Is Bitcoin enabling right-wing extremists?

New Washington Post report explores the racist far right’s reliance on the trendy cryptocurrency

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published December 27, 2017 7:42PM (EST)

 (<a href=''>Julia Tsokur</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Julia Tsokur via Shutterstock)

Political movements typically rely on public and private donations, but a new report in the Washington Post suggests that Bitcoin -- the hot cryptocurrency so much in the news lately -- is enabling right-wing and alt-right extremist groups.

According to the report, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is tracking an estimated 200 Bitcoin wallets owned by right-wing extremists. Researchers in the report say they’ve specifically seen an increase in people on the far right moving their assets into the digital currency, and using it "for ordinary business purposes.”

“Bitcoin is allowing people in the movement to go beyond cash in an envelope or a check,” Heidi Beirich, head of the Intelligence Project at the SPLC, told the Post. “It’s really a godsend to them.”

According to SPLC research, 14.88 bitcoins were paid to Andrew Anglin, editor of the Daily Stormer, a notorious neo-Nazi online publication. The transaction was made on Aug. 20, according to the report, when Anglin was “scrambling” to recover from his publication having been evicted from multiple web-hosting services. The number 14.88 is an apparent reference to a Nazi slogan that is 14 words long and also to the use of 88 as a code for "Heil Hitler." (H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.) That amount of bitcoins was reportedly worth around $60,000 at the time. The payment was made by an anonymous source,  according to cybersecurity researcher John Bambenek, who tracks Bitcoin transactions.

Anglin, in a phone interview, confirmed to the Post that he uses Bitcoin almost exclusively. “Bitcoin has helped out a lot,” he said.

“The alt-right likes Bitcoin the same way criminals and people on the dark Web like Bitcoin,” Bambenek told the Post. “It’s a great way to move around assets, especially when you’re under the threat of investigation.

Bambenek has created a Twitter bot called the Neonazi BTC Tracker, which automatically tweets every transaction made to or from 13 accounts he believes are affiliated with “known extremists and their websites.”

It’s worth mentioning, as Bambenek pointed out, that Bitcoin’s history is deeply rooted in criminal activity and the Dark Web. On the now-shuttered online black market known as the Silk Road, users conducted all transactions with bitcoins. Before it became a modern-day lottery ticket and an investment fund commodity, Bitcoin was a medium for illegal or dubious transactions.

Bitcoin’s DNA makeup seems to draw a certain crowd. As the Washington Post explained, an anonymous computer programmer calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto created the cryptocurrency in 2009. Unlike traditional currencies, Bitcoin is an intangible currency backed by no government and no bank. It relies on mathematical calculations derived from countless computers around the world and is nearly impossible to monitor or regulate.

While Bitcoin is often associated with the Silicon Valley crowd and tech world, it’s unclear whether the currency will follow suit in the movement to ban extremist groups from digital platforms. In August, the internet domain registrar GoDaddy kicked the Daily Stormer off its system, saying that the publication incited “violence against people.” WordPress, a widely used content management system for websites, removed the alt-right group Vanguard America after the Charlottesville rally last summer. But Bitcoin is not a company, and it's not clear that banning individuals from using the currency is even possible. Responsibility for such a decision would presumably lie with the Bitcoin exchanges, which have their own issues to confront.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Alt-right Bitcoin Cryptocurrency Hate Groups Nazis White Supremacy