Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Varsha Koduvayur
As the Freedom Convoy protests enter their fourth week, the Canadian government is targeting protestors’ ability to fundraise, including via cryptocurrency. It’s time for Washington to do the same for domestic extremists.
Canada’s Freedom Convoy protesters are increasingly turning to cryptocurrency donations for support after crowdfunding site GoFundMe seized millions of dollars that the convoy had raised on the platform. This shift to cryptocurrency mirrors a pattern seen elsewhere, in which controversial figures pivot to cryptocurrency after being denied the ability to raise funds on mainstream financial platforms. In Canada’s southern neighbor, a very different population has also undertaken a similar pivot to cryptocurrency and raked in millions of dollars in cryptocurrency over the past few years: America’s far-right domestic extremists. This trend is likely to grow absent action from policymakers.
Far-right domestic extremists—including neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and their fellow travelers—are not newcomers to cryptocurrency usage. Analysts have noted that domestic extremists have received cryptocurrency donations since 2016, and many of these figures were early adopters of cryptocurrency. However, the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was a watershed moment for America’s domestic extremist milieu and its relationship to cryptocurrency. As banks and other traditional financial providers began to cut off extremist groups and individuals, many flocked to cryptocurrency, enticed by its relative anonymity.
Domestic extremists exploit cryptocurrency in three major ways. First, they solicit cryptocurrency donations in return for content they produce, such as radio shows, blogs and websites, podcasts, and video streams. Second, they sell extremism-oriented merchandise that can be bought with cryptocurrency. And third, extremists accept cryptocurrency donations for general support.
Tim Gionet, better known as “Baked Alaska,” stunned the world with his livestream of the Capitol assault on video platform DLive. Gionet made over $2,000 from his stream, which showed him breaking into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office. DLive allows cryptocurrency-based donations via “lemons,” the site’s currency. Viewers buy lemons—DLive offers Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Litecoin, and Ethereum, among others, as alternative payment options—and can send the lemons to streamers as tips.
Nick Fuentes, who hosts America First, a podcast that spreads the modern white nationalist movement’s ideology, also had a handsome payday from DLive. Fuentes—who is a leader of the white nationalist and anti-Semitic group Gropyer Army—raised nearly $94,000 on DLive between April 2020 and January 2021; DLive kicked him off the platform after the Capitol assault.
The Right Stuff, a neo-Nazi media network that hosts the shows Fash the Nation and The Daily Shoah, which promote white supremacy and Holocaust denialism, allows its audience to donate in six different cryptocurrencies on its website. And The Daily Stormer, one of the most notorious neo-Nazi message boards and propaganda sites, received a donation of 14.88 bitcoins, worth more than $60,000 at the time, in the wake of the Charlottesville rally. (The amount of the donation is itself a reference to core white supremacist ideas: The “14” is a reference to the late white supremacist David Lane’s 14 words, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The “88” stands for Heil Hitler.) The Daily Stormer now only accepts Monero, a cryptocurrency that claims to be untraceable—thus making it what is termed a “privacy coin.”
In addition to his podcast, Nick Fuentes operates an “America First” store that sells merchandise, including a seasonal collection aptly named “White Boy Summer.” The merchandise can be purchased with Litecoin. For an even blunter extremist shopping experience, customers can turn to Will2Rise (W2R), the merchandising and media arm of the Rise Above Movement, a white supremacist group that boasts the skinhead movement’s emphasis on street fighting. W2R prides itself on offering an “ethical supply chain,” noting that: “All products are made in Eastern Europe, so not a single hand touches the production that is not of like mind.” W2R accepts five different cryptocurrencies as payment, including Bitcoin and Ethereum.
Domestic extremists are also finding their pleas for help—be it general support or fundraising for legal defense—answered by cryptocurrency. Jason Kessler, the organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally, solicits cryptocurrency donations for his Charlottesville legal defense fund. One campaign for Kessler’s legal defense on GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding site, offers Bitcoin and Monero, a privacy coin, as ways to support the fund.
The National Socialist Movement (NSM) bills itself as “America’s Premier White Civil Rights Organization” and, unsurprisingly, advocates for national socialism in the United States. An individual affiliated with the group attempted to attackblack passengers on an Amtrak train in 2017. NSM accepts Bitcoin donations on its website. Similarly, Atomwaffen Division, an accelerationist white supremacist group that aims to foment a race war that will cause the collapse of the U.S. political system, accepted Monero donations on a website affiliated with the group. (In March 2020, Atomwaffen ostensibly disbanded, though analysts believe it rebranded itself as the National Socialist Order.)
Indeed, Monero donations signal an increasing—and increasingly worrying—trend of domestic extremists trying to obfuscate their identities. As law enforcement investigations of domestic extremism grow, extremists have attempted to obstruct the tracing of cryptocurrency payments. In addition to the adoption of Monero and other privacy coins, extremists have used tactics to mask ownership of funds, such as “mixing” or “coinjoining,” protocols where users, for a small fee, can hide the ownership of their funds.
As domestic extremists get savvy, it’s time for us to get smart. To curb extremists’ activities, and mitigate the threats they pose, their funding streams should be blocked. Luckily, the U.S. government and the private sector can institute many policies which do that within three broad lines of effort: increasing designations, instituting regulations and standards, and forging public-private partnerships.
First, the U.S. government should designate violent white supremacist groups as terrorist organizations. Designations are one of the most powerful tools that the U.S. government can deploy to disrupt extremists’ fundraising capabilities, but the United States has only designated one white supremacist group to date. While U.S. law prohibits designations of domestic groups, the government can and should increase designations of violent white supremacist groups that have a foreign nexus. The power of designations would also encourage cryptocurrency companies to disengage from designated entities.
Second, policymakers should consider a host of regulations to bring cryptocurrencies, including privacy coins and central bank digital currencies (CBDC), under the regulatory perimeter. Regulations would provide the cryptocurrency industry with a clear, uniform set of rules for how to treat illicit activity. Regulations for privacy coins could take the form of strengthening reporting standards for cryptocurrency exchanges that transact with privacy coins. Establishing standards now for CBDCs, such as the digital dollar—even if adoption of these currencies remains years away—would help mitigate extremists’ abuse of government-backed digital currencies. Supporting global standards on virtual assets would also help prevent extremists’ ability to exploit cryptocurrency by closing the gaps between regulatory regimes in different countries, and would provide the cryptocurrency industry with uniform standards for assessing illicit or suspicious transactions.
Lastly, blockchain analysis firms and non-partisan watchdog groups should form public-private partnerships. Such collaboration would leverage both actors’ tools to produce actionable intelligence. Ultimately, such partnerships would increase awareness of how extremists use cryptocurrencies and would allow relevant companies in the cryptocurrency space to better understand this usage.
As the Freedom Convoy protests enter their fourth week, the Canadian government is targeting protestors’ ability to fundraise, including via cryptocurrency. While a bevy of objections can be raised to the Canadian government employing such tactics against nonviolent protesters exercising their rights of free speech and free assembly, American extremists who have moved into cryptocurrency have advocated for and even carried out shocking acts of violence. It’s time for Washington to act.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the CEO of Valens Global and leads a project on domestic extremism for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Varsha Koduvayur is an analyst at Valens Global, where she focuses on U.S. domestic extremism and geopolitics. Follow Daveed on Twitter @DaveedGR and Varsha @varshakoduvayur.