressly prohibited uses who “promote hatred, racial intolerance or acts of violence against others”.
Attempts to remove far-right individuals and groups from funding platforms have usually been the result of public pressure. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, for example, PayPal and other services were called upon to remove accounts used by those involved in the event. Similar pressure is felt after the March 6 uprising. was also used as an opportunity to create online content and solicit donations by a number of far-right actors. The power that such payment tools have to remove accounts for all types of users, often without transparency and legal remedies, is of increasing concern.
Given this new spotlight, Squire says, we could see another push into cryptocurrencies by the far right. “The technique of keeping yourself secret is much better now than it was after Unite the Right in Charlottesville in 2017, which was the last big moment when a lot of these people switched to crypto,” she says.
“There are more coins, there are more services. It’s more difficult to get a grip on that. “