After a series of purges on Facebook and Twitter, white supremacists are seeking refuge on Russian social media.
The migration began as early as 2016, when groups like the United Aryan Front flocked to VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. But it has amplified in recent months after the white-supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, said Keegan Hankes, an analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many white nationalists and organizations found themselves banned from U.S. social-media sites after the rallies, which climaxed when a white supremacist killed counterprotester Heather Heyer with his car.
The shift to Russian social media shows just how difficult it is to contain radical groups on social-networking sites. Social networks face the same challenge with many forms of extremism: Jihadi groups, for example, turned to encrypted networks like Telegram after being thrown off Facebook and Twitter. Even there, their channels are repeatedly shut down, only to resurface. And white supremacists, too, are re-emerging on less restrictive and newer social networks.
“After they got kicked off these platforms, they’re finding a new place to live,” Hankes told The Daily Beast. “You even saw some people self-deporting from these websites, going to places where their content would be safer.”
Last weekend, Alabama white nationalist Chad Bagwell told a reporter from The Tennessean that he’d heard about Saturday’s White Lives Matter rally in Tennessee on VKontakte, in an example of the migration.
VK, as the social network is commonly known, has looser speech restrictions—at least for certain kinds of hate speech.
“Even a lot of parties that are physically banned in Russia still have their VK groups,” Bagwell told The Daily Beast.
Some Russian activists are not as lucky. VK’s founder and former CEO, Pavel Durov, was deposed from the company in 2014, shortly after he refused the Kremlin’s invitation to block opposition candidate Alexei Navalny’s page and to hand over data on activist users to the Russian government. (Durov’s shares were bought up by allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.)
But the racial division stirred up by white supremacists on VK fits right in with the Kremlin’s agenda. Recent revelations about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential race show that trolls sought to pit different racial and religious groups against one another to sow discord.
VK does not have an event organizing function like the one found on Facebook, but users share posters promoting events. It’s difficult to measure the reach of the images. Some are liked just a few times on the website but are also accessible without signing in, to interested parties who don’t have VK accounts. Bagwell said the number of white nationalists is hard to quantify.
“By American definitions of the term, you’d have to count about half of the Russians here and, oh, all of the Ukrainians,” he said jokingly.
On VK, Bagwell has just 150 friends, and most of them are closely aligned with his beliefs, according to their own profiles on the site. His wall is a medley of far-right commentary, racist memes, and videos from the Russian propaganda channel RT.
In September, Bagwell joked about “enjoying” the Second Amendment’s gun rights in case Trump grants amnesty to the so-called DREAMers. “JUST JOKING SECRET SERVICE AGENTS READING THIS POST,” he quickly commented.
In another post, he called the deliberate assault on counterprotesters in Charlottesville the “Cville Roadkill attack.”
One of Bagwell’s friends on the site—named Oswald Mosley in an apparent homage to a former leader of the British Union of Fascists—posted an image of the devil with a Jewish star on his forehead as a profile picture. “Satan removing his mask,” the Russian caption reads.
The white nationalists on VK are often united through interest pages centered around politics or memes. Others are stand-ins for organizations, like the National Socialist Movement news page, or a homepage for the League of the South, a white-supremacist organization that wants Southern independence.
While the League of the South Facebook page has been shut down or suspended, its VK page is alive and well.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab recently found the alt-right and its ilk gravitating toward new, largely unknown social-media sites trumpeted as free-speech Facebook alternatives. VK’s advantage is that it is a social network with a user base already built in.
“These guys don’t want to go to new or smaller social-media platforms, because they want the audience,” said Hankes, the SPLC analyst.
Many American white nationalists on the social network post exclusively in English. But others, including Bagwell, also post for a Russian-speaking audience. Often his posts include translations of the content in both languages.
“A lot of the alt-right were fond of Russian culture or Slavic culture more generally, long before the crackdowns on right-leaning dissidents on Facebook, Twitter, et al. started,” Bagwell said.
Indeed, “fetishization of Russia,” as Hankes calls it, is common in some parts of the white-supremacist world.
White supremacists love “the strong nationalist identity. They love Putin, the love the anti-LGBT proliferation,” Hankes said. “That lines up with their wish list.”
And some, like Matthew Heimbach, founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, even join the Russian Orthodox Church.
Heimbach posted on VK in October about his permanent ban from Facebook.
“Well my facebook was officially shut down, so looks like Gab and VK will be my social media networks from now on!” he wrote on Oct. 10.