This Crowdfunding Site Runs on Hate
Neo-Nazis are cowards. The occasional rally aside, most of the white supremacists who’ve been emboldened in the Trump era aren’t brazen enough to wave their flags publicly. Instead, they keep to online forums, where it’s a lot easier to talk tough beneath the blanket of anonymity. But while Twitter and Facebook rarely ban haters, crowdfunding and payment services including Kickstarter, Patreon, PayPal, and Stripe have taken a harder line, preventing avowed racists from using their services to give or collect money. That’s where Cody Wilson comes in.
Wilson is a rare kind of troll, one who senses market opportunities. The 29-year-old first gained notoriety in 2013, when he published an open source design for a plastic gun that passes unnoticed through metal detectors and can be made with an entry-level 3D printer. Now he’s trying to arm stated white supremacists with donations from fans—and taking a 5 percent cut for himself. In October, Wilson formally launched Hatreon, an unabashed Patreon for hate groups, after a couple of quiet months of operation. “I’m renting this infrastructure to these undesirables of the internet,” he says, “and it’s working.”
So far, Hatreon is a one-man operation in Austin. Wilson says he collects $25,000 in monthly donations from a few thousand people. But the number of recipients is even smaller, so that can translate into real money. The big winners are white supremacists. Andrew Anglin, the creator of prominent neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, receives almost $4,000 a month from more than 220 Hatreon donors, down from a peak of about $8,000. White supremacist leader Richard Spencer collects about $1,000 from more than 70 donors. Wilson says his own slim profits—5 percent of $25,000 is $1,250—have been doubling from month to month.
“Credit for truth in advertising,” says Ben Wizner, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in technology cases. People are well within their rights to raise money on Hatreon as long as they aren’t threatening or inciting violence, he says. Other services have banned several of Wilson’s users for doing precisely those things.
A law school dropout and self-styled anarchist fond of quoting Thomas Paine, Wilson doesn’t identify with the alt-right, but he says he doesn’t see the term as a slur, either. Freedom of speech is his priority, he says, and right-wing women, people of color, and transgender people use Hatreon, too. Above all else, though, “Hatreon is very important to the financial functioning of the white supremacist movement,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which publishes the blog Hatewatch. “Hatreon is keeping a lot of these folks alive. It’s keeping them paid.”
The plastic guns helped Wilson define himself as an online provocateur catering to the extreme right. “He’s loved in this movement,” Beirich says. Wilson’s small nonprofit, Defense Distributed, founded in 2012, has been embroiled in years of federal suits, countersuits, and appeals for posting its gun designs online and for selling a milling machine called Ghost Gunner that can be used to make untraceable metal handguns and assault rifles. Most of the money left over from Defense Distributed’s $3 million-plus in sales has gone toward Wilson’s legal battles.
In the crowdfunding business, Wilson’s advantage has been his web-hosting and financing acumen, plus a willingness to run his business like a porn site. While a right-wing Kickstarter clone was recently booted off its hosting platform, dodgy overseas hosting companies keep Wilson’s sites online. Similarly, layers of shell companies disguise Hatreon’s identity from partner banks. “There’s a lot of great market ways to get financing on the internet,” Wilson says.
Hatreon is experiencing a hiccup of its own. Just before Thanksgiving, Wilson stopped sending revenue to users and taking new donation pledges because some of his banks unraveled the nest of shell companies and dropped him. Hannah Shearer, staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has lobbied to shut down Defense Distributed, says she’s convinced Wilson knows Hatreon is being used to break the law—that users are inciting violence—and his banks probably do, too. Wilson says Hatreon’s own terms of service forbid illegal activity and that he’s kicked people off the site for violating them, though he wouldn’t name any.
The ACLU’s Wizner says Hatreon’s limbo, though it may be short-lived, is evidence of Wilson’s vaunted market forces at work. “After Charlottesville, it’s much more difficult for people in this country to deny the existence and threat of white supremacy,” he says. “You saw the CEOs of major corporations distancing themselves from Trump, and a week after Charlottesville in Boston, 40,000 came to counterprotest 30 or 40 white supremacists. I think that speaks for itself.”