Diving into the Daily Dot’s coverage of the Epik data breach, and how we track extremist right-wing online groups

‘That’s sort of our bread and butter, these very obscure and online topics—including data breaches which take a lot of time, verification, and work.’

The Daily Dot has devoted itself to tracking how online life goes IRL in politically significant, and often dangerous, ways. Specifically, we’ve kept the pulse of far-right, violent, and extremist web communities like QAnon, Parler, Gab, the Donald, and 8chan

David Covucci, our senior technology and politics editor, has helped the Daily Dot team stay ahead of the curve on important political changes. Covucci succinctly described the importance of keeping up our far-right coverage in an essay reflecting on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot: 

“We covered QAnon first before anyone noticed, and warned of its dangers. We pointed out the language that brought us to this point before it happened. We knew who the Q Shaman was when he climbed on the House dais because we’d covered him long before. Go back years, as Trump was making his rise, we were reporting on the army of trolls he was amassing, which became the locus of our discourse,” Covucci wrote. 

The Daily Dot’s Editorial Director, Ramón Ramirez connected the Daily Dot’s coverage of right-wing extremism to GamerGate in 2014, and the rise of hate being spread on the internet by “angry, isolated men who find easy explanations for their personal shortcomings.” 

Ramirez remembered approaching a hard question back in the GamerGate days: should we not cover extremist groups out of fear of amplifying their messages and inspiring copy cats? 

“We can’t just have tunnel vision. We can’t just be curators for culture. We have to cover what’s really there, and we also have to be responsible in how we do that. And we can’t insinuate that this is okay,” Ramirez explained. 

This fall, the Daily Dot’s coverage of right-wing politics followed the twists and turns of a huge event in the right-wing online world—the Epik hack data leak. 

Back in September 2021, our staff writer Mikael Thalen reported on the leak, which exposed huge swathes of data from the domain registrar and website hosting company Epik and was released by individuals operating under the hacking collective Anonymous

“Anyone can claim to be anonymous. On one hand, it’s a strength of theirs—essentially, there’s no leadership or anything so there’s no way to pin it down,” Thalen said. “When you’re dealing with covering Anonymous you want to be careful with how you word things.” 

The data breach released the names and contact info, as well as usernames and passwords, of over 15 million people, including those behind well-known extremist websites like Parler, Gab, and the Donald.

Pouring over the released data, Thalen uncovered a trove of information: including right-wing domains targeted with subpoenas; attempts by conservative Ali Alexander to hide his ties to election fraud conspiracy websites in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot; and more. 

“The reason I covered Ali Alexander specifically is he’s obviously a very high profile figure with connections to the former President,” Thalen said. “These people have a major influence on right-wing politics.” 

Thalen spent hours upon hours sorting through private and public figures, and vetting every piece of information published. Editorial Director Ramirez said Thalen did an excellent job determining what’s newsworthy and packing stories with hard facts. 

“We have to be responsible. We have to think about what is in the public interest, who is a limited-purpose public figure, who is worth unmasking,” Ramirez said. “What’s great about Mikael about a reporter is he will give you a bundle of fifteen facts and that’s it. They speak for themselves.”  

“When you’re dealing with any hackers, the most important thing too is you want to verify everything they say because hackers a lot of times will sort of boast or exaggerate,” Thalen said. “That’s sort of our bread and butter, these very obscure and online topics—including data breaches which take a lot of time, verification, and work.”  

As we look towards the Daily Dot’s future, politics editor Covucci reiterated the Daily Dot’s belief in continuing to cover online extremism in all its manifestations. 

“As we’ve shown time and time again, what foments online explodes in real-life, from the trollish support on 4chan of Trump in 2015 to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6,” Covucci said. “By revealing sources, plots, motivations, and tactics, the Daily Dot is the leading publication that documents how the web’s most nefarious actors use the internet to shape the world in malevolent ways.”