“Dude, we’re in,” exclaimed an excited Anthime Gionet at around 3 pm on Jan. 6, 2021, as he and a horde of other rioters made their way into a recently evacuated office in the US Capitol belonging to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her staff. He was livestreaming the chaos alongside other well-known white supremacists like Nick Fuentes and some lesser-known figures like Richard Barnett, who shortly thereafter was photographed with his feet up on Pelosi’s desk.
He wasn’t livestreaming on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, platforms we’ve come to associate with livestreaming events elsewhere in our lives. Gionet was livestreaming on a platform called DLive, a “blockchain”-based video platform popular with gamers and, increasingly, the far-right alternative media ecosystem. Like many platforms of its kind, DLive also enables real-time donations to livestreamers. While the platform may be fringe compared to more mainstream household names, Gionet was broadcasting live that day to over 16,000 people, hundreds of whom made donations worth thousands of dollars to him before the stream was eventually cut off.
Gionet and his fellow rioters were not the only ones making money that day. DLive took a 25% commission on everything donated, in line with other platforms that enable payments, donations, or merchandise sales by individual users. And DLive is hardly alone — there exists a robust ecosystem of payments, donations, and merchandising platforms, many of which are employed by extremist groups around the world to monetize their audience and fund their activities.
THE POWER OF DIGITAL FUNDRAISING
My organization, the Global Disinformation Index, along with our partners at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, studied the use of payments, merchandising, and donations platforms by extremist groups and documented our findings in a pair of reports released over the last year. In the US, we examined the digital fundraising activities of 73 extremist and hate groups across 47 different platforms and five flavors of cryptocurrency, ultimately finding nearly 200 instances of hate groups using online funding platforms to raise money and support their activities.
Using such platforms is not unique to the US. For example, in recent years the far-right community in Germany has become a hotbed of new adherents to the Qanon cult and this has similar characteristics to the far-right in the US. Leading up to the recent German federal elections, we subsequently looked at 17 entities in Germany and their use of 20 different online fundraising services, with similar results.
Why do these organizations persist, even as they attempt to overthrow our democratically elected government? It’s because the IRS is so underfunded that it lacks the enforcement resources necessary to terminate such obvious violators.
Much of what we found in both the US and Germany probably won’t surprise you. For example, groups selling t-shirts or other merchandise on Amazon or via a WooCommerce store, which is an open-source eCommerce platform owned by WordPress parent company Automattic, processes payments using Stripe or PayPal (they do, in fact, take American Express) or accept donations via Bitcoin (or in Germany, via direct bank transfer). Other examples include Minutemen Coffee Company, a bespoke coffee roaster in Washington state that sells “patriot”-themed coffee via one of the most popular e-commerce platforms, Shopify. Proceeds from Minutemen’s sales go to fund militia and prepper groups plotting and planning for the downfall of the US. Additionally, Paul Elam, founder of “men’s rights group” A Voice for Men, who is a promoter of misogynistic content and once declared October “Bash a Violent Bitch Month,” solicits donations via the popular membership platform Patreon.
The majority of these platforms mentioned already have Acceptable Use Policies that ostensibly prohibit such activities, but most had been going unenforced. To their credit, once we contacted them, many platforms took subsequent enforcement actions. Shopify, for example, terminated accounts of a number of the extremist and hate groups we identified. PayPal terminated the account of Paul Elam’s aforementioned A Voice for Men group, among others. Meanwhile, there continues to exist an entire ecosystem of platforms like DLive that specifically cater to the fringe community and make decent money doing it. While DLive has since claimed to up their enforcement game, the platform is still rife with anti-vaxxers and other malign content streamers to this very day, all while making millions of dollars off these communities in the process.
There is, however, an even larger story in our data, and one that leads right back to Washington, DC, and the very building where we started our tale: The US Capitol. Nearly half of the groups we studied in the US have 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) charity status. This allows them to have essentially automatic access to an entire spectrum of fundraising platforms, including Amazon Smile, Facebook Donations, and Charity Navigator’s Giving Basket tool. And because they have the tacit endorsement of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), it’s difficult to imagine any of these private companies making their own determinations as to what does, and doesn’t, count as charity.
CHARITY GONE WRONG
Extremist groups like the Oath Keepers militia, charged with helping organize the Jan. 6 riots (and classified as a Humanities Organization, EIN 83-0769850 by the IRS, donations to which are tax-deductible) are not obviously not charities. They most certainly aren’t social welfare organizations as described in the laws governing charities either. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that organizations that violate the law or clearly defined public policy are not entitled to tax-exempt status.
So why do these organizations persist, even as they attempt to overthrow our democratically elected government? The simple answer is, the IRS is so woefully underfunded that it lacks the enforcement resources necessary to terminate such obvious violators. Usually, conversations about IRS funding arise from policy issues like wealth taxes and budget balancing. But enforcement resource limitations at the IRS create problems that seep into a whole host of other areas, some of which end up immediately threatening our national security and the sanctity of our democratic process.
Importantly, Amazon, subsequent to Jan. 6 and the scrutiny it produced, terminated the Oath Keepers and one other militia group, the III Percenters (classified as a Voluntarism Promotion organization by the IRS) from their platform. Both groups, however, still maintain their charity status, despite advocating the violent overthrow of the US government (a violation of Chapter 115 of the US Code). Amazon continues to sell books published by another 501(c)(3) charity, the Vdare Foundation (classified as a Public Policy Research Institute by the IRS), which according to the SPLC, “regularly publishes articles by prominent white nationalists, race scientists, and anti-Semites.”
So while we’ve come a long way — at least 17 of the platforms we contacted subsequent to our reports have since taken enforcement actions — we still have a long way to go. And if Congress wants to protect themselves from future incursions, perhaps they might consider resourcing the IRS with enough funding to actually enforce the charity laws, or at least kick out the organizations that tried to overthrow the same government that generously granted them tax-exempt status in the first place.
Daniel J. Rogers is the Chief Technology Officer and co-Founder of The Global Disinformation Index, a non-profit focused on disrupting online disinformation, as well as an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He is also a Fellow of the Truman National Security Project. Follow the Global Disinformation Index on Twitter and LinkedIn.