Neo-Nazis on DeviantArt Radicalized a Woman Who Planned a Mass Shooting - VICE
DeviantArt, founded in 2000, is home to millions of users and hundreds of millions of pieces of art. It’s offered a home for marginalized artists and communities to create and share work. If you can visualize it, odds are DeviantArt has it.
But like many large social media platforms, there exists a small but thriving hive of extremists on DeviantArt, similar to the ones Souvannarath came across. These extremists have created a network of far-right user groups where they create and share far-right propaganda, talk and write about fascism, and recruit vulnerable users.
The far-right propaganda posted on DeviantArt is then disseminated across the web, which experts say works as a gateway drug to recruitment to neo-Nazi groups.
Jeremy Blackburn, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, studies memes and the online spaces of the far-right. Blackburn said that in the far-right ecosystem like 4Chan’s /pol/ board or Gab, images like the ones created and stored on DeviantArt are immensely important.
"Essentially what is happening is that people’s brains are being hacked, especially in terms of imagery—it’s very digestible, it’s super-duper easy to share,” said Blackburn. “It takes like 15 to 20 seconds, at most, to look at a meme and that’s where I think the danger is. You can become inundated with them and basically read the equivalent of reams of propaganda.”
When VICE provided spokespeople for DeviantArt with evidence of neo-Nazi content on the site, they referenced the site’s commitment to freedom of artistic expression and its zero tolerance policy for “hate propaganda.”
“As an art-centric social network, the DeviantArt community has traditionally been allowed a wide range of expression both in comments and in artistic themes,” spokespeople said in an emailed statement. “This is important for a site that aims to represent all artists. However, we draw a hard line when it comes to hate speech that aims to purposely cause pain to others in a hateful way. DeviantArt’s Etiquette Policy clearly states that ‘hate propaganda is met with zero tolerance.’”
eviantArt was founded at the turn of the millennium by three friends. In 2017, the site was bought by the web development company Wix for $36 million. At the time of purchase, Techcrunch reported that the site had over 40 million members and over 325 million pieces of individual art online.
While the vast majority of the site is innocuous, if you stumble across the wrong keyword, the website will feed you content ranging from graphic art of neo-Nazis gunning people down to Hitler drawn as an anime girl.
Fascist groups on DeviantArt have hundreds of members and hundreds of thousands of views. All of the pages are pretty similar, but have a flavour that couldn’t be found anywhere but DeviantArt.
“We are a group of Fascist, National Socialists, Phalangist, Intergalists, Civic Nationalists, and others who also happen to like anime,” reads the description of one page called Fascist Anime. “The main purpose of the group is to combine fascist propaganda with anime, usually with cute anime girls. Why? Because the internet needed something like this!”
Souvannarath’s case is one amplified to an extreme degree, but it is an outsized reflection of the way the content economy works. DeviantArt has long been a core source of artwork that powers the rest of the internet’s image and meme-based economy, with original work from DeviantArt spreading throughout the message boards and the rest of the social web. So it goes with DeviantArt’s fascist repositories, with images first posted there later spreading among white supremacist groups on Twitter, Gab, 4Chan, and Reddit.
Non-hierarchical, but predictable, behaviour from neo-Nazi propagandists is exactly what Blackburn found when researching 4Chan. There, he found that the best art or memes would be curated and shared through a pipeline by power users to other social media sites.
One propagandist, who goes by the alias “Dark Foreigner” and has been connected to Atomwaffen and its sister groups, has been uploading his propaganda to DeviantArt and cross-linking it to his other accounts for over a year. Dark Foreigner uses the automated DeviantArt system to sell his prints for $4.79 USD a pop. DeviantArt controls the prints section of its website and takes upwards of an 80 percent cut, meaning that if someone buys neo-Nazi propaganda on DeviantArt, the company not only ships it to them, but makes a profit.
VICE asked DeviantArt questions regarding Dark Foreigner’s business selling propaganda but did not receive any responses. His work remains for sale on the website.