How Unicorn Riot covers the alt-right without giving them a platform

Protesters at the August 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Rodney Dunning, via Flickr

Three members of Unicorn Riot were in a rental car headed to Charlottesville the night before the August 12 white supremacist rally when one of them, Wendy Parker, started getting messages from a source.

Parker was receiving screenshots of real-time communications between alt-right individuals and groups who helped plan the Charlottesville rally. The communications were sent on Discord, a chat app often used by gamers and included a “general orders” document created by an alt-right organizer, along with audio recordings of a planning meeting ahead of the rally.

“That was all brand-new information, and that’s when we first heard about the torchlit rally plans,” Parker says. Unicorn Riot was among the first media outlets to arrive at the rally, where one member, Chris Schiano, had a camera knocked from his hand and Parker, who got the tip, was shoved, tripped and cursed.

The screenshots kept coming throughout the following day’s rally and its violent conclusion. After August 12, the same source helped Unicorn Riot gain access to Discord’s internal logs, which enabled the collective members to better see the scope of plans for the Unite the Right rally. On August 14—two days after rally attendee James Fields, Jr., drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen—the collective published its first story about the Discord logs. Subsequent Unicorn Riot stories included excerpts from pre-rally communications, including some in which people discuss running over counter-protesters with cars.

Wired later credited Unicorn Riot’s reporting and spoke with attorneys about the value of the Discord communications. “Lawyers say the discussions could be useful in the criminal case against James Alex Fields, Jr….or civil lawsuits filed by people injured in the confrontation.”

 

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Since its founding, Unicorn Riot has gained traction among people looking for alternative news sources, primarily by covering protests with the sort of on-the-ground perspectives many mainstream outlets miss. Unicorn Riot’s coverage is both DIY boot-strap and sophisticated; its news site has an aesthetic somewhere between the “zine”-quality production of many independent news sources and the slick HBO astroturf of an outlet like Vice.

Though most members of the “decentralized media collective” live in Minneapolis and Denver, Unicorn Riot uses donations to send them to hotspot protests around the country. Its reporters often stay for the long haul—as in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where Unicorn Riot members camped out in the freezing cold for weeks to cover the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, reporting that has resulted in Black Snake Killaz, a feature-length film to be released on November 18.

The members of Unicorn Riot attribute the collective’s functionality to its structure, which is not hierarchical. There is no chain of command to run a story idea up. Unicorn Riot works on a consensus decision-making model, which gives them the ability to act quickly in the field. It can also slow them down when it comes to agreeing to participate in stories like this one. Often, Unicorn Riot members do not use bylines for their stories, which are made available to other nonprofits via a Creative Commons license. They share equipment: computers and cameras as well as bullet-proof body armor and gas masks. Donations help pay for reporters’ travel expenses and a small per diem. They are clear about their methods and their goals; they eschew traditional ideas of objectivity while striving for factual accuracy.

Unicorn Riot’s structure has enabled members to publish dozens of stories on the alt-right without turning their subjects into stars or even normalizing them. While other organizations wrote celebrity profiles that marveled at the sartorial sense of fashion-conscious fascists, Unicorn Riot revealed what the alt-right was talking about when they thought no one was listening.

Charlottesville wasn’t Unicorn Riot’s first experience with the racist right. In November 2015, when the collective covered the Minneapolis protests that followed the killing of Jamar Clark by police, two white supremacists went to the protest at a police precinct looking for “Unicorn.” On video that the two men filmed on the way to the protest, they showed a handgun (“We are locked and loaded”) and used racist language.

“Hey man, are you Unicorn?” one of the men asked Niko Georgiades, a member of the collective. When Georgiades said he was, the man exclaimed, “Dude, we found him!” Georgiades interviewed the men on camera about why they came to the protest.

A week later, those same men came back to the same protest site. One of them, Lance Scarsella, shot five protesters, wounding them. Georgiades, the Unicorn Riot reporter, was subpoenaed so that his live-streamed interview with the shooter could be admitted into evidence. Georgiades wrote an extensive series of stories about the case. A judge ultimately sentenced Scarsella to 15 years in prison.

 

UNICORN RIOT WAS AS PREPARED for Charlottesville as anyone. There were three reporters, Schiano, Parker, and Boyle, on the ground during the pitched street battles surrounding Emancipation Park. Most of the rest of the collective worked to process and package some of the ground team’s reporting. They seemed to have a particularly good grasp of the dynamics; of course, at the time, no one knew Unicorn Riot was reading the far right’s own chats, planning their next moves throughout the day.

After Unicorn Riot obtained the Discord chat logs, Charlottesville became a different kind of work. For Schiano, one of the only members of the collective who works relatively full-time, the logs have made for “a ton of shitty work of going over stuff and making sure it is safe to publish.”

As other outlets began to run stories on the Discord servers, Unicorn Riot agreed to make the chat logs available to other journalists. Schiano estimates between 12 and 20 other news organizations have used the released files for stories. (A New York Times contributor “embedded with a large group of white nationalists on Discord” months ahead of the event, but Unicorn Riot published their first story on Discord’s role in Charlottesville one day ahead of the Times.)

“Other media outlets want to benefit from our work but then separate themselves from us and then ‘other’ us as people who are not ‘real journalists’ like them,” Schiano says. Fortune, for instance, called Unicorn Riot a “left-wing activist group.”

“I think that dynamic gets a little more interesting with the way certain mainstream media journalists or Vice choose to cover fascist movements versus the way we do it,” Boyle says. “To what degree are you platforming [them]? I think journalists haven’t been very careful about that and I think they’ve done a really good job at making these Nazis celebrities.”

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Baynard Woods creates Democracy in Crisis, a column and podcast syndicated in more than 20 alternative weeklies. He is a reporter at the Real News Network, the author of Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff, and an adjunct writing professor at Johns Hopkins University.