Leaked files from alt-right host Epik raise some hard questions


Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In a data leak first reported last week by independent journalist Steven Monacelli on Twitter, a group of unnamed hackers claiming to be associated with the collective known as Anonymous released more than 180 gigabytes of data from Epik, a web-hosting company that has become notorious for having a number of alt-right groups and services as clients, including right-wing Twitter alternatives Gab and Parler, as well as pro-gun and pro-Trump sites. “This dataset is all that’s needed to trace actual ownership and management of the fascist side of the internet,” the group said in its news release. “Time to find out who in your family secretly ran an Ivermectin horse porn fetish site, disinfo publishing outfit or yet another QAnon hellhole.” The data dump is said to contain account information for all of Epik’s clients, including the registered owner’s email address, mailing address, and other information (although some right-wing sites use anonymization services to conceal this data).

The importance of the information in the Epik hack — if it proves to be accurate — seems obvious, especially for researchers trying to track QAnon groups or other disinformation sources, as well as hate-speech advocates and domestic terrorists. “The company played such a major role in keeping far-right terrorist cesspools alive,” Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which studies online extremism, told the Washington Post. “Without Epik, many extremist communities—from QAnon and white nationalists to accelerationist neo-Nazis—would have had far less oxygen to spread harm, whether that be building toward the January 6 Capitol riots or sowing the misinformation and conspiracy theories chipping away at democracy.”

Emma Best, co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets, a journalism non-profit that specializes in leaked data, told the Post that some researchers have called the Epik hack “the Panama Papers of hate groups,” a comparison to the leak of more than 11 million documents that exposed the offshore finance industry. Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism, told the Post “It’s massive. It may be the biggest domain-style leak I’ve seen and, as an extremism researcher, it’s certainly the most interesting. It’s an embarrassment of riches.” Like the Panama Papers, getting information out of the huge database and making sense of it is time-consuming, which could explain why it took several days for mainstream sites like CNN and the Post to report on the Epik hack.

The question of how long it takes to go through such leaks and data dumps is just one of the thorny aspects of these incidents. Another question is whether it is ethically appropriate for journalists to report on the private information of individuals — even alt-right group members — simply because they got access to a database. This is a question that came up (although not as often as it should have) in 2016, after a leak of emails from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. WikiLeaks didn’t identify the source of the emails, just as it never confirmed where it got a similar trove of emails from the Democratic National Committee, but cybersecurity researchers believe they both came from a Russian hacking group, and US intelligence agencies said they were part of co-ordinated attempts to destabilize the election.

In the Epik case, the source of the data is completely unknown. Not only are the individuals who got access to it unknown, but it isn’t clear whether they are actually affiliated with Anonymous — the group isn’t really a coherent entity with membership requirements and a central administration, so anyone can do anything and say that they are part of Anonymous. That means not just the accuracy of the information but the motivation behind the leak are also unknown. Despite the risks, many journalists seem to find such dumps irresistible, and are apparently willing to overlook the ethical questions in pursuit of a story. Whether the end justifies the means is a question that each journalist must answer for themselves.

Here’s more on hacking:

The doxxed: After publicizing the alleged Anonymous hack, Monacelli says he was “doxxed” — in other words, had personal information revealed publicly — and accused of being a pedophile by a site that was hosted by Epik. During what The Daily Dot described as a heated online discussion with Robert Monster, the founder of Epik, Monacelli complained about the site, which he said had also doxxed other journalists and researchers, and Monster agreed to remove it from the service. Monacelli has also been using some of the increased attention from the hack to fund-raise for his Patreon, which supports his work as an independent journalist.

The libertarian: Monster, who has referred to himself as “the Lex Luthor of the internet” after the villain from the Superman comic books, told NPR he’s not a free-speech absolutist, he’s a Christian libertarian. “If somebody wants to go through a messy swamp in their search for truth, who are we to decide that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to do that?” he said. Monster says he refused to host 8chan because of “the possibility of violent radicalization” in the wake of mass shootings, but he also uploaded links to the Christchurch shooter’s video and manifesto.

The aftermath: A Florida real estate brokerage firm has fired one of its agents after his name showed up in the Epik database as the contact person for domain names that included theholocaustisfake.com, holocaust-truth.com, whitechristianrepublican.com and whitesencyclopedia.com. Another individual highlighted by the Epik Fail Twitter account is a former business journalist with the New York Post who registered addresses such as whiteprivilegeisntreal.org, literallyracist.com, and sexynazis.com.

Other notable stories:

Barry Diller’s IAC media conglomerate is in “advanced talks” to acquire magazine publisher Meredith, owner of brands including People and Better Homes & Gardens, the Wall Street Journal reports, based on interviews with people familiar with the situation. “The deal, which is expected to be valued at more than $2.5 billion, would vastly expand IAC’s collection of online publications, which include Brides, Serious Eats and TripSavvy,” the Journal reports. In 2017, Meredith bought Time Inc. for $2.8 billion and then later sold Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines.

Major news outlets in the US have devoted a huge amount of time and resources to the case of Gabrielle Petito, a missing YouTuber, but the press often ignore stories about women of color who go missing, the New York Times reports. On a recent episode of her show, MSNBC host Joy Reid noted that PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, “who broke barriers as a Black woman in the Washington press corps, coined a term for the phenomenon nearly two decades ago: ‘missing white woman syndrome.’”

A memo written by conservative legal scholar John Eastman and circulated by the White House, which detailed how Donald Trump could invalidate the 2020 election and have himself declared president, was seen by many political theorists as a smoking gun but apparently wasn’t enough to merit any mention in the New York Times, writes Dan Froomkin at Presswatch. “It is, as legal scholar Asha Rangappa put it, ‘a sinister plan.’ It is, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait put it, one of ‘a few key moments’ in ‘the Republican Party’s long, gradual slide into authoritarianism.’ But what it isn’t, according to the New York Times, is worth writing about.”

Facebook has agreed to send Antigone Davis, its global head of safety, to testify before a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on September 30 into recent reports about the impact the company’s services have on consumers, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to CNBC. The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles recently based on some internal documents it obtained from anonymous sources, and one of the stories revealed that Facebook’s own researchers had raised concerns about the negative impact that the company’s Instagram service was having on the mental health and self-esteem of young girls.

Members of the White House press corps filed a formal complaint after a meeting between President Biden and British prime minister Boris Johnson ended with questions from members of the British press but no American outlets. According to a report from the Washington Post, the White House “appeared to point the finger at Johnson, insisting the British leader was responsible for the seemingly chaotic scenes in the Oval Office by springing an unplanned news conference.”

Andrew McCormick writes for CJR about the $3.5 trillion spending bill before Congress, which he says is a crucial foundation for the next step in fighting climate change, the upcoming COP26 summit. The importance of the bill “is all but absent from the news,” McCormick writes. “In many stories about the bill, in fact, the word ‘climate’ does not appear at all. Perhaps reporters or editors imagine the summit doesn’t interest their audiences. But that undervalues COP26: At a time when scientists agree time is short for humanity to pull back from the brink, it’s no exaggeration to say the meeting’s outcomes concern every living person on Planet Earth.”

As social media companies such as Facebook and YouTube have tightened their policies around disinformation on their platforms, Russian agents propaganda efforts have moved to other outlets to spread their messages, Vasily Gatov, a visiting fellow at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism told the Financial Times. Research shows that among those new outlets are the comment sections of Western media companies and publishers, according to a report from Cardiff University. Some propaganda distributors create a network with multiple mirror sites with identical content and then seed social media with it, the researchers say.

The leader of a far-right party in Canada had his Twitter account temporarily suspended, according to a report from Vice, after he directed his followers to harass journalists. Maxime Bernier, the head of the so-called People’s Party of Canada, was getting requests for comment after his party failed to elect a single candidate in the recent election. Instead of answering them, he chose to creenshot the requests and post them — including some phone numbers and email addresses — on Twitter, where they were picked up trolls from 4chan and other message boards, leading to a campaign of harassment and abuse for some journalists.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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