Words By Steven Monacelli
What happens when the company that provides web hosting services for a network of far-right extremist websites gets hacked? For starters, the people who secretly run the websites get exposed. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
On Sept. 13, this author broke news on Twitter of a massive data breach of the web services company, Epik, which has controversially provided services to Neo-Nazi, QAnon and white supremacist websites. Since that news broke, journalists and researchers discovered a number of previously unforeseen connections within the far-right wing. Indeed, the hack confirmed that Kenneth Rucker, a member of the far-right extremist group the Oath Keepers, played a central role in bringing the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory to the masses.
But hacks like these are rare. Few companies have been so totally compromised in the process. So it’s not common for so many people to be outed as political extremists so quickly. Typically, the efforts are due to the painstaking research of everyday people.
Indeed, for over a decade, the far-right in the United States has become increasingly sophisticated in their deployment of disinformation and extremist political campaigns. A study published in 2018 by the National Consortium for the Study of Extremism and Responses to Terrorism showed that social media played a central role in political radicalization. These findings were echoed by 2018 reporting on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that the rise of Donald Trump was in no small part facilitated by the exploitation of Facebook data to spread targeted misinformation.
In terms of identifying and tracking the spread of such social media misinformation campaigns, citizen-sleuths have often been at the forefront of the efforts that lead to the unmasking and deplatforming of right-wing political extremists. Starting in 2014, a group of Black feminists gathered around #YourSlipIsShowing, a Twitter hashtag intended to call out right-wing trolls posing as feminists online.
The phrase refers to the idea of someone’s slip showing from under their dress, revealing something that they’re trying to conceal. On Twitter, this means fake accounts aimed to make social justice activists look ridiculous.
In one particularly glaring incident, the right-wing trolls created a Twitter hashtag called #EndFathersDay. “#EndFathersDay,” read one tweet, “until men start seeing they children as more than just ‘f*ck trophies.’”
The controversial hashtag predictably stirred up outrage in the right-wing media sphere, making its way to Tucker Carlson. But the entire thing was a hoax. Hudson and other Black feminists like I’Nasah Crockett uncovered that was the product of a plan originally hashed out 4Chan, a den for extremist trolls. They identified the same sort of talking points on Twitter, exposed the accounts of fraud, and in some cases got some of the accounts permanently suspended. But unfortunately, the platforms often didn’t or don’t respond, and anonymous trolls still run rampant. The hashtag is still used by people who use their research abilities to unmask trolls and extremists.
Such disinformation tactics continue to this day, and in some instances, break out from behind the social media barrier and into real life. Consider the story we reported on just last month, when Dallas Justice Now — a fake social justice group linked to a Republican PR firm — conducted a stunt that resulted in a series of fake news stories to make the Black Lives Matter movement look bad. And just like in the case of #EndFathersDay, the Dallas Justice Now hoax also made it onto Tucker Carlson as fuel for stoking false outrage.
In the instance of Dallas Justice Now, it was also the case that women citizen-sleuths helped uncover the truth before anyone else. Dallas resident Casie Tomlin and others immediately began investigating the situation. Unfortunately, Tomlin faced retaliation from the fake group in the form of them defaming her as a racist on the internet. Incidentally, this author also faced retaliatory defamation in return for reporting the news of the Epik hack and data breach.
In the case of #YourSlipIsShowing, Crockett and others faced similar treatment, if not worse. They received violent threats in response to posting their findings. “Ok we need to doxx this nigress,” read one anonymous message Crockett received. (To “doxx” someone is to find and share their private information, such as their address and phone number, with the explicit intention to direct harassment their way.)
So what does this all mean? For starters, COINTELPRO-style psychological warfare against progressive causes is alive and well in this country. Such disinformation campaigns are coordinated, deliberate and dangerous to the fabric of our politics. You should certainly question what you see on social media if you don’t know the people sharing it.
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The nature of social media also means that anyone can help push back against political trolls seeking to spread disinformation for the explicit purpose of stoking outrage and division. However, it may not be in your best interest to tackle it head on. Calling out the showing slips can take an emotional toll and invite unwanted harassment from some of the worst members of society. Take it from me, a journalist whose address was posted on an extremist’s website for over two days.