‘Where Hate is Normalized’: How White Extremists Use Online Gaming Communities Popular Among Teens to Recruit Culture Warriors
By Mark Keierleber
Five days after extremists used the fringe video gaming platform Dlive to livestream a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, a youthful white nationalist logged onto the site and offered his take about the future of a movement he helped create.
In a drawn-out rant, the alt-right provocateur Patrick Casey downplayed the Capitol insurrection while deriding social media platforms for cracking down on hate speech supporting an overthrow of the U.S. government. As he spoke, he was rewarded with a barrage of animated lemons — the website’s digital currency that’s netted white nationalists tens of thousands of dollars in real-world cash donations — from a supporter with the username “PropagandaDepartment.”
“Our days on Dlive seem to be numbered,” said Casey, referring to the youth-focused social media platform that’s become popular among white supremacists and alt-right personalities, many of whom have been banned on mainstream platforms like YouTube and Twitch, its Amazon-owned competitor. Yet, after a pro-Trump mob of militiamen, conspiracy theorists and white nationalists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, leaving five people dead, even Dlive began to expel prominent streamers — several of whom, like Casey, were among the site’s highest-earning personalities, according to research by Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University and senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The violent insurrection at the Capitol reawakened many Americans to the persistent reality of white supremacists among us and how far they’re willing to go to exert their ideologies. Last week, the Biden administration directed federal law enforcement agencies to conduct a “comprehensive threat assessment” into “domestic violent extremism,” calling it “a serious and growing national security threat.” Then, on Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security published a terrorism advisory alert warning that “ideologically-motivated violent extremists” present a heightened threat across the U.S. But even as political leaders vow to root them out, extremists are busy doing what they have done for decades: Recruiting the next generation of hate-filled zealots.
Now, Squire and other experts on extremism are sounding the alarm about the ways alt-right groups weaponize video games and streaming platforms like Dlive, which is owned by the peer-to-peer file sharing service BitTorrent, to radicalize and recruit teens. While they said the current political climate presents a wide opening for youth to fall down a dystopian rabbit hole, experts recommended a range of strategies that parents and educators can use to identify warning signs and intervene.
At a moment of social unrest where baseless conspiracy theories have been peddled by prominent government leaders, the pandemic has forced millions of students to learn from computer screens all day, away from a support network of teachers and other adults. Even on the most mainstream online platforms, conspiracy theories are just a few clicks away.
“A lot of it is happening in plain sight,” said Jinnie Spiegler, the director of curriculum and training at the Anti-Defamation League, who oversaw a surge in interest during the Trump administration for classroom materials about youth radicalization after teachers observed troubling behaviors in their own classrooms. “There’s the concern on a personal level that young people are getting sucked into it, frankly,” she said, adding that a growing proliferation of hate speech online “sets the stage for that next level of literal white supremacist ideology.”
Squire uses her expertise in data mining to understand online extremism, including the way white nationalists became Dlive’s top earners, raking in tens of thousands of dollars in recent months playing video games while espousing disinformation and chatting with fans. Among those identified are white nationalists who’ve idolized Adolf Hitler and another with ties to the gunman convicted of killing 51 people in 2019 at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Casey and Dlive didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Many of the site’s top streamers, including Casey, are figures in the “Groyper” movement, a loose network of white nationalists who experts say tend to skew young. In one recent stream, for example, a prominent white nationalist boasted about how “young zoomers” — a reference to Generation Z — could find his videos on the site’s homepage “because I’m their number-one earner now.” Meanwhile, the editor of a prominent neo-Nazi website has discussed candidly that his site is “mainly designed to target children” as young as 11 years old.
Knock, knock: it starts with a joke
Casey, whose group has focused on recruiting college students and helped plan the fatal 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, doesn’t resemble the neo-Nazi archetype. If anything, his clean-shaved face and black polo shirt would allow the 31-year-old to blend in with Best Buy’s GeekSquad.
Likewise, the Dlive website doesn’t look anything like a rickety, dark-web outpost for the Ku Klux Klan. It embraces childish imagery, like animated ninjas and ice cream cones, and allows people to play and discuss mainstream video games like The Division 2 and Minecraft. Yet the website also hosts streamers who deny the Holocaust ever happened and fantasize about the murder of Black Lives Matter protesters, relying on the same racist tropes as yesteryear. As Casey spoke, his fans flooded the comments with animated gifs of former President Donald Trump, gorillas and Pepe the Frog, a cartoon that’s been co-opted by racist trolls.
Alt-right streamers use “a three-pronged approach,” Squire said, in their bid to reach younger audiences online: They disseminate their message on leading social media platforms like YouTube, mainstream video games and on platforms like Dlive and Twitch where people livestream videos of themselves playing video games to build a fanbase. The last prong, she acknowledged, is foreign to many adults.
“People of my demographic look at that and they’re like, ‘Wait, people would watch another person play video games for 10 hours at a time and then give them money for it?’ she said. But many alt-right provocateurs are well-versed in the gaming culture — and have long used strategies to appeal to a younger crowd.
“They want to look and appear hip, popular with the young kids,” she said. “The biggest thing they like about [Casey] is the gaming. He’ll game sometimes all night. He’ll game six or eight hours at a time,” while simultaneously engaging with fans in the chatroom and touting disinformation. When he’s not gaming, he offers political commentary in a format that resembles a cable news segment. Along the way, he scores donations — in the form of lemons — from a captive audience.
In some cases, extremists on fringe websites have organized to target the users of mainstream platforms, Squire said. She pointed to Casey’s embrace of “Discord raiding,” in which communities from fringe sites bombard groups on the messaging platform Discord “full of people they don’t like and just harass them.”
Though it’s a jump to claim that “video games are radicalizing our children,” they’ve long failed to combat harassment, said Daniel Kelley, associate director of the Center for Technology and Society at the Anti-Defamation League. “On the road to radicalization, these are spaces where kids can be inoculated to the fact that hate — specifically against people based on their identity — is not a transgressive thing,” adding that streaming sites like Twitch and Dlive are “an outgrowth of the game community where hate is normalized.”
That process, experts said, often begins with a callous joke. In the modern era, such jokes are often distributed as memes. What may begin with a crude “dead baby joke” can eventually be weaponized as propaganda, including posts pronouncing the Holocaust was a hoax.
Steph Loehr, a performer on the video game streaming platform Twitch who goes by the online moniker “FerociouslySteph,” has been subjected to the strategy firsthand. Defining hate speech as a joke shields people from accountability, she said. As long as the speaker is able to establish their rhetoric as humor, they’re rewarded with protection from those who aren’t laughing.
“Especially if your joke is well-crafted, you can get people on your side saying that person is overreacting or they’re losing their minds because they thought this was terrible,” said Loehr. “Whereas the sensitive person is getting pushed out, alienated, attacked for reacting at all.”
On numerous occasions, the long-term outcome has been real-world violence and fear. In an effort to stamp out abusive behaviors on its platform, Twitch appointed Loehr to a new Safety Advisory Council last year — but the move quickly fell victim to controversy. After Loehr said during a livestream that “a lot of you gamers are actually white supremacists,” many in the community erupted in outrage. Loehr, who is transgender, was subjected to a barrage of harassing memes and death threats. She was also “doxxed,” with her home address and other personal information shared online. Though less pervasive than on Dlive, a review of Twitch livestreams quickly turned up imagery popular among alt-right personalities.
Yet Loehr still has faith in the Twitch platform, and said it’s making strides in addressing abuse. But she acknowledged its darkest tendencies could be harmful to children.
“There’s a joke that being a Twitch streamer is being a babysitter, but it really is a lot of the time,” the 27-year-old said. “It’s disturbing to me when big content creators don’t moderate their spaces and aren’t being good role models for the kids that are watching them — because there are a lot of kids watching.”
In an email, a Twitch spokeswoman shared the company policies that prohibit “behavior that is motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance.” The policy specifically prohibits content that “encourages or supports the political or economic dominance of any race, ethnicity, or religious group, including support for white supremacist/nationalist ideologies.”
Brotherhood in disguise
Though the Capitol insurrection has set a new spotlight on the persistent presence of white supremacy in American politics, recruitment efforts aimed at teens have been in place for decades. Their tactics left an impression on criminologist Shannon Reid, who was part of the punk rock scene in the 1990s. At the time, she recalled the scene had two competing factions: The neo-Nazi skinheads and the anti-racist skinheads. For neo-Nazis, concerts and live music venues were what the digital space is today: Places where they appealed to young people and enticed them to join the movement.
“We have been ignoring them, especially that middle school, high school group. Everybody is thinking about the old guy with the beard and ignoring the younger group who are actually much more violence-prone.”
— Shannon Reid, professor who researches youth in the white power movement
Today, Reid is an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where she researches youth involvement in the white power movement. Yet despite the recruitment efforts’ established history, many questions remain unanswered. While opinion polling has long found that young people are overwhelmingly left-leaning, for example, it remains unclear how many children and teens espouse far-right, extremist ideologies beyond worrying anecdotes. Part of the problem, Reid argues, comes down to priorities. She argues that American researchers and policymakers have failed to acknowledge youth in white-power groups for what they are: Members of street gangs.
“We have been ignoring them, especially that middle school, high school group,” she said. “Everybody is thinking about the old guy with the beard and ignoring the younger group who are actually much more violence-prone.”
Still, Reid noted several risk factors that are identifiable by parents and educators and “overlap very strongly with the gang literature,” including incarcerated parents and poor school performance.
Brad Galloway, who previously led a chapter of a Portland-based neo-Nazi group with ties to organized crime, is now a research analyst and case manager at Life After Hate, a nonprofit that’s helped hundreds of people disengage from hate groups. As a teen in the late 1990s, he was recruited by a friend who leveraged Galloway’s affinity for music and history and led him down a dark path.
“A lot of people that report being involved in the violent far-right say that they had past trauma or some tough things happen throughout their life” like adverse childhood experiences, he said. After identifying a person’s interests and vulnerabilities, he said that recruiters play on that while offering a sense of purpose and belonging.
“Camaraderie and brotherhood was very important to making a person feel comfortable with those groups,” Galloway told The 74. “It wasn’t necessarily just ideology.”
A recent guide from American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab outlines a range of risk factors that could lead youth to accept a white nationalist ideology in which conflict is resolved through dominance and violence. “This frequently leads to anti-democratic opinions and goals, such as a desire for dictatorship, civil war or an end to the rule of law,” according to the guide. Drivers to radicalization can include trauma, a feeling of social isolation and — as Galloway pointed out — a desire for love and friendship. Red flags include statements about a “great replacement” or a “white genocide” in which a white minority becomes politically oppressed, and a belief that a second American civil war is necessary.
The deadly pandemic, the guide warns, could make things worse as extremists exploit its profound disruptions to spread conspiracy theories. Among them are beliefs that ethnic or religious groups are “super spreaders,” that COVID-19 is part of a “Jewish master plan conspiracy,” and that the vaccine is part of a sinister plan by “elites” to control people.
“Extremists offer simple, false solutions to complex problems, while conspiracy theories offer a sense of control when we feel otherwise powerless,” according to the guide.
Yet as mainstream platforms like Twitter crack down on disinformation, they’re creating a new hurdle, said Brian Hughes, the research lab’s associate director. People “on the cusp of radicalization” are migrating to alternative platforms like Telegram, a social media platform that’s been popular among extremists for years.
Such a reality, he said, is “Causing a chain reaction that’s leading what you might call the MAGA rank-and-file to platforms where extremists are waiting for them — and are waiting to recruit them.”
Give ’em the boot
Casey, the clean-cut, alt-right gamer, predicted the end of an era. After facing years of backlash, the insurrection forced social media companies to take unprecedented action — with Twitter commencing perhaps the most consequential and controversial by banning Trump, who had some 88 million followers, for potentially inciting further violence. On Dlive, the profiles of top-earning streamers vanished.
In a message posted after the Capitol siege, Dlive announced the suspension of several accounts after the site got shoved “under the spotlight due to some content streamed on our platform,” a subtle acknowledgment that alt-right provocateurs had used the platform just days earlier to livestream the mayhem. It was clear, however, that it didn’t take the move lightly.
“While we strongly advocate for the empowerment of our content creators,” the company noted, “we also have zero tolerance towards any forms of violence and illegal activities.”
Casey acknowledged what he had to lose. Not only did Dlive provide a revenue stream for the movement to fund real-world demonstrations, it gave him a platform to communicate directly with his most ardent followers. But in the aftermath, Casey sees a silver lining: People have flocked to fringe, “more resilient” platforms like Telegram.
“That, in its own, is somewhat of a plus,” he said. While their presence on platforms like YouTube is beneficial to reach a wide audience, he said a mass migration to fringe channels could elevate their goal of “reshaping the GOP.”
“We want these people to be on our side,” he said. “We want them to look at us instead of the Republican Party, instead of Charlie Kirk and Ben Shapiro and all of the others,” referring to the president of the conservative Turning Point USA and the editor emeritus of the right-wing news website The Daily Wire.
Still, researchers said that “deplatforming” abusive accounts is critical. Loehr, the Twitch livestreamer, agrees.
“Maybe people will find other places to speak, but I don’t think you’re emboldening them,” she said. “Violence is a response to losing power for these people so it’s not a surprise that things can get ugly,” but deplatforming is critical to disrupt their access to impressionable minds, she said. “It just becomes harder for them to radicalize people and reach people, and that’s a good thing.”
Schools and parents can also play a role in keeping children safe from online extremist materials, experts said, and should begin with open communication. By understanding teens’ point of view, caring adults have a chance to spot red flags and an opportunity to present them with accurate information.
“A punishment is an easy fix, but if you’re not really understanding what’s going on with that young person or that group of young people, you’re not solving the problem.”
— Jinnie Spiegler, of the Anti-Defamation League on countering white supremacist recruiting
Spiegler of the Anti-Defamation League suggested that schools teach students about the power of propaganda — and ways to fight back.
“In some ways, there’s nothing teenagers hate more than feeling like they’re being manipulated and used,” she said, so deconstructing the goals of propaganda could be useful in curtailing its stronghold.
Each year, more than 2,000 schools nationwide use the Anti-Defamation League’s instructional materials in the classroom, including resources and training on preventing cyberbullying and combating anti-Semitism.
But one thing adults should avoid, she said, is a punitive approach unless a teen’s behavior violates school rules or becomes illegal.
“A punishment is an easy fix, but if you’re not really understanding what’s going on with that young person or that group of young people, you’re not solving the problem,” she said. In fact, punishment could make the situation worse by reinforcing a belief that “We’re so marginalized, we’re so oppressed, and that’s why we have to show our power and fight these people.”
After years in which alt-right groups idolized Trump, President Joe Biden’s inauguration presented a major turning point in white nationalists’ grip. Though “unity” was the central theme to his inaugural address, he offered a sharp rebuke to political extremism and white supremacy — “domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” Biden said. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
But the vision of unity that Biden offers won’t be easily won. Before Trump departed on Air Force One for the last time, he offered a promise to his most hardcore supporters gathered on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews to wave goodbye: “We will be back in some form.” But by that point, Casey and others had already moved on.
In his Dlive rant, Casey said that Trump was “the closest we have to a sympathetic elite,” but criticized his failure “to support people getting a little rowdy at the Capitol.”
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Donald Trump is not our Caesar,” he said. Even though Trump was banned from Twitter and impeached for the second time, Casey said he failed to complete the job — offering lessons to future “right-wing strongmen” who “try to do what Donald Trump did only better,” highlighting the reality that hate groups, too, are also vying for a comeback.
“The narrative here is that Donald Trump tried to stage a coup and overthrow the government,” Casey said. “At that point, if you’re going to be treated as if you did it, well, I’m not going to say it but, ya. Either you go all the way or you don’t do it at all.”