Lindsay Souvannarath, a young woman from Illinois, likely didn't expect a trip to DeviantArt would end with her plotting a mass killing. But thanks in part to some neo-Nazi artwork she spotted on the site, that's exactly what happened.
Almost a decade ago, Souvannarath was a regular DeviantArt visitor who posted under the account snoopyfemme, something in particular caught her eye. Interested by the artwork, Souvannarath messaged the artist and they started chatting. She soon learned he was a neo-Nazi. Souvannarath found him fascinating, and the two continued to talk as her journey into darkness went deeper.
“[The neo-Nazi beliefs] just started by chance on this art website when I came across this one painting and thought, whoa, that’s a really cool painting. So I decided to like and comment on it and talk to the artist a little,” Souvannarath would later say on a podcast. “The artist just happened to be a national socialist and later on through him I started to meet more national socialists and started networking through them.”
She met other neo-Nazis online, started exploring other morbid subcultures, and became a part of their community. She started submitting her own Nazi artwork, and eventually grew that into a Tumblr page called Cock-Swastika. She became obsessed with mass killers, especially the Columbine shooters. Then, one day in late 2014, she was taken by another piece of art, this time a meme about Columbine, and, once again, messaged the creator.
The creator, a man named James Gamble, another online neo-Nazi obsessed with mass killers, messaged her back and a romance blossomed.
The pair were obsessed with death, and eventually the two planned to shoot up a mall in Halifax, Canada. Somehow, a plot to commit one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history had its beginnings on the website mostly known for hosting subversive artwork like drawings of a pregnant Sonic the Hedgehog.
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.’”
DeviantArt 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!”
Fascist Anime has almost 500 members and just as many "watchers," DeviantArt’s equivalent of subscribers. It’s been viewed over 50,000 times. The page features several art galleries users can browse, including "National Socialism," "Imperial Japan," and "Fascism." Throughout the page you can find journals full of far-right ramblings written by the admins, small images with scrolling text denying the Holocaust, and shout outs to their favourite far-right artists.
At the bottom of the site is a section in which users are directed towards “affiliated” DeviantArt pages, which are curated by the page owner. For Fascist Anime, these include True Aryanism, Last Reich HQ, Nazis From Hell, Alt-Right Plus, SS Ober Fuhrer, and more. The interlinked nature of these pages amounts to no less than a pipeline for vulnerable people to be recruited.
For Souvannarath, that was a pipeline that worked all too well. Within several years she went from being an awkward and isolated teen in Illinois to one that planned out the clothing she would wear during a mass killing with her online neo-Nazi boyfriend. The had never met, and planned to lose their virginity to each other the night before they tried to kill as many as they could in the food court of the Halifax Mall.
“On February 14, 2015, they would go to the area of the food court of the Halifax Shopping Centre, and throw Molotov cocktails,” reads the agreed statement of facts from her ensuing court case. “Next, Gamble and Ms. Souvannarath would indiscriminately shoot whoever was there, with a lever action .308 hunting rifle, and a single action 16 gauge shotgun respectively. Gamble would kill any wounded persons with a hunting knife. Their intention was to inflict as many casualties as their ammunition would allow.”
Things came to a head when Souvannarath hopped a plane that would bring her to the Maritimes. Someone had tipped off police on the plot—while the identity of the tipster has never been released both Gamble and Souvannarath were pretty open about it and their public identity to some online friends. Souvannarath was arrested in the airport and police surrounded Gamble’s house in an attempt to arrest him. Gamble would shoot himself in the head instead of being incarcerated. Souvannarath is serving a life sentence for the plot.
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.
There are several ways that some of the artists use DeviantArt to amplify their artwork outside of the community. In some they highlight their artwork in galleries on fascist groups—some quite literally have folders called “propaganda.” From here the image will be pulled and used on other sites. One of them, a photo of a soldier and the term “Right Wing Death Squads” has been shared thousands of times and is used as the thumbnail image for YouTube videos, sent to intimidate users online, and of course, used widely on 4Chan.
One prolific user utilizes a method of curating and creating a particular set of memes. The user has 300 followers and over 100,000 page views and specializes in “moonman”—think Pepe but it’s a racist rapping man with a moon for a head. In one case his art was picked up by the Daily Stormer in a “Memetic Monday” list before being recycled to social media sites by other users. For the most part his work was just reused without credit, meaning it's decontextualized from its original intention as fascist art.
This community of like-minded fascists on the site isn’t new nor particularly surprising for a website as old, and as large, as DeviantArt. But the ways in which it's been a breeding ground for neo-Nazi groups across the web has been under-scrutinized. In fact, one of the most influential neo-Nazi sites of the last decade has its origins on DeviantArt.
As reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the fascists who would eventually start the neo-Nazi forum Iron March met on DeviantArt. In 2016, on the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer podcast, Iron March founder Alexander Slavros was asked about his site’s beginnings.
“The start of Iron March actually began before Iron March,” Slavros said. “Around 2008, a bunch of nationalists and fascists were using DeviantArt, of all fucking places, to upload our materials, propaganda, and just exploring different visual styles that we worked on inspired by different nationalist images and such. So that’s how I got in contact with a few people in the first place.”
Iron March and Slavros would go on to become infamous for being tied to militant far-right groups like Atomwaffen Division—a militant hate group whose members have been tied to five murders—that were birthed from Iron March and Slavros’ extremist philosophy. Slavros actually had an online relationship with Souvannarath while building his nazi forum.
Artwork and propaganda inspired by Slavros’ particular aesthetic, as well as reuploads of Slavros’ initial artwork, can easily be found on DeviantArt to this day.
All neo-Nazi propaganda on DeviantArt has to do to work is just be there. It works similar to white power music, through a style of radicalization known as “passive recruitment.” As the Anti-Defamation League wrote in a report on white power music, “of all the people who encounter it, some will be interested enough to look into [it], and of those people, a certain amount will find the white supremacist movement itself attractive.”
One DeviantArt user who moderates several neo-Nazi groups, including Fascist Anime, told VICE via a direct message that there isn’t a coordinated plan to recruit people into the movement on DeviantArt saying any sort of “centralized hierarchy does not exist.”
“As far as weaponized memes are concerned… they can be created by anyone,” they told VICE. “Whether they are used by other people remain a complete mystery.”
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.
If there was any doubt about the nature of these works, one artist who creates art in an extremely similar vein to Dark Foreigner said they consider it to be propaganda. They told VICE they upload their work to the website as a backup in case of deplatforming.
“I started posting here not only to share my art but just in case I get banned from another platform again,” they said in a direct message on DeviantArt.
“As for an end goal for the propaganda, I'm not really sure I have one.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.