How The Alt-Right Manipulates The Internet’s Biggest Commenting Platform
The commenting giant Disqus has said repeatedly that it doesn’t allow hate speech. But its platform is overrun with trolls, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis.
The alt-right and white nationalist trolls who frequent Twitter and backwater message boards have found another gathering place online: the commenting platform Disqus.
Used by publications like Rolling Stone and TMZ, Disqus says it gets about 2 billion unique visitors each month. It supports anonymous commenting and allows its users to comment on any Disqus-enabled site — a single Disqus account is a gateway to discussions on thousands of sites. It also hosts its own channels. And lately some of those channels have become rallying points for white nationalists and white supremacists looking to red-pill users in discussions around contentious, already-politicized news events. And while Disqus has a hate speech policy that should prevent or temper this, it doesn't seem to be particularly vigorous about enforcing it. The trolls are free to plot.
Said one Disqus user, "This strategy of taking over the top comments with fact-based comments seems to have been paying off as we've picked up support along the way from people who might have been on the fence... or just completely unawares." Another suggested using fake, sock-puppet Disqus accounts to flood comment sections. “If you had 20 guys with 10 socks each, you could dramatically force the narrative in the correct direction and also distract the mods and regular posters using various methods,” they observed.
For anonymous alt-right trolls like "the Dank One," last August’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was one such indoctrination opportunity — a news event that provided one of the internet’s white identity movements a shortcut to the national stage. Determined to capitalize on it, the Dank One and countless others mobilized on Disqus to spread pro-white, alt-right propaganda to what they hoped was a newly energized audience.
“The White pill [a reference to persuasive pro-white propaganda] is in the comments section of the Breitbart Charlottesville ***Live Wire*** article,” the Dank One wrote to a fellow Disqus user by the name of Anime Nazi Troll 3000 on Aug. 13. Dank’s post was a supposed statement of victory; his bogus, “sock puppet” Disqus accounts had upvoted a handful of pro-white messages, pushing them to the very top of the article’s nearly 70,000-long Disqus comment thread.
“Breitbart readers desperately need pro-White perspective, and many reading the comments are now getting it,” the Dank One wrote. “I’ve been working those comments under various socks for over 2 years, and I can tell you with certainty that getting pro-White material to the top and not having it deleted is an accomplishment.”
Evangelist trolls like the Dank One are hardly an anomaly on Disqus. A trove of screenshots as well as spreadsheets filled with thousands of Disqus comments from sites like Breitbart, Infowars, and National Review Online viewed by BuzzFeed News revealed a vibrant network of pro-white, anti-black/Muslim/LGBT commenters. Beyond this, Disqus itself currently hosts a number of anti-Semitic, pro-white user forums. And despite frequent pleas from critics and activists to police the rampant hate speech on its platform, Disqus hasn’t yet meaningfully addressed the problem: The extremist communities continue to flourish.
“When the worst parts of the internet want to try and be a little more mainstream, they go to Disqus,” E.J. Gibney, an independent researcher who has methodically tracked and collected extremist content on the platform for nearly two years, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s because Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even Reddit will eventually shut them down. But they have a home on Disqus.”
Disqus is not unaware of this. Its terms of service explicitly forbid targeted harassment, hateful language, and “communities dedicated to fostering harassing behavior.” In a February 2017 blog post on hate speech, Disqus Director of Marketing Mario Paganini wrote, “Language that offends, threatens, or insults groups solely based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or other traits is against our network terms and has no place on the Disqus network. Hate speech is the antithesis of community and an impediment to the type of intellectual discussion that we strive to facilitate.”
And yet the speech Paganini describes flourishes on Disqus. The company continues to host comments on white nationalist and white supremacist publications like Red Ice and Fash the Nation. Disqus is also the comment platform for Christopher “the crying Nazi” Cantwell’s website. His posts, with titles like “Happy Mothers Day! — Now Get Back in the Kitchen” and “How to Get Away With Murder (If You’re Not a Nazi)," are littered with racial and anti-gay comments. Under the “How to Get Away With Murder” post, users have posted promotional flyers from the neo-Nazi terrorist organization Atomwaffen, whose members have reportedly been linked to five murders.
How does Disqus’s professed commitment to eradicating hate speech jibe with the prevalence of hate speech on its platform? The answer is muddy at best. “Disqus will handle reports of service violations, but there are some real world limitations in volume and speed,” Disqus CEO Daniel Ha told BuzzFeed News via email. “Disqus can do a better job in handling these violation reports, and that is what the service strives to do.”
Ha did not say whether the company plans to take action against sites like Cantwell’s that appear to violate Disqus’s rules. Nor did he answer a series of questions regarding specific instances of hate speech on Breitbart or the existence of Disqus communities used to orchestrate coordinated trolling campaigns.
To be fair, Disqus in 2017 did roll out some technical solutions intended to help its paid users police toxic comments. More recently, the company debuted “pre-moderation” tools for threads and extra flagging options, and it partnered with other organizations to share API information to map trolling behavior.
Disqus, which was acquired in December by the marketing tech company Zeta Global for a reported $90 million, is not legally responsible for policing hate, whether it be on its own site or those of other publishers. Like Facebook, Google, and Twitter — who all have substantial hate speech problems of their own — it is protected under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which absolves platforms of liability for the behavior of their users.
“There’s hate speech and imagery and incitements of violence and nobody is taking responsibility for any of it,” Gibney told BuzzFeed News. “It’s like a human shrug emoji — everyone's hands in the air. And so it continues.”
But Disqus does not claim to be a neutral platform; the company has taken a strong public stand against hate speech, going so far as to amend its terms of service in April 2017 to enforce full platform removals “if a publication is dedicated to toxic or hateful discourse.” And Disqus has, on occasion, enforced these rules, removing the alt-right sites Occidental Dissent, Return of Kings, and (newly reborn) altright.com.
Disqus’s desire to remain neutral while also taking a hardline stance on speech has resulted largely in inaction. “Since we first contacted Disqus, their CEO Daniel Ha has gone from ‘let’s work on it together’ to ‘we’re building toxicity tools’ to ‘we believe in freedom of speech’ to dead silence,” a representative from Sleeping Giants told BuzzFeed News of its contact with the company. “These are the rules that they, themselves, wrote. It’s crazy that they won’t enforce them.”
“These are the rules that they, themselves, wrote. It’s crazy that they won’t enforce them.”
In March, Gibney contacted Disqus to inquire about its hosting of comments for the Daily Westerner, a racist news site that publishes articles with tags like “nigger,” “spic,” and “Jew.” On March 23, according to an email viewed by BuzzFeed News, in response to his inquiry, Disqus’s head of business operations Kim Rohrer told Gibney the company would soon be “starting the process of removing Daily Westerner from the Disqus platform.” On May 9 Disqus was still hosting comments for the Daily Westerner. The site appears to have shut down of its own accord around May 17.
To illustrate the severity of the problem, Gibney began tracking comments on Breitbart stories that he alleges violate Disqus’s prohibitions against hate speech and targeted harassment. Since he started in March 2017, he’s amassed thousands of examples. On one November 2017 article titled “LaVar Ball Does Not Credit Trump for Son’s Release After China Arrest,” he collected 623 anti-black comments. The list, viewed by BuzzFeed News, includes racial slurs, references toward restoring slavery, and incitements to violence like “Grab a rope a find a tree. Fukc [sic] these people.”
Gibney also found more than 200 anti-Muslim comments across Breitbart articles. Similarly, he collected 298 anti-immigrant comments on one April 2018 Breitbart story about the Mexican border. Separately, in one week in January 2018, Gibney used Disqus’s tools to alert Breitbart to 100 explicitly racist comments (a full list of those 100 comments can be found here). After a seven-day waiting period, just 26 were removed. Among those that remained: “Burn that banner! Faggots, transgenders, are all freaks and they should all be shot dead.”
After being contacted by BuzzFeed News, Breitbart removed the other racist comments Gibney had flagged. It provided the following statement through a spokesperson:
The Buzzfeed article is an example of politically motivated “gotcha journalism” at its very worst. Of the comments you found, over half show obvious efforts to evade our word filter that eliminates such comments before publication. Most of the rest use expressions that have multiple meanings and cannot be automatically filtered. The premise of your article is fatally flawed Breitbart News receives approximately 4 million comments on its articles each month, which equals roughly 48 million a year. Breitbart uses the Disqus publishing and moderation platform. In addition to a continuously updated word filter, all are subject to a user flagging system. Comments that receive a very low number of flags from audience members are automatically withdrawn from visibility, pending moderator review. Even one flag triggers a manual review, but with thousands of such flags a day, occasionally, a comment that does not satisfy our terms and conditions is not eliminated. And by occasionally, we point out that your 100 comments represents less than 3 comments for every 100,000 placed on the site each month.
Even beyond our real and determined efforts to eliminate the types of comments referenced in this article, many commenters have been banned but then reappear using different screen names. It is very disappointing that Buzzfeed would publish such an obvious and lowbrow attempt to interfere with Breitbart News and our audience of more than 20 million monthly.
Given the comments we see on Buzzfeed articles,* we know you agree that it is impossible to eliminate all objectionable speech from commenting systems. But, we will continue to refine our systems and safeguards, and our efforts to minimize it.
Beyond Breitbart comments, Disqus appears to be providing an important network to members of the alt-right and prominent far-right personalities who’ve been banned on other social platforms. BuzzFeed News viewed what appear to be still-active Disqus accounts for a number of users of the racist /r/CoonTown subreddit that was banned in the summer of 2015. Also present: what appear to be profiles for Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin; Charlottesville rally organizer Eli Mosley; and hacker, troll, and Daily Stormer webmaster Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer. Gibney also identified hundreds of Disqus profiles that contain hateful imagery — like swastikas and Klan images — or racial slurs in their names or avatars.
A number of pro-white and alt-right users have created their own bloglike communities inside Disqus’s platform in order to share stories, comment, and coordinate influence trolling campaigns (which the trolls dub “raids”). One channel called Mickey’s Clubhouse — whose popular topics include Jews, Holohoax, Censorship, White Genocide, and Jew World Order — appears to be home to a number of users coordinating the infiltration of comment sections on Breitbart and other conservative publications. The goal, as evidenced by their comments, is to flood conservative-leaning publishers with pro-white and anti-Semitic content in order to win hearts and minds and indoctrinate others to their politics.
“I've got a good VPN service and some sock accounts ready to go over there,” one Mickey’s Clubhouse member wrote. “Going to hide the power levels until the time is right ;-) There is a troll storm on the horizon, and we've got people preparing accounts, but it is going to take patience and preparation.”
Dating back to August 2016, Disqus channel threads viewed by BuzzFeed News allude to a number of troll raids on sites like Breitbart and National Review Online (which abandoned Disqus as a commenting platform in August 2016, in part due to trolls). A user named FL Cracker alluded to conducting similar raids and red-pill influence campaigns on Infowars’ website, which also uses Disqus for commenting. “The main reason I have so many sock puppets is Breitbart,” another Disqus user, with the handle KEK, wrote in Mickey’s Clubhouse in October 2017, adding they “could also use one sock to ‘bait’ another into a short conversation.”
Rather than operate in their own walled-off communities, the screenshots show that the trolls actively use Disqus as a means to pepper vulnerable targets relentlessly with their messages in the hope of wearing them down and converting them.
“We should ideally be aiming to have maximum impact by targeting high impact sites such as Breitbart, where we have a better chance of reaching normies,” a Mickey’s Clubhouse user wrote in 2017. “Take the fight to the enemy, rather than sticking to smaller disqus channels or friendly sites."
And, according to the trolls, it’s working.
Members of Mickey’s Clubhouse brag that Disqus “raids” on Breitbart and other websites are crucial to indoctrinating new white nationalists. The user, whose display name is “Daisy,” describes the raids as “outreach,” noting that they help to “push the Overton window in the right direction. … I do honestly believe ‘outreach’ has an effect. I think people even read the comments more than they'll read the articles!” they wrote. In screenshots viewed by BuzzFeed News, Mickey’s Clubhouse users frequently mentioned a now-quiet Disqus channel called “Shock N’ Awe" that, according to one user, “is dedicated to pushing our narrative over on Breitbart.” In mid-2017 when it was still active, the channel had over 450 Disqus users.
And there’s no sign they’re planning to let up, especially with the midterm elections approaching.
"There's a lot of people on Twitter and Gab who are interested in claiming the Breitbart comments as we approach the 2018 congressional election season, especially since Breitbart came out against our boy [a fringe Wisconsin congressional candidate with links to the alt-right] Paul Nehlen," the Dank One wrote on Mickey’s Clubhouse this past February.
“It does seem as though more and more people are waking up,” Daisy wrote in a separate thread. “I remember when we first started out on BB over a year ago it was such an uphill battle to begin with, and now it seems as though the [Jewish question] gets raised more and more … the efforts we have all been putting in have been paying off and this will only grow. Perseverance is key.” ●
* BuzzFeed uses Facebook comments, which don't allow people to use pseudonymous account names.
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This post has been updated to note that it is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that provides internet companies with legal immunity for the posts of their users.