How to start investigations on right-wing extremists? Work your way through multiple social media platforms and combine information to generate leads!
The recent Iron March Leak once again showed the extent of right-wing extremism within our society. This leak provided a massive mount of data to conduct online investigations. While Iron March was shut down, the individuals behind it still use many other platforms to disseminate their thoughts and ideas and to communicate among each other. Of course, the new communication channels they use won’t be found with a mere Google search. In order to find such sites, we will have to follow the digital breadcrumbs across various social media networks. In this article, I would like to show starting points for OSINT research and how to work your way through different platforms to identify potentially relevant information when tracking down right-wing extremists.
Looking through social media, we will unfortunately find lots of people that follow a racist or fascist ideology. These people might not be the actual targets we are looking for, but they could lead us to them. Especially in Germany and other central European countries, many people have left Facebook and Twitter after their accounts were temporarily suspended or deleted upon sharing hate speech, which under certain circumstances is a criminal offence. They found refuge on the Russian Facebook-clone VKontakte (short: VK) and Gab, as an alternative to Twitter. In order to access information on these platforms, we will of course have to create sockpuppets. VK also allows logging on with a Facebook-account, as do many other social media platforms.
Let us start our research from scratch. First, we will have to identify individuals that might be worth investigating. Since many of these individuals think of themselves as “patriots” in Germany, searching for this term might lead to some initial results on VK.
Et voilà, the first VK-group to investigate. As you can see, this group also cites a Facebook-page. However, the Facebook-presence has been deleted and does not exist anymore. Going through the posts on this page and having a look at the members clearly shows that we are on the right track. Below are profile pictures of some of the members. Many images shown here, such as the swastika, are banned by law in Germany. Yet, on VK German citizens are free to display their ideology without any notable repercussions.
While the information posted within the VK-Group “German Patriots” might not lead to real extremist sites, the information shared by members of the group on their personal profiles could get us there. With no way of automating the next step, one of the most important OSINT traits is now needed: perseverance. This means we will have look at a number of these personal profiles manually to find new leads. Instead of going through all 2000+ member-profiles, let us concentrate on the ones with the most disturbing profile pictures. One interesting aspect during this investigation, is the fact that many people that can be found here have Russian-ancestry. This means we might also find information on another Russian social platform called Odnoklassniki (short: OK). Keep this in mind when conducting OSINT on people of Russian origin.
It doesn’t take long and we find hints towards the use of other platforms and communication channels outside of VK. Some individuals have posted their Skype-usernames, some link Telegram channels. One post from January 2018 describes an independent message board outside of Facebook and VK. The author invites people to join this outside platform by commenting or liking the post, after which he will get in contact with them and invite them to the newly created site. Interestingly, he doesn’t disclose the name or URL of his VK and Facebook alternative.
The author hasn’t publicly been active on VK since this post, although he did access it just two days ago. VK displays the last time of user activity, a useful feature to determine if the account is still active, even if nothing is publicly posted.
Regarding the unspecified platform mentioned above, I remembered stumbling upon such a site while conducting a similar search on Facebook. There I had also started by looking for profiles and pages containing derivations of “patriot”. This led me to a page called “Patrioten-Treff”, promoting a Facebook-like platform.
It turns out that this project started in early or mid-2017 and by December 2017/January 2018 it had opened to public. It was exactly the type of right-wing extremist forum I was looking for.
Online shops, racist discussions, team speak servers, organized events; “Patrioten-Treff” had it all. By linking the information I had found on VK and Facebook, it is likely that the person I had come across on VK was actually part of the team behind this new right-wing social media alternative. By early 2019 it was offline, but the content displayed there was more radical than anything seen on standard social media. Regarding the reason it shut down, it could be out of lack of funding. Before “Patrioten-Treff” was taken down, they requested funding to cover the expenses. Payment could be made by Bitcoin, direct transfer, Alipay and Paypal. Again, providing further leads to conduct OSINT investigations.
Patrioten-Treff had 2,500 users and was not even able to raise 80 Euros a month. I guess right-wing extremists are a bit stingy. Next to financial support, content moderators were needed. These moderators would communicate using WhatsApp.
While Patrioten-Treff is currently offline, the Facebook-page continues to be active every once and while. A recent post from September 2019 shared a Telegramm channel of the German neo-Nazi party Der III. Weg.
In this cross-domain investigation, manually searching for information on one social media platform led us to a plethora of new starting points to dive into. From VK to Skype, from Facebook to Telegram, from Bitcoin to WhatsApp; there are now plenty of leads to follow up upon. Not all leads can be investigated with OSINT, but this type of intelligence might provide the information we need to conduct Virtual HUMINT (VUMINT), enabling an infiltration of the new message board, Telegram channels or WhatsApp groups. I didn’t go that far, but I’m sure someone or some organization did.
By the way, the methodology described above can also be used to track other extremist groups. I wonder if other groups are just as cheap as the right-wing that couldn’t raise 80 Euros to host a website?
Matthias Wilson / 01.12.2019