We Spent Nine Months Undercover on a Far-Right Message Board

Paranoia and lack of sleep were just two of our problems, after spending too long down a hate-filled digital rabbit hole.
May 27, 2021, 9:11am
We Spent Nine Months Undercover on a Far-Right Message Board
Photo: The authors

While most European countries have fully repudiated their fascist histories, even today in Italy, it is not unusual to find some fascist memorabilia or to catch the odd nostalgia-tinged conversations in small-town bars or in some grandparents' homes. 

The 20-year dictatorship of Benito Mussolini has left the country with a rooted tradition of extreme right thinking that still proves difficult to fully shake off.

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Many Italian cities have buildings that were constructed in those years still bear symbols and words of fascism, with no contextualisation at all.  

Some right-wing MPs and parties, such as Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League) and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) – not to mention outwardly fascist parties like CasaPound and Forza Nuova –  have never explicitly distanced themselves from that historical era.

Today, extreme right views do enjoy support among some young people in Italy. It's impossible to gauge how widespread these views are, but today's young fascists are usually well-educated and are exposed to the American-style white supremacism they find online. It's an explosive mix contained within a hidden world, and one we set out to expose.

Between January and October 2020, we went undercover on a digital hangout for Italian white supremacists, in a project supported by the Roberto Morrione Prize, a well-established award for young Italian investigative journalists. Our reporting led us to publish Buco Nero (literally, “Black Hole”), a podcast that shed light on the digitisation of the Italian far-right and was featured on Storytel, one of Europe’s main podcast and audiobook platforms. 

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The podcast is a four-episode investigation that explains how Italian white supremacists communicate with each other online, what they post, and how they appear to be trying to create the conditions for their own race war against migrants and minorities.

But during those long months we spent down a digital rabbit hole, we underestimated the psychological downsides of living undercover in a violent and hostile environment based on misogyny, hate speech, racism, and incitement to violence against minorities. 

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When we first infiltrated the virtual lair, we thought we were in some kind of chat room populated by short-tempered internet users with little interest in reading or studying. However, we soon realised that these people could speak English fluently, claimed to be part of international supremacist networks, and were also very familiar with online opsec: they were all using VPNs and encryption codes, and all the photos they posted had their metadata cleaned up, so as not to trace their origin or author.

The rabbit hole was hosted by one of those image boards like 8chan, internet forums that revolve around the posting of images, often alongside text and snippets of conversation. Whenever someone posts a message, a nickname appears automatically. The nickname the board’s members collectively chose was Lupo Lucio (literally, Lucio the Wolf), a character from a famous Italian cartoon. Therefore, members call each other “wolves,” a clear reference to terrorists who act alone without support from any group.

The channel was full of Nazi memes and fascist porn cartoons. Most people used an incomprehensible and offensive language, which literally translated internet jargon into Italian – YouTube was EbreoTubo, which literally translates as JewTube. It’s practically impossible to know who is just trolling on these image boards – as toxic as that is – or who represents a more serious threat. But being exposed to this world, as an observer or an active participant, is not good for a person’s mental health. After a few weeks of investigating the image board, our sleep problems started.

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Alongside our undercover activities, during the first phase of the work we researched white supremacism, and the specific Italian context. Various creepy references that had previously gone unnoticed soon became obvious. Some of the photos posted next to words of hate did not simply represent skulls, but ram's skulls – a symbol of courageous death in battle. Alongside such images, the users said they wanted to “change things”, and claimed to be ready to “take action”.  

And then, when everyone was singing to the "corsa alla guerra" (literally, “run to the war”), they were just translating literally an English expression: race war. 

As users of the lair, we witnessed the organisation of an online birthday party for Hitler, and found the Italian translation of Christchurch massacre perpetrator Brenton Tarrant's manifesto, and the “urban sniper” manual to learn how to effectively shoot at crowds without being caught.

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An example post from the image board. Photo: Supplied

This is where the most fascinating and disturbing part of the job began. At first, we were excited: we had a cool and interesting story. Yet, after a few weeks the feeling of satisfaction was replaced with a realisation of the toll the reporting was having on our mental health.

First problem: living undercover means creating a new identity and getting rid of your own. In the case of a digital community, this aspect is actually smoothed out, as you can still go out with your usual friends without having to pretend to be someone else all the time.

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Second problem: sleep. Due to digital security reasons, some devices were dedicated to this investigation only. This meant that we had nothing else to do while in the image board: no music, no social networks, just image boards. We spent a lot of time there, especially from the late afternoon onwards, which was when most of the users were active. After a while we realised we were struggling to sleep due to the violent content we were exposed to.

Often we reconnected to the image board late at night for fear of missing something crucial. 

Third problem: ethics. We needed to understand who these people were, so we had to post something and make connections with other users. We never posted hateful or violent content, but we participated in conversations with people who regularly did. 

Fourth problem: dependency. We devoted more and more time to the investigation, even though we were both working on many other projects at the same time. This resulted in a progressive cerebral as well as financial dependence towards this story, generating a never-ending loop of stress: what if the story is not interesting enough? What if we don’t get paid enough? What if this work has no impact?

Fifth problem: The image boards where supremacists hide are notorious for protecting the users’ identity. We knew there were people in our country talking about bombings and racial wars, but we knew nothing of where they lived: they could be anywhere, even next to us. One hundred percent guaranteed: catching the train or going for a walk will never be like before.

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Sixth problem: Being unaware of who our users were, we found ourselves forced to avoid any mention of our work. In fact, we knew that the whole investigation would collapse if anyone found out that journalists were monitoring the platform. We could only talk about it to each other. Also, communication between us was complicated: encrypted file and chat-apps everywhere, double-level passwords, back-ups.

We realised that this story was monopolising our lives, and we ended up hating a subject we were passionately committed to exposing only a short time before. We confronted each other and realised that no story is worth the mental health. And that's how we came up with some rules to follow.

We got a whiteboard and wrote down some rules of survival. 

First, never spend too long in the lair without disconnecting. Second, avoid this time being too close to sleep hours.

We also talked to the authorities, making sure that those in charge were notified about the existence of the lair and potential threats discussed on it.

We studied lots of ethics and digital tools. Being more aware of our work and our position let us save time and avoid stressful questions about VPNs.

The actual turning point was a more relaxed approach towards secrecy. Making the story top secret made sense, but talking about it with a very few, very well-trusted friends at some point became vital. With hindsight, we should have consulted a psychologist, but unfortunately, we didn't. 

We ended our investigation after reporting a specific threat made on the image board to the authorities. Due to the way police investigations are conducted in Italy, it’s difficult to know what the outcome of this tip was, or if it was even followed up. But we do know that in the weeks and months since our podcast came out, the members of the image board have taken notice of our investigation and weren’t very happy about it, to say the least. They mocked us and even temporarily changed their nickname from Lupo Lucio – to our names instead.