Christian Huberts had never been that interested in the video gaming platform Steam.

He was an occasional user of the one-stop shop for playing, discussing, and creating games, a platform which allows users to buy games, upload content, establish friendships, and join groups and discussion forums.

And he only knew a little of the trolls who also used Steam, acting out in extreme ways online as a kind of performance act to get a rise out of people.

But it wasn’t until he delved into the site’s user directory that he uncovered the extent to which neo-Nazism — both as trolling and a living, existing ideology — had found a home in Steam’s darker corners.

As he explained in an article published in Austria’s Der Standard in June 2018, Mr Huberts found countless users who incorporated the iconography of Nazism—its names, faces, and symbols—into their usernames.

Popular identifiers include the “ϟϟ” runes or the skull and crossbones of the Nazi SS.

The Twitter-based watchdog account “FPÖ Fails” recently unmasked one regional Austrian Freedom Party politician who had been going by the aliases “Adolf Hitler der Führer”, “Heinrich Gaserboy Himmler”, and “Heinrich Himmler” on Steam.

His profile picture shows Himmler in full SS regalia, while his account was party to two groups, one of which was called “Panzerdivision 57”, named for an infantry division of the Nazi Wehrmacht.

During his research, Mr Huberts found 600 groups on Steam related to the Holocaust and 5000 to Hitler. Nazi references on Steam, he concluded, had become normalised.

His findings were supported by an investigation published by HuffPost in August 2018 that identified “thousands of accounts and user groups on Steam in which users claim to be Nazis and spout racist and violent bile.”

Basic searches among groups using keywords like “Nazis” or “Jews” brought up thousands of results with names like “KillTheJews”, “CancerousNazis”, and “Neo Nazi Fascist Party”.

Many of these groups have but a handful of members, indicating they exist more to troll than anything else.

But for some users, their commitment to far-right ideology is very serious indeed and have found Steam to be a useful platform for disseminating their hate among impressionable users.

Christian Picciolini, a former skinhead, once described to NPR how the process works: while engaged in multiplayer gaming, neo-Nazis or white supremacists will “start out dropping slurs about different races or religions and kind of test the waters,” he said.

“Once they sense that they’ve got their hooks in them they ramp it up, and then they start sending propaganda, links to other sites, or they start talking about…racist, anti-Semitic tropes.”

The problem is so serious that German intelligence concluded last summer that platforms like Steam are now where terrorists like Stephan Balliet, who perpetrated the October 2019 Halle synagogue shooting, and Tobias Rathjen, the assailant in the February 2020 Hanau shootings are being radicalised.

In July 2016, David Ali Sonboly shot up a McDonald’s and a shopping centre in Munich, killing nine and injuring 36. German media reports indicated a possible nationalist motive behind the attack.

The Spiegel found that, in the lead up, Mr Sonboly had frequented forums on Steam “in which users regularly glorified mass shooters and terrorists and agitated against the ‘mass invasion’ of Muslim refugees to Europe.”

Users that Mr Sonboly had interacted with on Steam went on to commit atrocities themselves including the high school shooting in Aztec, New Mexico in December 2017.

The Christchurch mosque shooter, Brandon Tarrant, was an active Steam user too.

German intelligence also named the instant messaging software Telegram, the video gaming messaging app Discord, and the imageboards 4chan and 8chan as hard-to-reach corners of the internet where far-right ideas and memes were spreading.

And this is to say nothing of the role of live streaming services like Twitch. 2,200 people saw Stephan Balliet’s 35-minute video documenting his crimes in Halle in real time before the company could take it down.

The video was posted to 10 white-supremacist Telegram channels, accessed there by tens of thousands of users, NBC News reported, and the video was still viewable on forums like 4chan even after Twitch removed it from their service..

The phenomenon of Nazi users poses a real problem for Valve, the company which owns and operates Steam. But so far they have only deleting users or groups en masse in response to specific investigations, such as when Vice uncovered the neo-Nazi organisation the Atomwaffen Division using Steam’s forums to promote its YouTube content.

In December 2019, the company shut down 50 accounts with usernames that included terms like “Führer”, “Holocaust”, und “Dr. med. Hitler vergast”, pledging to train moderators to better identify Nazi users and ban them from Steam.

Valve did not respond to the JC’s request for comment about the prevalence of Nazi-glorifying users on their site or what policies they had implemented in order to tackle the problem.

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