Michael Edison Hayden on Far-Right Extremists and Cryptocurrency
"[Extremists'] goal is to shake the world until it comes out the way that they want it"
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I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Michael Edison Hayden, who is an expert on far-right extremism and a Senior Investigative Reporter and Spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center. A three-time grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, he covered humanitarian crises in Southeast Asia for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times before returning to the U.S. to cover crime and the 2016 presidential elections for VICE and ABC NEWS. He wrote the guide to Open Source Intelligence Reporting for Columbia University’s Tow Center. Our conversation, which took place on December 9, 2021, has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): You cover Internet radicalization and far-right extremism, and you've also written about crime and done crisis reporting. This seems the perfect skill set for a journalist in today's America. How do you feel your background has prepared you for what you're doing now?
Michael Edison Hayden (MEH): I actually started as a playwright. I went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop and focused on playwriting. That particular background has helped me to structure very long pieces. In terms of my crisis reporting, I was in Nepal during the 2015 earthquake, and I saw hundreds of bodies and felt death all around me.
I mention it because I have a bit of a tougher skin now to deal with some of the things that happen in my current job, like death threats. I've gotten phone calls from authorities about people plotting to kill me and things like that. There is a direct feeling of conflict that you get with this work. It's partly because these guys are strategically placed all over the Internet and their goal is to shake the world until it comes out the way that they want it. That means you immediately become a target if you are creating problems for them.
RBG: That is difficult. Let's talk about that work at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism and hate crimes.
MEH: The number of hate groups that we track in total is going down, which may startle people who say, oh really? I thought I saw all those people storm the Capitol building! The number of hate groups is going down largely because older groups like the Ku Klux Klan no longer have the kind of strength they once did.
What's happening now is there are softer barriers between the mainstream Republican party and the fringe far right. Radicalization through the Internet has eroded those barriers, to the point that after Jan. 6 one could argue that they've broken down altogether. Now extremist ideologies live in households all over the country: they are on people's phones and in their lives in very intimate ways. People don't need to show up at a group or put on a uniform.
RBG: So, the landscape is dynamic, with fewer older-style hate organizations, but more extremists overall.
MEH: That's what is so scary about this particular moment. My recent piece on the state of far-right extremism one year after Jan. 6 should alarm people. Six or seven years ago, Trump was considered an unelectable sideshow. Now the GOP is behind Trump even after people threatened to kill Republicans in his name on that day.
And just two years ago, the Republicans, almost in unison, denounced Rep. Steve King for his white nationalism. Now House members like Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Green are arguably more extreme than King.
RBG: We don't hear enough about who is funding these extremists. Your article addresses their reliance on cryptocurrency.
MEH: It pains me to say it, but the far right has been ahead of the curve in terms of understanding technology and how it functions in our lives. That is in part due to the fact that Silicon Valley has leaned libertarian and has some affinity for the far right. It's not an even playing field for people who are liberals, on the left, or merely centrist.
The right was able to exploit Internet forums and social media early on, and they similarly have been able to do that with cryptocurrency. As I disclose in the essay, I actually own some Ethereum. So, I'm certainly not saying that everyone who owns cryptocurrency is a Nazi. Far from it. But whereas a relatively small percentage of the population invests in some kind of cryptocurrency, among the far right it's a nearly universal practice.
Extremists were some of the very earliest investors in Bitcoin. This is a kind of a dirty secret of the Bitcoin community, which encompasses not only libertarians but also people who ascribe to extreme far-right views, meaning they hold white supremacist, antisemitic, racist beliefs
RBG: What does their use of crypto tell us about their means of operation and worldview?
MEH: You're asking two questions. To answer the first, we've been trying to establish how much money extremists have and follow that money. The players are often disposable, but the people behind them, the real power brokers, are what we really need to get at if we're going to do something about the extremist problem in this country. Establishing that they have a lot of money helps us know what we're up against.
The next thing is we break down how they're actually using it. Because these are guys who are under a lot of scrutiny by law enforcement and people like us, they use cryptocurrency to hide the details of how they operate. They use a system called BitPay, which generates multiple wallets in order to make transactions more difficult to track.
RBG: Kind of like the anonymous shell corporations and other schemes of the non-crypto economy that allow bad actors to hide transactions and launder money. I've read that Bitcoin is not just extremists' internal currency and their own investment currency, but also the way that their sponsors get money to them.
MEH: Figuring out who's behind cryptocurrency flows among extremists is part of the story. We've also reported that there's millions of dollars of dark money flowing into extremist groups. If you look at DonorsTrust, which bundles money for right-wing billionaires, a good amount of it, as Alex Kotch has reported, goes to racist groups like American Renaissance.
Now, is cryptocurrency itself dangerous? My personal belief is that it's inevitable that we're going to have some integration of digital currency. The issue is that the space is almost entirely unregulated. There are some regulations, but people don't follow them. That's the kind of loophole or space in a society that far-right extremists are going to exploit. It's similar to the spaces social media companies left in failing to moderate or regulate their platforms, and look how extremists exploited those.
RBG: The questions you ask are exactly the ones extremists and their backers don't want answered. What do you do to keep balance and regenerate when things get stressful?
MEH: This is really important. I did not have the best coping strategies when I first started this work. I have only recently learned to meditate, and I also started to work out a lot more seriously this year and take better care of my health. And I will say that it makes a huge difference. I also like sports. The only problem is that I'm a Mets, Jets, Knicks and Islanders fan and that's the roughest four-sport combination you can possibly have.