Far-right influencers made thousands of dollars a day on a little-known gaming platform
The rioters in Washington D.C. used a number of social media tools to livestream their January 6 assault on the Capitol, including Facebook and Instagram Live. However, the small U.S.-based video streaming platform DLive also rose to prominence when the white nationalist Tim Gionet, also known as Baked Alaska, used it to broadcast his breach of the building to 16,000 followers.
DLive, a relatively modest live streaming platform launched in 2017, with seven million users, has been embraced by other white supremacist and far-right figures, including the white nationalist Nick Fuentes, whose account was permanently disabled after the riot for “inciting violent and illegal activities.” Gionet was also banned from the platform on January 8.
The gaming platform quickly distanced itself from the unprecedented events at the Capitol. “DLive does not condone illegal activities or violence,” read a posting on its official Twitter account, made hours after the insurrection. On January 8, the company said it had suspended, forced offline or limited 10 accounts and deleted 100 broadcasts and frozen the earnings of individuals streaming the riot.
Megan Squire, an extremism researcher and computer scientist at Elon University in North Carolina studied donations on DLive between April 2020 and January 2021. She found that extremists had earned up to $90,000 in less than a year by streaming their content to subscribers.
I talked to her to find out more about the study and understand what we learn about monetizing extremism.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity
Coda Story: Your research shows that far-right actors can earn large sums of money from streaming on DLive. How does studying this relatively small-scale social media platform improve our understanding of how these people work?
Megan Squire: The study with DLive is more about the fact that these guys are figuring out how to make money in strange places that a lot of us have never heard of. In some cases, we are not paying attention to these tiny little platforms.
I’m hoping that the study points out the new ways that money is being made, which people are just not aware of — lawmakers, law enforcement, even other researchers and journalists.
That’s why Nick Fuentes was on five nights a week, because he could guarantee to make a couple of thousand dollars every single night. So that’s really something that was not on people’s radar at all, they were not thinking about this as money. They were thinking about it as hate speech and propaganda.
Could you explain to the uninitiated how the donation network functions on DLive?
MS: There’s a site currency called lemons that you spend when you want to donate to someone. You put money into the system and it changes it into lemons. And then, from there, you can use them to donate to your favorite streamer.
There seems to be a mix of large donors and micro donors on DLive. Why do you think they prefer to donate on the platform rather than send money directly to their favorite far-right streamers?
MS: It’s really the live entertainment value of having the streamer interact with you or you interacting with the streamer in some way. At the beginning or end of a stream or randomly in the middle of a video stream, everyone would just donate one lemon.
It’s like clapping or applause. You’re just showing your appreciation in general. And then, other times, they would give big amounts. They would give 50 lemons or 100 or 1000 — even 10,000. That’s about $120. So these are big shows of appreciation.
Why do they donate to far-right extremists, even though transactions are public and not hidden?
MS: I don’t think they entirely realized it was public. There’s a difference between seeing the lemons coming in and realizing that that could be studied, observed or quantified.
The other thing to keep in mind is that there’s nothing illegal about it. It’s not like they were money laundering. They were just showing their appreciation for hateful speech, which in the United States is not illegal, so they really had no need to hide that under the law as it exists.
Also, most of them were operating under usernames. So I don’t know their real identities, no one does. No one except the company that’s cashing them out, and even cash-ins can be done fairly anonymously.
Your research concludes that the far-right extremist streamer donation network on DLive is disparate and that groups of people follow certain influencers. What does that tell us?
MS: The thing that was the most interesting to me was the idea that there were these little fan clubs. They had these little groups and cliques that they identified with much more than the others. That bore out not just in the memes and what T-shirts they bought, they were really donating and keeping those streamers alive, so it created a sense of community. That was much stronger than I thought it would be.
How much success has the far right had in adopting influencer culture?
MS: Oh, huge. If you think about it, they’ve always been good at the influencer culture, all the way back to despots and fascists throughout history. That’s their big thing: strongman leadership and propaganda and all that stuff. They’re really good at it. This is just the modern way of doing that. It’s still a lot of the same tricks.
How hard is it to crack down on this use of technology by far-right figures?
MS: If we think about influencers and brands, it’s much harder to find legal culpability. You can’t send a brand to prison. You can send a group and an individual and a leader. All those people can be charged with crimes, but it’s much harder to indict a brand, indict a symbol, indict a meme.
Nick Fuentes doesn’t have members. “America First” is just a movement, it’s a slogan, it’s a flag, a logo. It’s not a membership organization. So, being a propagandist, influencing people, but without calling themselves their leader, that’s something that I think these guys figured out pretty quick.
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