At least four technology companies have taken steps to bar Atomwaffen Division, a violent neo-Nazi organization, from using their online services and platforms to spread its message or fund its operations.
The action comes after ProPublica reports detailing the organization’s terrorist ambitions and revealing that the California man charged with murdering Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old college student found buried in an Orange County park earlier this year, was an Atomwaffen member.
Activists and journalists with other media outlets have criticized the tech firms — among them chat services, web merchants, social media channels and gaming platforms — for enabling the outfit, which has members in 23 states and Canada, records show.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s happened since ProPublica reported on Feb. 23 that chat logs used by Atomwaffen showed members celebrating Bernstein’s murder. Bernstein was gay and Jewish, and Atomwaffen members took to calling his accused killer, Samuel Woodward, a “one man gay Jew wrecking crew.”
Discord was designed to allow video gamers to communicate with one another while immersed in multiplayer online games, but over the past year it has been co-opted by white supremacists who have used it to share bomb-making manuals, plot the violent confrontations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and, in the case of Atomwaffen, revel in the killing of Bernstein.
Scattered across the country, Atomwaffen members relied on Discord to disseminate confidential information and make organizational plans.
After ProPublica obtained more than 250,000 Discord messages posted by Atomwaffen members and reprinted excerpts of those messages as part of our Feb. 23 article, Discord quickly shut down the group’s server.
Discord’s terms of service “specifically prohibit harassment, threatening messages, or calls to violence,” the company said in an emailed statement to ProPublica. “There were a handful of servers that violated these ToS recently and were swiftly removed from the platform. We will continue to be aggressive to ensure that Discord exists for the community we set out to support — gamers.”
YouTube and Steam
Atomwaffen had long posted its propaganda videos, which are full of violent imagery and racist messaging, on YouTube, where the group had its own channel. Then Motherboard, the Daily Beast, and the Anti-Defamation League took on the video-sharing giant.
As the Daily Beast noted, Atomwaffen seemed to be in clear violation of YouTube’s policy on hate speech, which bans videos made with “the primary purpose of inciting hatred against individuals or groups based on certain attributes, such as: race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, sexual orientation/gender identity.”
At first, YouTube balked at pulling down the videos, which call for “race war now” and the mass murder of Jews. But on Feb. 28, the company reversed its position and terminated the Atomwaffen channel.
Still, a second channel maintained by the group, SIEGEtv, which promotes Nazi ideology, is online and active.
Motherboard, an arm of Vice Media, also discovered that there was an Atomwaffen group on the community discussion board of Steam, a gaming platform.
“The group only has 17 members, but their accounts are a disturbing grab bag of Nazi imagery and Atomwaffen-style propaganda,” Motherboard reported. “The group’s description section clearly states its racist worldview. One member has used the screen name ‘PURE ARYAN 100%,’ and uses a photo of South Carolina mass murderer Dylann Roof as his avatar.”
Valve, the parent company of Steam, has deleted the group.
Until recently, Atomwaffen used Inktale, an online t-shirt retailer, to fund its operations through the sale of Nazi-themed t-shirts. Shirt designs celebrated figures like Charles Manson and Atomwaffen’s ideological inspiration, longtime Nazi James Mason. (The t-shirt with Mason’s image read “Give hate a chance.”)
On Feb. 24, Twitter users began confronting the company.
The next day Inktale quit selling the shirts.
The company told ProPublica that “Inktale reserves the right to review, and if necessary remove, any content from the site.“
“In this case, the user in question violated part 3 of the Acceptable Content Policy (https://inktale.com/content-policy), thus their profile and products were deleted.”
The on-demand t-shirt printer said it has systems in place to keep organizations like Atomwaffen from using its services, “but we also appreciate anyone reporting inappropriate content to our team from the outside, and we take such claims very seriously.”
The San Francisco-based company provides anti-hack protection to two Atomwaffen websites: AtomwaffenDivision.org and SiegeCulture.com. As part of that protection, Cloudflare obscures the name of the hosting company providing Atomwaffen with space on the internet.
Cloudflare, which sells services to some 7 million websites, said it has no control over the content on those sites and doesn’t plan to stop doing business with Atomwaffen. From the company’s perspective, it’s up to the web hosts to decide if they want to yank Atomwaffen’s sites, said Cloudflare general counsel Doug Kramer.
“We don’t want to be put in the position of being judge and jury on our own,” said Kramer, noting the struggles of much larger outfits like YouTube and Facebook to identify unacceptable content. “We’ve seen that we get some legitimate complaints and we get some that aren’t on the up-and-up — that are people going after other people with whom they disagree.”
However, on at least one occasion, Cloudflare has cut ties with a Nazi site: In August 2017, days after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the company ousted The Daily Stormer, an avowedly racist and anti-Semitic news site.
“Earlier today, Cloudflare terminated the account of the Daily Stormer,” wrote CEO Matthew Prince on the company’s blog at the time. “Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.”
Kramer stressed that members of the public concerned about Atomwaffen’s websites can use Cloudflare’s abuse form to anonymously report the sites, and that Cloudflare will notify the owners or web hosts.
That system was reformed last May in the wake of a ProPublica report revealing that people were being harassed and threatened after complaining to Cloudflare about hate sites, including The Daily Stormer. At the time, the company was sharing the personal information of the complainants with the racist sites.