Late last year, student reporters Shannon Carranco and Jon Milton received an intriguing message from their sources in antifa.
Anti-fascist activists had acquired thousands of messages from a private neo-Nazi chat group on Discord, an encrypted chat service for gamers that became popular with the far-right. They wanted to pass them on to reporters.
Carranco and Milton — undergraduates in their mid-20s at Concordia University in Montreal — weren’t full-time professional journalists. But their work would eventually lead to the downfall of one of the internet’s most prominent neo-Nazis.
After meeting with the anti-fascist activists, Carranco and Milton received expansive chat logs that went back to August 2016 and contained more than 12,000 messages. Members in the Discord chat spouted racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic rhetoric and celebrated far-right violence, including Alexandre Bissonnette’s killing of six Muslim men at a mosque in Quebec City.
But what made the cache of messages especially valuable was its organizer: Zeiger, a pseudonym used by the second-most prolific writer on Andrew Anglin’s neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website. Zeiger had spent years spreading white nationalist propaganda on far-right podcasts and internet hate forums and promoting the Atomwaffen Division — a violent American extremist group linked to at least five murders in the last 19 months.
Zeiger hid his real identity and whereabouts. As with a number of other far-right extremists, his anonymity allowed him to incite hatred and promote violent groups without repercussions from the public or authorities. But now the Discord group appeared to show that Zeiger was living in Montreal and actively building a network of white nationalists in the city.
The chat also functioned as a sort of support group and echo chamber for lonely, angry men who had turned to extremism. Zeiger, as the de facto leader of the group, had been organizing in-person meet-ups and events as he recruited the chat’s members into the white nationalist scene.
The reporters found that there were around 48 members in the chat, all white men ages 18 to 40, all living in the Montreal area, Carranco said.
Carranco and Milton began to see the wide reach of Zeiger’s neo-Nazi activities and how in private he dropped the detached, racist snark of the Daily Stormer for more sincere hate — neo-Nazism without irony.
As Carranco and Milton read through the thousands of messages and cross-checked information with their anti-fascist sources, they were slowly able to piece together the identities of Zeiger and other prominent members of his Discord group. They began trying to match up usernames in the chat with other social media accounts, listening to far-right podcasts for traces of identifying information, and saw Zeiger had even posted his home address in 2016 while inviting members of the group to watch a Clinton-Trump debate.
They also began to worry about their own personal safety and the backlash they would face after exposing the group.
“I’m very thankful to have gotten to work on all of this,” Carranco said. “But especially as a woman working on this story, I was kind of an immediate target just based on my gender.”
“That’s pretty fucked up to read,” said Carranco, who began to carry pepper spray.
Reporting on extremists carries risks for journalists who have the backing of major news outlets, let alone for student journalists without the resources for more sophisticated security. Extremists often threaten and harass reporters and their families ― sending death threats, publishing their personal information online and sometimes showing up at their homes.
But after months of delving into the chat logs and working with their anti-fascist sources, Carranco and Milton believed they had confirmed Zeiger’s identity. With help from the anti-fascist activists, they had connected him through high school yearbooks, a SoundCloud account and other social media output to a self-employed information technology consultant in his early 30s, Gabriel Sohier Chaput. The two journalists contacted Christopher Curtis, a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, to pitch him on the story.
“It was clear that they had something huge,” Curtis said.
The three set up in a corner of the Gazette newsroom for several weeks to get the reporting fit to publish and to overhaul their personal security in anticipation of the response. Curtis also began exhausting every avenue to reach Chaput, including knocking on his door and sending registered mail to his address. The closest he came was a phone call to Chaput’s brother, who immediately hung up after hearing it was a reporter calling.
One day shortly after the attempts to contact Chaput, Milton went outside the Gazette’s office for a smoke break and saw a member of the Discord group hanging around down the street.
When the Gazette published its story linking Chaput to Zeiger in early May, the piece received international attention and sparked demonstrations in Montreal. Anti-racist groups marched in the city, while the mayor denounced neo-Nazi ideology and said she was extremely concerned at what the Gazette’s revelations meant for extremism in the community. Police opened an investigation into neo-Nazi recruitment.
Carranco, Milton and Curtis followed up with several more stories exposing others in the group and their links to far-right extremist groups in Quebec.
“When you investigate these people, they come after you,” Curtis said. “The fact that [Carranco and Milton] kept pushing forward just shows how brave they are.”
Shortly after the stories broke, Zeiger’s online presence began to evaporate. A Daily Stormer article from its white nationalist publisher Anglin spoke of Zeiger in the past tense as a martyr for the neo-Nazi movement, while Milton listened to Zeiger complain about being exposed while on a French neo-Nazi podcast.
Six months later, Montreal police obtained an arrest warrant for Chaput for willful incitement of hatred, which carries up to a two-year prison sentence. But by that time, Chaput was nowhere to be found: The warrant listed the neo-Nazi’s address as “unknown.”