CONTENT WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MAY BE HIGHLY DISTRESSING TO SOME READERS. IT CONTAINS EXPLICIT MENTIONS OF RACISM, NAZISM, HOLOCAUST DENIAL, ANTI-SEMITISM, MISOGYNY, XENOPHOBIA, SINOPHOBIA AND FASCISM.
Overt racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism are not especially new to campus, nor within the Inner West. But for some reason, the idea that people who believe in the disgusting ideology of Nazism may have a covert presence on campus is uniquely sobering.
Back in May, an investigation conducted by the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald exposed relationships between neo-Nazis and the National Party of Australia, taking cues from a series of chat threads on the website Discord. These threads came to light as part of a series of Discord-related leaks made public by Unicorn Riot, an American left-wing media collective. Notably, the forums were employed to organise and mobilise the 2017 white-supremacist ‘Unite The Right’ rally in Charlottesville.
To aimlessly meander down King Street, to catch a bus from the Marlborough Hotel to the City Road stop, or to rush past the Eastern Avenue auditorium on the way to class are all seemingly uneventful experiences for most students at the University of Sydney (USyd). That the likes of Charlottesville organisers are prevalent in your own day-to-day routine is unthinkable.
That idea is turned on its head when it dawns on you that the same routes are frequented by neo-Nazis; that they are sitting behind you in your lectures, brushing past you on the 428 bus, or sprawled out a few metres away from you on the Law Lawns. This very realisation was made by Honi, as we trawled through the aforementioned threads, discovering sinister links between USyd and the neo-Nazis lurking on Discord in the process.
The sheer volume of content on the leaked threads was astounding. In one server called VibrantDiversity, over 30,000 messages were shared by 530 users. At least 36 of those users were either based in or had some significant connection to Australia. For the most part, the threads would discuss articles from ‘liberal’ media sources, or link social media posts, the politics of which outraged its users. The candid use of grossly racist, ableist and misogynistic language was commonplace, often accompanied by esoteric fascist memes.
From a cursory glance of the page, it is easy to misconstrue its users as reactionaries, seeking the thrill of making outrageous comments that would otherwise be socially unacceptable. From that perspective, the servers appear disconnected from reality — they exist in the alt-right cybersphere, bearing little consequence on one’s actual life. However, as we delved deeper into the threads, it became apparent that these users were more than just the odd internet troll.
Our investigation began with the simple use of broad search terms like “Sydney” or “Newtown” in the server’s search function, in order to test whether these threads had much of a local presence. Initially, most of the messages seemed only to make casual references to recent events in Sydney, without indicating a tangible connection to genuine political organisation. Soon, however, we came across the first real indication of political action: a conversation discussing strategies for supporting the homophobic ‘No’ campaign in Australia’s same-sex marriage plebiscite. At times that conversation would move to calls between Discord users, records of which could not be accessed by Honi. Nonetheless, we did gain access to a Google Doc in which numerous users contributed ideas as to how potential voters could be convinced to vote ‘no’.
As we continued to scan the server, it became clear that certain members were based in Australia, and more specifically, Sydney. We came across an image of the Martin Luther King wall on King Street, just a few kilometres away from campus. Users disparaged the mural, particularly with regard to its pending heritage-listing status. Shortly after that, we found a message containing an image of the USyd’s 2017 ‘Unlearn’ campaign posters displayed on the glass walls of the Eastern Avenue Auditorium at the time. The photo was seemingly taken from the user’s mobile phone. Stickers bearing the swastika logo used by Australian neo-Nazi hate group Antipodean Resistance appeared on the same posters around the time the photo was posted on Discord. This prompted us to refine our search terms, and look specifically for messages related to various university campuses. We started to try terms like “USyd” and “UNSW.”
Among the results were some links to Honi articles and references to various socio-political clashes transpiring on campus. Users were unimpressed by moves to ban ethnically-themed parties on campus – ‘Mexican’ themed nights at college, for example. In another server called ‘Men’s Human Rights’, there was a discussion of a video posted by disgraced sex-therapist Bettina Arndt concerning those protesting her ‘Fake Rape Crisis’ tour of September 2018 at USyd; many of these protesters were a part of the USyd Women’s Collective. The messages about USyd weren’t just general in nature — at various points, they indicated an uncomfortable proximity to campus culture.
Screenshots of Facebook comments recognisable as have being written by current USyd student activists and Honi articles, including one titled “Video Games of the Alt-Right” (again written in 2017), are also critiqued and ridiculed in this chatroom. Numerous messages also attached pictures of students running in SRC elections, accompanied by various queerphobic comments. A screenshot of a motion pertaining to anti-fascist action on campus, taken from the agenda of a 2017 SRC council meeting, was discussed. Chinese international students running in the 2017 University of Sydney Union (USU) elections were described using racial slurs.
Perhaps these connections are not so surprising. The presence of fascists, neo-Nazis, and their sympathisers on our campus and its surrounds can at least be traced back to 2016. An anonymous student told Honi about her experience in her first-year Modern European History class in that year. A student in her lecture sprung up randomly and started to sing the ‘He’s A Pisspot’ drinking song, just as the lecturer began to speak about the Holocaust. The student then allegedly pulled a bottle of beer out of his pocket, toasted towards the lecture slide which had an image of Adolf Hitler on it, and sang “here’s to Hitler, he’s true blue.” He was swiftly removed from the class by the lecturer.
During the 2017 SRC elections, it emerged that Sukith Fernando, a candidate on the ‘Vanguard for SRC’ ticket, had made comments online in defence of Hitler. At the time, Honi reported that, “in a reply to a video questioning the Holocaust posted on his wall, Fernando commented ‘Wow Hitler really did nothing wrong.’” When confronted, Fernando maintained that he simply “didn’t know” whether the Holocaust had happened. Two months later, in the midst of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, neo-Nazi posters were found wheatpasted inside the Brennan McCallum Learning Hub. The posters, emblazened with phrases such as “Nazi Youth Organising On Your Campus!” were attributed to Antipodean Resistance.
In 2017, a student-led anti-fascist organising group archived a plethora of images of neo-Nazi vandalism, unearthed by activists throughout the entirety of 2017. Swastika stickers placed on posters of Muslim women on Eastern Avenue, swastikas painted in the USyd Graffiti Tunnel, and a racist ‘VB Dingo’ sticker in Carslaw – a common neo-Nazi pejorative used to refer to First Nations people, prevalent also on Discord – are only a few examples.
The greatest spike in neo-Nazi organising at USyd in recent years undoubtedly occurred in 2017. In that year, a high volume of neo-Nazi material appeared on campus, pictures of which were subsequently posted by concerned activists in the anti-fascist organising group contemporaneously. Such posts were made once a month at the very least. We noticed a striking resemblance between the terminology, syntax and tone of the neo-Nazi material on campus, and that of neo-Nazis on the Discord threads, particularly on VibrantDiversity.
It didn’t end there, however. Several students present at a USyd ‘Socialism vs Capitalism’ debate in June 2018 – hosted in tandem by opposing political groups Socialist Alternative and Generation Liberty – anecdotally relayed to Honi how a man present at the debate, did a ‘sieg heil’ salute. Toby Cook, described by Anti Fascist Action Sydney to be a “local neo-Nazi affiliated with the Sydney-based “Party for Freedom”, allegedly did the same gesture in response to a debate participant’s critique of fascism.
In July of 2018, racist graffiti targeting Asian students was found in the Wilkinson building. The phrases “no Asian invasion” alongside other ethnic slurs – the same slurs used to describe Chinese USU Board candidates on Discord in 2017 – were written in permanent marker thereon.
In March 2019, racist and nationalist posters and graffiti were removed from the USyd Engineering and IT Precinct by University staff. Two months later in May, a swastika was found graffitied onto a mural of the Aboriginal Flag in Camperdown Rest Memorial Park.
What was arguably the most disconcerting aspect of our investigation was the appearance of Young Liberals and Nationals, alongside members of the campus right, on these servers. For legal reasons, Honi cannot reveal the identities of those involved.
In February of 2017, an event was held on the border of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, at a small pub called The Royal Hotel QBN – around 25 minutes drive from the University of Canberra. The event was scheduled to run after a larger Young Liberal event that had occurred earlier that evening. This meeting was far smaller, more intimate. University students, some of those now known to have been neo-Nazis, were in attendance. In a conversation Honi conducted with an anonymous source, the social groupings at this event were described as white men dissatisfied with how the world was developing. Concerns surrounding migration, what were considered to be ‘loose borders’, and stagnation in the growth of the young working-class had amalgamated into a social network of anti-capitalist young men uniting under the hateful banner of national socialism.
Racist sentiments at this event were plentiful, with anti-Semitic and racial slurs and misogynistic phrases flowing freely in the discussion. There was a distinct lack of women at the event. An ex-Young Liberal, Justin Beulah, who was identified as a reprieved neo-Nazi in this year’s major SMH–ABC investigation, was in attendance. He posted pictures of himself at the event on VibrantDiversity. At the time, he was also a student at the University of Canberra. Honi reached out to Beulah for comment, given that his picture and a username confirmed to be connected to him were found as we scrolled these servers. We did not receive comment in time for publication.
Through examining the links and usernames disseminated on these threads, Honi can confirm that there were USyd students, then members of the Young Liberals, present at this event, with direct links to the online Nazi network. Indeed, Beluah posted photos on VibrantDiversity of two people Honi knows to have been USyd students at the time of the Royal Hotel QBN meet-up. For us, Beulah (posting as ‘Brad Small’ and ‘Brad’s Mobile’), became a link between the server and USyd. In interrogating the large array of images he shared, we have discovered that members of these threads had in-depth knowledge of University of Sydney student culture, Honi articles and USyd student politics. Beulah has also shared a range of phone snapshots taken close to and within the University. Not only this, but screenshots obtained by Honi show attempts by members Beulah and a user named ‘Convo’ to understand student politics abbreviations. “SRC?” Convo asks, to which Beulah explains “Student rep council.”
Beulah’s institutional knowledge of our University may suggest that he had direct network affiliations with USyd students who, by sending him relevant information, allowed him to be aware of, recruit within, and perhaps attempt to infiltrate USyd student politics. A prominent member of the Young Nationals, who we cannot name for legal reasons, was one possible accomplice to Beulah’s work – he was A USyd undergraduate, frequented the Discord servers, and a manager of one of the University’s USU Board candidate campaigns several years prior. He was at the Royal Hotel QBN with Beulah that day.
The takeaways from our investigation are quite harrowing. Examples of the ingrained connection between these networks and USyd are especially mind-boggling because they require a steadfast knowledge of the workings of student organisations. Things like SRC Council motions, for example, could not possibly have been within the institutional knowledge nor digital reach of anyone without some tangible, continuous link to someone on the inside
We know that Neo-Nazi propaganda and rhetoric spiked on the Camperdown campus in 2017. We also know that the rate at which information was disseminated within VibrantDiversity also rose with particular vigour that same year. There is an apparent temporal link to a spike in university-related rhetoric in this chatroom and the rise of neo-Nazi action on campus when this evidence is read concurrently.
Our investigation only scratched the surface of all the reprehensible fascist messages sent in the 66 leaked servers. At various points, we regrettably came across messages viscerally describing sexually problematic behaviour, images of African-American people being lynched, and other extremely violent imagery. Naturally, this raised serious concerns of what had already transpired on campus and what could be happening as we write this article. Were there campus neo-Nazis lurking in those threads, who had fallen through the cracks? And, now these Discord threads have been exposed, is there a place unknown to us where new conversations are taking place? Fascist networks are quite feasibly expanding. They aren’t just a few rogue individuals on a single website. They are in the business of building a movement. That movement has extended its reach to non-fascist conservative groups on campus, such as the Young Liberals. It’s unclear when this movement will penetrate our institutions of student representation. Maybe it already has.