Leaked files from alt-right host raise some hard questions

Recently, a group of unnamed hackers claiming association with the hacker collective known as Anonymous released more than 180 gigabytes of data from Epik, a web-hosting company whose clients included a number of alt-right groups and services, 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, adding that the information it acquired would help people identify the actors behind disinformation and QAnon sites, among others.  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 leak was first reported last week by Steven Monacelli, an independent journalist, on Twitter; in the days that followed, it prompted coverage by a range of national outlets, from the Washington Post and CNN to Gizmodo and Mother Jones.

The importance of the information in the Epik hack—if it proves to be accurate—seems obvious, especially for researchers tracking QAnon groups or other disinformation sources, hate-speech advocates, and domestic extremists. “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 nonprofit 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, and earned the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists a Pulitzer. 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 may explain why coverage of the Epik hack lagged; some outlets published their first stories more than one week after Monacelli’s tweet. So far, most reports on the Epik hack have been explainers, recapping the data breach and then bringing in commentary on the potential value of the leaked materials from cybersecurity experts and extremism scholars. Gizmodo, in its report, noted that it had “downloaded copies of the Epik data and will be assessing its content.” 

The individuals behind the Epik leak are completely unknown, and it’s unclear whether they are actually affiliated with Anonymous—the group isn’t really a coherent entity with membership requirements and a central administration. Such concerns raise questions about motivation; they also place a premium on newsworthiness. What follow-up coverage will look like is anyone’s guess, and will tell us something about how newsrooms navigate a particular ethical quandary: how—or whether—such materials inform future reporting efforts on disinformation, viral conspiracy theories, and online extremism.

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Other notable stories:

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.