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Cash for Incitement: The Monetisation of Digital Hate in Germany

Cash for Incitement: The Monetisation of Digital Hate in Germany
1st May 2024 Pablo Jost
In Insights


Right-wing extremist and conspiratorial movements have historically relied on diverse funding sources like large donations, concerts and merchandise sales. However, the digitisation of fundraising activities has reshaped this financial landscape. Now, social media activists and influencers compete for financial support online. They monetise the content they share in the virtual world, engage in video streaming or crowdfunding activities, and exploit blockchain technology to gain financial support. 

In the shadow of Twitter’s and Facebook’s deplatforming efforts, and the subsequent migration of the players involved, Telegram has gained popularity amongst radical and extremist actors in the last years. Telegram’s unique features, including accommodating large user groups of up to 200,000 and allowing unlimited channel subscribers, contribute to its appeal. Coupled with its less regulated, nearly un-moderated nature, Telegram can be regarded as a dark or fringe platform. This environment enables fringe and radical actors to establish (semi) public discourses and potentially foster extremist networks, leveraging alternative communication spaces beyond the constraints of mainstream platforms and allowing a direct and unfiltered approach to mobilising supporters. Consequently, Telegram has gained importance in financing radical and extremist movements. This Insight aims to assess the digital monetisation pathways of far-right and conspiracy ideology actors, and to infer their success by looking at their crypto-wallet balances. By tracking their transactions on the blockchain, we can also assess their donors: are many small donors crowdfunding these extremist actors, or are big players funding the scene behind the scenes?

The novel form of crowd-based micro-financing has not only provided a stage for new actors who use digital strategies to gain prominence but has also led to a blossoming of various influencers and alternative media funded exclusively or largely by engaging in digital activism. In particular, high-profile personalities such as musicians, entertainers and journalists are well-suited to build an effective presence on digital platforms. We are seeing a growing number of actors who are securing lucrative revenue streams by spreading inflammatory content. Extremist influencers, alternative media channels, and organisations use various online platforms to solicit purchases and donations from their followers.

By cultivating an ostensibly authentic self-image through regular posting and tending to a continuous stream of (para-social) interactions, these creators effectively build emotional bonds with their subscribers. They enhance these para-social bonds using representational tactics such as direct addressing and maintaining eye contact with the camera. These methods contribute to making these new opinion leaders and their messages even more persuasive – techniques commonly employed by marketing and advertising agencies.

In our study for our online magazine Machine Against the Rage, we explored how radical and extremist actors use Telegram to generate financial resources. We have also observed the platforms they use, how they attempt to generate revenue (via spending versus product sales), and what role cryptocurrencies play in all of this. 

Monetary incentives of digital activism

We started by analysing a database of around 12 million text-based messages gathered from 1,200 conspiracy theorists and far-right channels. This led us to identify 265,000 messages containing references to monetisation, which included links to online shops, marketplaces, video platforms and transaction services as well as bank account, PayPal or crypto wallet details for making payments.

Providing bank account information was shown to be the most frequently used means of engaging in direct financial transactions: nearly 35,000 messages included IBAN numbers. Channels associated with the Querdenken (‘lateral thinking’) movement as well as those belonging to QAnon and conspiracy theory milieus, in particular, frequently utilise this method. PayPal serves as another way for actors to set up direct money flows, with references to the platform appearing in 28,000 messages. PayPal is hugely popular among right-wing extremists, populists, and supporters of the Querdenken movement. In contrast, links to crypto wallets play a much less significant role, appearing in only 2,641 messages (see our methods chapter for more details).

Figure 1: Shared messages with a presumed intention to monetise

Affiliate links and platforms

When considering indirect forms of revenue generation, the publishing house Kopp-Verlag is the most popular medium, appearing in 90,000 links. In addition to selling books of interest to this target group as well as nutritional supplements, Kopp-Verlag offers all sorts of crisis paraphernalia. A large share of the identified links come from just a few channels, including those that feature big names associated with the scene such as former TV anchor Eva Herman from Tagesschau. While currently no longer active on Telegram, another prominent example is Michael Wendler (referred to as ‘der Wendler’), who makes use of the product placement option offered by Kopp-Verlag. 

Amazon also plays an important role in the monetisation strategies of these actors: the marketplace appeared in nearly 12,000 messages in our database. Around 42% of these references were via affiliate links, through which Amazon provides the linking party with a commission for selling products or for participating in digital events. One channel that makes heavy use of these affiliate links is the news portal called ‘Unabhängige Nachrichten’ (‘independent news’). Alongside books prophesying the demise of Germany, users can also find information about water filters that promise to secure access to clean drinking water in the event of a presumed crisis. A clear pattern can be found here: first, raise concerns among the audience and then offer them solutions, thereby promoting the sale of the corresponding products.

Some actors with a sharper business focus have even set up their own platforms in pursuit of this strategy. Within the Querdenken movement, we identified around 2,000 references to a website called Klagepaten (‘complaint sponsors’). In addition to providing information about ways to support the alleged victims of the anti-COVID-19 measures, the platform solicits donations that will go on to support the ‘work’ it carries out.

Glass showcases for cryptocurrency

Decentralised, emancipated from banks and governments, and challenging the establishment: the central narratives of cryptocurrencies match the ideas of far-right extremists, conspiracy theorists, and even sovereign citizens. Cryptocurrencies appear as an optimal payment system for these anti-democratic factions. While the role of cryptocurrency accounts is relatively marginal – with relatively few messages making reference to this option – alternative currencies do, nevertheless, provide insights into the volume of real flows of money. While they offer a perceived anonymity, all transactions are recorded on the blockchain, and this transparency in financial activity enables the tracking of incoming and outgoing transactions for individual wallets, affording insight into potential cooperative intentions. Our analysis reveals that the incoming transactions among the 89 identified Bitcoin and Ethereum accounts totalled 702,400 euros.

The anti-democratic audience on Telegram is generally cooperating and communicating very frequently, particularly in forwarding messages. However, the donation marketplace is fiercely competitive. Thus, we were interested in identifying which actors promote the same wallets and who collaborate to solicit donations. The Telegram channels showed comparatively little engagement in terms of soliciting donations, though. Only numerous QAnon channels, for instance, rally support for a singular wallet. Particularly striking is the observation that various channels associated with the Querdenken movement rally support for the same wallet, likely affiliated with the movement’s founder Michael Ballweg. Ballweg was arrested in June 2022 on charges of fraud. According to prosecutors, he diverted around half a million euros in donations to the Querdenken movement to his private account. Querdenken channels exhibit a high level of organisational discipline in mobilising donations, primarily advocating for the movement and, true to the motto, ‘all for one and one takes all.’

Figure 2: Overview of the study’s database, including key influencers and their Bitcoin income

One noteworthy observation is that the crypto wallets endorsed by a higher number of actors are not necessarily the ones that generate the most revenue. On the contrary, crypto wallets promoted by only a few actors showed to have the highest revenue flows, as, for example, Ken Jebsen, Roger Bittel and Heiko Schrang – all of whom can be categorised as conspiracy theory influencers. Heiko Schrang, for one, received nearly 65,000 euros in Bitcoin transfers.

Finally, we were intrigued by the following questions: Have individual actors or the wallets they promote transferred funds to each other? Are there external financiers in the background? To address these questions, we extracted transactions from individual wallets in the respective blockchains and formed transaction networks. Through this approach, we determined that none of the wallets associated with actors in our sample dispatched assets to another recognised actor. Moreover, the data contains no cases of big funders transferring large sums to multiple actors. We only identified nine accounts that sent transfers to multiple (up to three) accounts associated with the far-right or conspiracy theorist spectrum. However, these were small amounts, ranging between 3.50 to 190 euros. Potential contributors appear more inclined to donate to highly visible influencers rather than allocate their donations extensively across the broader movement. Some far-right figures, such as the neo-Nazi influencer Nikolai Nerling (also known as ‘Der Volkslehrer’) received a relatively high volume of transactions, totalling around 13,700 euros. 

Conclusion: The birth of the milieu manager

The new revenue streams enabled through crowdfunding are changing how political movements operate. They have brought about a commercialisation of political activism, as well as a new form of entrepreneurship, enriching certain individuals along the way. Taken together, we are seeing the emergence of a new type of actor who turns hatred and incitement into a business model: the milieu manager. Unlike a movement leader who advances the far-right interests through convincing leadership and organisational talents, the aim of the milieu manager is to market themself. Borrowing from the influencer industry, we are seeing digital formats, branding and merchandise shops centred around these individuals.

Competition in the anti-democratic sphere ensures that when it comes to creating political content, actors increasingly seek a lucrative balance between ideological conviction and cold financial calculation – especially when resources of attention and funding are at stake. The extent to which these developments will be a source of conflict within the movement in the medium to long term is an open question.

We can also see that self-financing through affiliate links and appeals for donations has become an incentive for people who have not been in the extremist scene for long to spread conspiracy theories and right-wing extremist ideologies – and that e-commerce platforms and payment service providers are being actively used as a vehicle for this.


This article is an abridged version of the topic focus from Machine Against the Rage, no. 3 (Summer 2023). The original study was conducted and co-authored with Maik Fielitz, Holger Marcks and Hendrik Bitzmann.

Dr. Pablo Jost is a senior researcher at the Department of Communication at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz. His research focuses on the portrayal of societal controversies in the media and the communication strategies of political and societal actors, as well as their adaptation to digitization. As a co-founder and strategic consultant of the Federal Association for Countering Online Hate, he is actively involved in monitoring extremist communication on digital platforms and its offline impact.

Harald Sick is a political scientist. He works as a researcher for the Federal Association for Countering Online Hate and is affiliated with the Goethe University Frankfurt, where he conducts research on the influence of lobby interests on EU legislative processes. His research focuses on network analysis and network statistics and examines the dynamics of anti-democratic discourse in social networks.