BOB GARFIELD: Belew reminds us that far right groups in their public communications paint the picture they want us to see. But what happens behind the scenes, as the footsoldiers of these groups debate and plan their next moves. One place you may find them is a chat room platform called Discord. Popular among gamers and other Internet savvy communities, it's also become a home for those looking to meet like-minded white nationalists. A large trove of this back and forth was uncovered by the left-wing media collective Unicorn Riot, which then revealed the conversations of such Neo-Nazi groups as Patriot Front and, the now defunct, Traditionalist Workers’ Party. Unicorn Riots scored its first load of Discord chats in August 2017, the weekend of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It reported stories, shared the leaked chats and build a database of hundreds of thousands of messages completely open to the public. Quick warning here, some very graphic misogynist language is coming up. Dan Feidt is co-founder of Unicorn Riot. Dan, welcome to OTM.
DAN FEIDT: Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: The messages, back and forth, were ostensibly private. How did they find a way into your hands?
DAN FEIDT: So Discord works through authentication and so if someone who wants to investigate, you know, far-right, Nazis, fascists, white supremacists, if they work at it they can create a false identity that appears to be another fascist. They can then become vetted, then they can be allowed into inner rooms, more quote unquote 'elite chat rooms' and so forth. And essentially the account has access to all the pertinent chat rooms in the server. And then you can basically use particular software to pull out every individual chat and then you can archive all the chats and develop a search engine to make the chats readable.
BOB GARFIELD: One of your pieces had some audio from chatter among those Patriot Front.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I have a 40 cal Glock, a nine millimeter Glock, and three AR-15s. And all of these are 80 percentS.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Women are retarded, like I was in the same logic as you, And then I realized that--when I was like [BLEEP]they can't like do this. Yeah, like a small percentage of them maybe irrational but like--.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well exactly, that's why you beat them. [END CLIP]
DAN FEIDT: Patriot Front in particular, those audio clips really highlight that misogyny, is a critical element of fascist and authoritarian thinking, which is something that not everybody has picked up on. Also, clearly, Patriot Front talks a lot about accumulating weapons and preparing. What's really threatening too is, there is also people that are on their periphery who might be collecting weapons who might suddenly snap one day or work up toward something.
BOB GARFIELD: And that actually gets to a third level of insight that this Discord chatter offers. And that is that in the aggregate it kind of dispels the myth of the lone wolf perpetrator. If you go back and look at their chat history, you find out that maybe a lone physically at the moment of the crime, but not alone in spirit.
DAN FEIDT: It's very clear that in terms of their frame of mind before they might try to kill lots of people, they do see themselves as acting in relation to something that is upheld and believed in by a larger group of people. So in that sense, they might not have needed that much help logistically, but in terms of psychologically bringing themselves to that point that is something that a lot of people are involved with. So you can't really think of them as being lone wolves. One example that I would mention is Taylor Wilson.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The St. Charles man already facing two terrorism charges for stopping an Amtrak train is now facing federal gun charges. [END CLIP]
DAN FEIDT: He tried to hijack an Amtrak train.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The charges include possession of an unregistered barreled rifle and an unregistered machine gun. [END CLIP]
DAN FEIDT: And he was someone who was at Charlottesville.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: At his St. Charles home, the FBI later discovered alt-right and Neo-Nazi literature as well as more ammunition and gunpowder. [END CLIP]
DAN FEIDT: He was a participant in chats with a number of different groups including the Traditionalist Workers' Party, National Socialists Legion. And he was sentenced to 14 years in prison after he was arrested. And that's an example of someone who acted alone but, still, was certainly acting as if he was connected and motivated by a larger network.
BOB GARFIELD: You could say that Discord identifies crimes that were copycat crimes. But I don't even think copycat is quite the right word. It's more like homage. They're done specifically in tribute to those who have been violent before them. Right?
DAN FEIDT: The way I would describe this is that because a lot of it has to do with memes or images, they'll take anyone that does a violent, racist or misogynist act that they can relate to and they'll break apart the imagery around that person and start remixing it and then identifying with that. They'll idolize Charles Manson or Breivik the man who shot all those people in Norway. In the case of Dylann Roof, there was one group called Bowl Patrol which took the imagery of his bowl haircut and remixed that to develop memes and messaging. There were also the Clark brothers who lived around Washington D.C.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: These Washington D.C. brothers and their possible connection to synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers. [END CLIP]
DAN FEIDT: They were in touch with the man that massacred the Jewish people in Pittsburgh.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And one of those brothers was arrested on weapons charges days after allegedly posting on social media that the shooting in Squirrel Hill was quote 'a dry run for things to come.' [END CLIP]
DAN FEIDT: What's been kind of amazing to me is that even regular people sometimes reached out to us like they've said they're suspicious that their niece might be dating a dangerous white supremacist. And they asked us to figure out is this the same guy as I think this guy is because he might have the same nickname or whatever. And in the case where that inquiry came in, it was true it was that guy and was able to take action there.
BOB GARFIELD: You would think that whatever Unicorn Riot is doing pales in comparison to what the FBI is collecting, to what the Department of Homeland Security is collecting for the purposes of anticipating the next attack. Is that happening?
DAN FEIDT: Completely by chance, I had an encounter with a US attorney or assistant attorney, I think, and they were telling me that the FBI didn't have information like this and that they had found it very difficult even to get subpoenas to investigate Facebook group chats even when there was a lot of evidence. It seems pretty clear that police state intelligence, investigators weren't really on the ball before Charlottesville happened. They were taken by surprise to some extent. So they've been somewhat, I think, pushed into action by making these kind of data sets available and then that's enabled a wider public community to raise the alarm and say this is very dangerous. People affiliated with racists and misogynists have been committing mass murders in the United States. And so I think that the picture is somewhat changing.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan, it is axiomatic that sunlight is a disinfectant and therefore the more that we can learn about these groups, especially the most violent ones, the better the society will be. On the other hand, great we now know about the Bowl Patrol courtesy of Unicorn Riot. And so do a bunch of prospective Bowl Patrollers. In fact, so do maybe a much larger number because it's now disseminated via mass media.
DAN FEIDT: The driving force with these groups is really about power and intimidation and appearing to be strong. And so something like Bowl Patrol, if their internal messages get exposed and it shows who's involved–how they put it together, how they're trying to manipulate people into buying into what they're selling–that doesn't just reveal to everyone what their mechanisms are. It also makes them look weaker. And that's a very important thing when it comes to dealing with authoritarian movements because it shows that they don't know what they're doing in terms of security. It shows that they just sit around fighting with each other a lot. It shows that they don't get along. They don't have a real plan. They can't put together a rally. They can't do all of the basic things that a political organization would want to do to advance its goals. So yes, it's true that by having an archive of incredibly derogatory, unpleasant, disturbing material that it's possible someone might connect to that. But this is also the chance to essentially be a kind of information vaccine, if you will. You'd sort of say this is the toxic material. This is how it works. This is what it's trying to do. It's actually very weak. And then that demystifies the whole process for someone who is just trying to understand who might be vulnerable to this thinking. It takes the confusion out of it for a person like that. And it says--
BOB GARFIELD: What a bunch of losers.
DAN FEIDT: Yeah. And it gives a person that many more reasons to walk away by using their own content and their own chats against them. We haven't seen any evidence come up that says 'oh well you guys came up and Discord leaks and you looked even better than you did before.' There's really been no evidence of that kind of line of thinking happening.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan, thank you.
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DAN FEIDT: Yeah, thank you. It's really great to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan Feidt is co-founder of the nonprofit media organization Unicorn Riot.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, in documenting the mechanics of jihadi propaganda, are scholars doing more harm than good? This is On The Media.