It’s hard to imagine a world before podcasts, given how the format has exploded into a billion-dollar industry over the last decade. And in that time, podcasts have helped a growing American fascism movement churn out content designed to travel at internet speeds — episode after episode of extremist talking points, woven with conspiracies and violent hatred of perceived enemies.
Researchers at the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) often listen to these far-right podcasts in order to keep up with new developments and people of interest — a grueling task that senior fellow Megan Squire hoped to simplify by building an automated speech-to-text transcript program. That project never took off — “It was so bad. Just word salad,” she says of the program — but it left her with a pile of information on hundreds of episodes of Daily Shoah, a hate-filled podcast run by neo-Nazi Mike Enoch.
“So I said, ‘What can I do with this? I have the titles and the dates and who appeared on the podcast.’ So I started with the Daily Shoah network, showing the cast members who co-appeared with each other and how it grew over time,” Squire tells me. “Then I wanted to show the rest of the network — all the podcasts that The Daily Shoah influenced.”
By listening, quantifying and tracking the network of hosts, guests and collaborators, Squire and senior researcher Hannah Gais were able to build a model depicting the spread of far-right content over the course of 15 years. The duo’s findings, broken into a four-part series, shows the spread of these podcasts as well as their influence on extremist discourse and the ways they’ve been used as a preferred medium for radicalization.
I recently spoke with Squire to discuss the inspiration these shows have drawn from shock jocks like Opie and Anthony, how they’re morphing into live streams and the ways in which their “tactical dreaming” has manifested into real-world violence.
What stuck out to you when you started sifting through all these podcasts and assembling a model for the network?
The biggest thing I noticed when I animated the network was the visual explosion of podcasts after 2014. I mean, I hate to give The Daily Shoah credit for anything, but they really did pave the way for this medium. They showed how to do it, and they gave a template for taking the Opie and Anthony model of talk radio and applying it to racism and anti-Semitism.
And so, all the shows that came after that were kind of based on that one — everything from who appeared on the shows to the actual characters, cast members, the layout of it. The fact that they would have different recurring segments, audio bits that starred songs and stuff like that. The Daily Shoah caused that explosion. And that’s across ideologies. Even the neo-Confederate shows or the Nordic Frontier stuff, they all copied that model.
What distinguishes newer podcasts from the ones that initially emerged from, say, The Political Cesspool and The Daily Shoah? Is there any difference in content, style or presentation?
The newer ones are more on video. They’re not really focused on audio-only anymore, although some of them remain in [that format]. Some of that is because the platforms they’ve decided to stream on are YouTube and DLive, which have a video component, even if it’s still primarily an audio podcast.
The ones that deviated would be things like White Rabbit and Killstream. They have pivoted to video. They’ll put up what’s on [their] screens. The newer programs are really taking a page out of the game-streamer playbook, [including] adding live chatting on the side for fans. I wouldn’t even call those podcasts anymore, but a lot of them are downloadable.
What about any shifts over time in terms of tone, or the level of extremism in the content?
I’d say the level of really overt violence speech and hate speech has gone down. That’s because of platforms being more aware of it — being made more aware of it, honestly, by people like SPLC and activists and others saying they [need] to take action. So that’s good. But there are exceptions. Every once in a while a new show will crop up and decide they’re going to be all edgy. I mean, so that happens pretty regularly. But it’ll either get taken down or will be self-censored.
There is a move to these guys removing their own recorded content and just using the platform to stream. On YouTube, for example, they’ll stream and then they’ll take the episode down or make it private so they can’t get reported. That also means that they can’t share it either. It kind of takes away that podcast feature of being able to listen at any time. So they’re struggling with how to be both violent and publicly available.
Much has been written about how platforms have mismanaged regulating violent right-wing content. But to your point, it seems like some tools have worked in a way to clamp down on extremists.
The important point that remains is that these far-right content creators always find work-arounds. So they’re shifting. They’re saying, “Well, maybe it’s not that important that we do downloadable content in the moment.” So they have a lot of these alert networks on social media, to say “I’m streaming right now” and [get] everyone in there.
How does the impact of money affect the appeal of starting a podcast and maintaining it? It seems like some years ago, the right figured out that this was a great grift.
It is. But that’s also changing. A couple years ago, you’d paywall your shows and charge for access. People would pay to get downloadable content and access to old shows and stuff like that. Today, people are grifting off of live-streaming. So again, they’re shifting away from downloadable content, for reasons we talked about with deplatforming, but also the live-streaming grift is a bit better. You can make much more money. I’ve proven that with work on DLive, where you can make much more money taking donations during video live-streaming than you can with a paywall for every listener.
Last November, I followed 150 streamers and mega-donors on [DLive]. And many of the streamers were making more than $10,000 a month. Some were making $100,000 in the course of about 10 months. Multiple mega-donors giving in the $40,000, $50,000, $70,000 range over that time span. So it’s extremely lucrative. I now suspect that what will happen is they will try to game Facebook’s new tipping mechanism. So that’ll be interesting.
The report mentions how podcasts contribute to on-the-ground networking and organizing, including the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, organized by Jason Kessler and Elliott Kline. In fact, almost half of the 22 top podcast “cast members” identified by SPLC were named in the civil lawsuit against the Unite the Right organizers. How big was the influence of this media?
A lot of those podcasts were happening in the run-up to Unite the Right. It was a constant topic of conversation the entire summer of 2017. Back then, they’d use the weekly podcasts not just to fantasize about future events, but also to break down past incidents. They’d talk about the leftists and what they wanted to do to them, or watch videos of people getting punched and just revel in it. They’d discuss strategies and what kind of shields you should carry. They’d kick around the different laws in different states: “Is it illegal to bring shields? What if we hid weapons inside the shields?”
It’s what I’ve heard called “tactical daydreaming” — this idea that you’re thinking out loud about your fantasies and then strategizing how to call it self-defense. In addition to that, they were also talking about logistics — “So and so got an Airbnb, you guys need to get your rooms,” or, “Now’s the time to sign up for tickets.” Just talking about the events and hyping it up, just like you would a wrestling match or a football game.
It’s pretty obvious why this would draw people into a pipeline of violent thought and action, if they start listening to episode after episode.
There’s an intimacy to having someone’s voice in your ear. It’s going right into your head with all these little personalities and tasks. You kind of get to know their sense of humor, and they carry the jokes from show to show, so now you feel like you’re in a culture.
Ultimately, why is the spread of these far-right podcasts a legitimate problem rather than just an exercise in free speech? And what should be done in terms of addressing it?
That’s a good question that we computer scientists with our models and diagrams often don’t have an answer for. I’m just here to tell you — there is a problem. But the classic answer is they’re using these podcasts as propaganda channels. They’re using it to plan harassment of other users, plan violence at events and stuff like that.
So that’s what we try to emphasize in the reports, to show the deviant use of media platforms. It’s not just like, “Hey, there’s a bunch of Nazis on a podcast, and they’re talking about their cats.” They’re talking about real-world events, not just fantasizing. It’s actual events that they did show up to and then caused actual violence at.