Growing interest among a host of violent extremists in a lesser-known livestreaming app — one that’s largely geared toward younger gamers — prompted U.S. intelligence officials in January to circulate warnings to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies only days after the violent siege at the U.S. Capitol.
Analysts charged with keeping tabs on violent extremist organisations warned of streaming service DLive’s rising popularity for “recruitment and propaganda distribution,” while pointing to the app’s use by pro-Trump insurrectionists who breached deep inside the Capitol building on Jan. 6.
users on Tim Gionet's, aka Baked Alaska, live stream on DLive are calling to give lawmakers the "rope" and to "hang all the congressmen" on DLive while he's streaming inside the Capitol building. pic.twitter.com/fq9t7KAlfA
— hannah gais (@hannahgais) January 6, 2021
On Jan. 15, federal and state officials in San Diego and Central Florida issued a joint intelligence bulletin, saying a host of far-right personalities known for their violent rhetoric were likely drawn to DLive after being banned from mainstream sites such as YouTube. The ability to fundraise using DLive’s micropayment system was likely a key factor.
According to the bulletin, DLive’s in-house currency, known as “lemons,” offered the “means to raise funds to further their extremist agenda,” analysts wrote.
DLive users can purchase lemons — worth around one U.S. penny a pop — using a credit card, cryptocurrency, or Amazon Pay. Like a “tip,” the donation of lemons serves as a form of gratuity for content creators. They can be cashed out in exchange for real money upon request.
Research into DLive transactions, which are public, has effectively proven the ability of known extremists to cultivate large followings on the platform, netting them potentially thousands of dollars per broadcast. This was possible due to lax enforcement of DLive’s own community guidelines (which prohibit hate speech), ostensibly arising from efforts to maintain its marketability as a “censorship-free” alternative to major streaming platforms.
“As online platforms continue to suspend and remove accounts sharing extremist-related content, violent extremists will likely continue to seek alternative online platforms, particularly platforms that promote limited to no censorship,” analysts wrote.
While the analysts draw largely from open-source reporting, the bulletin circulated among law enforcement was intended “for official use only.” A prominent notice declares the bulletin “cannot be released to the public, media, or other personnel who do not have a valid ‘need-to-know’ without prior authorization” by the originating source; so-called “fusion centres” in California and Florida run jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and state police.
Gizmodo first obtained the bulletin after it was disclosed in a freedom of information request brought by Property of the People, a nonprofit group of record-seekers whose work has fuelled high-profile investigations at ProPublica, the Washington Post and New York Times, among others. “It shouldn’t take a fascist coup attempt to finally draw intelligence agencies’ attention to the spreading white supremacist plague, but here we are,” said Ryan Shapiro, executive director of Property of the People.
“While the development of alternative platforms, such as DLive, is likely intended to diversify the current selection of available live streaming services, violent extremists seeking a new platform to promote extremist-related content likely view DLive as a refuge,” the bulletin says. “Key features, including secure and private connections, limited censorship, and quick transfer of cryptocurrency to tangible cash, may increase the platform’s attractiveness to violent extremist groups seeking to exploit such features to further their extremist agenda.”
Gizmodo reached out to DLive for comment on multiple occasions but received no response.
Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University who studies extremists online, is one of the principal sources cited by the analysts. Squire’s use of DLive’s transaction ledgers to track the flood of payments going to white supremacists and other far-right streamers was previewed by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in November 202o; a subsequent paper, titled “Monetising Propaganda: How Far-right Extremists Earn Money by Video Streaming,” was published last month.
Squire’s paper details donations of over $US800,000 ($1,085,120) to 55 streamers of far-right extremist content, including Nick Fuentes, a pro-Trump Holocaust denier, wh0 days prior to the Capitol riot told a DLive audience: “What can you and I do to a state legislator, besides kill them?”
White supremacist and Trump apologist Nick Fuentes encourages his viewers to kill legislators in his stream last night on DLive, earning $2800 for his effort. Dlive should be held to account for promoting and monetizing this violent rhetoric. pic.twitter.com/Efbq9ly1Bo
— Megan Squire (@MeganSquire0) January 5, 2021
Fuentes is the highest-paid streamer noted in Squire’s research, having amassed nearly $US94,000 ($127,502) in donations between April 2020 and Jan. 9 — at which point DLive suspended his account for “inciting violent and illegal activities.” The second-highest earner, Patrick Casey, had raked in over $US79,860 ($108,322). Casey is the former leader of Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi organisation, which he attempted to rebrand as the “American Identity Movement” in a self-declared effort to appeal to the “boomer patriot crowd,” (i.e., pro-Trump internet users in the 55-75 age range).
“We show that with a regularly produced livestream show on a niche platform like DLive, far-right actors can earn over $US100,000 ($135,640) in donations in less than a year,” Squire wrote. “This money is available by courting both mega-donors and smaller donors. The funds are able to be cashed out regularly from the platform, providing a form of regular income to political extremists.”
DLive booted a handful of accounts in January in response to attention brought on by the events at the Capitol in early January. The transaction ledgers studied by Squire also indicate that some refunds — including around $US40,000 ($54,256) donated to Fuentes — were issued to users who’d given to the now-banned accounts.
In an email, Squire noted that DLive had “attempted” to demonetize certain channels by allowing channel owners to flag their own streams as ineligible to receive donations, also known as applying an “X-Tag.” The site defines content that requires an X-Tag as that which “is at the outer edge of what’s allowable on our platform, but without crossing the line into prohibited material or behaviours.” (The X-Tag option was an effort to allow the continued monetisation of mature-themed broadcasts, whose content “are more in the realm of a mainstream R-rated movie,” as DLive describes them.)
Many streamers, according to Squire, attempt to fly under the radar by removing the X-Tag while streams are live. “For example Patrick Casey frequently turns the monetisation on and off,” she said. “Many white supremacists who weren’t known to be directly involved with the insurrection … are still monetized and still using the platform to stream and chat.”
“This is a very fast-moving space, and because it is lucrative to both content creators AND platform companies, there are a lot of sites springing up to fill the role of enabling hate speech,” added Squire. “This makes it very challenging to keep up with the different sites and who is moving to which ones.”
In February, lawmakers alarmed by DLive serving as a funding vehicle for violent extremists called out its chief executives. Citing “thousands of dollars in DLive’s digital currency” earned by livestreamers while storming the Capitol, Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Jackie Speier pressed DLive’s two CEOs, Justin Sun and Charles Wayn, to answer questions about the company stance on adolescent users being targeted by “extremist content aimed to ‘lure’ and ‘recruit’ individuals”.
“As DLive allows the exchange of digital currency facilitated by BitTorrent and their operational cryptocurrency exchange, Tron, what oversight mechanisms are used to identify individuals financing extremist content?” the lawmakers asked, among other questions.
A spokesperson for Rep. Speier said her office had not seen any response from the company.
A spokesperson for Rep. Krishnamoorthi said that in lieu of a written response, subsequent discussions with DLive took place. “Though none of those conversations brought greater light on the matter than DLive has provided in its public statements,” the spokesperson said, “the Congressman is continuing to monitor the issue.”
“Violent domestic extremism and virtual currencies are two things I am increasingly concerned about,” Rep. Speier, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Gizmodo.
“Radicalisation because of these social media companies’ business models is the major issue people have been focused on, and rightly so. But too often, we fail to proactively identify incoming and growing threats. We must also look at how social media livestreaming and fundraising gives extremists outreach and resourcing opportunities to spread and do further harm,” she said.
As regulators focus their scrutiny on the larger tech companies working to develop their own digital currencies, such as Facebook’s Diem, it must not be lost on smaller companies, Speier said, whose payment tools “will likely continue to grow as a serious threat to our national and financial security.”
In the aftermath of the Capitol attack, DLive issued a statement saying it had taken action against a few accounts. “Since yesterday, we have suspended 3 accounts, forced offline 5 channels, banned 2 accounts from live streaming and permanently removed over 100 past broadcasts from our platform,” it said.
“Our product team has commenced working on adding reporting functions within the channel page, so in the future, we can handle similar issues in an even more expeditiously and efficient manner,” it added.