Can you imagine what a digital white ethnostate or a cyber caliphate might look like? Having spent most of my career on the inside of online extremist movements, I certainly can. The year 2024 might be the one in which neo-Nazis, jihadists, and conspiracy theorists turn their utopian visions of creating their own self-governed states into reality—not offline, but in the form of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs).
DAOs are digital entities that are collaboratively governed without central leadership and operate based on blockchain. They allow internet users to establish their own organizational structures, which no longer require the involvement of a third party in financial transactions and rulemaking. The World Economic Forum described DAOs as “an experiment to reimagine how we connect, collaborate and create”. However, as with all new technologies, there is also a darker side to them: They are likely to give rise to new threats emerging from decentralized extremist mobilization.
Today, there are already over 10,000 DAOs, which collectively manage billions of dollars and count millions of participants. So far, DAOs have attracted a wild mix of libertarians, activists, pranksters, and hobbyists. Most DAOs I have come across in my research sound innocent and fun. Personally, my favorites include theCaféDAO, which aims “to replace Starbucks” (good luck with that!); the Doge DAO, which wants to “make the Doge meme the most recognizable piece of art in the world”; and the HairDAO, “a decentralized asset manager solving hair loss.” But some DAOs use a more radical tone. For example, the Redacted Club DAO, which is rife with alt-right codes and conspiracy myth references, claims to be a secret network with the aim of “slaying” the “evil Meta Lizard King.”
The year 2024 might be one in which extremists start using DAOs strategically. Policies, legal contracts, and financial transactions that were traditionally the domain of governments, courts, and banks can be replaced with smart contracts, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and cryptocurrencies. The use of anonymous bitcoin wallets and non-transparent cryptocurrencies such as Monero is already widespread among extremists whose bank accounts have been frozen. A shift to entirely decentralized forms of self-governance is only one step away.
Beyond practical reasons that encourage extremists to create their own self-governed structures, there is an ideological incentive too: their fundamental distrust in the establishment. If you believe that the deep state or the “global Jewish elites” control everything from governments and Big Tech to the global banking system, DAOs offer an appealing alternative. Conversations on far-right fringe platforms such as BitChute and Odysee reveal that there is much appetite for decentralized alternative forms of collaboration, communication, and crowdfunding.
So what happens if anti-minority groups establish their own digital worlds in which they impose their own governing mechanisms? What are the stakes if trolling armies start cooperating via DAOs to launch election interference campaigns? The activities of extremist DAOs could challenge the rule of law, pose a threat to minority groups, and disrupt institutions that are currently considered fundamental pillars of democratic systems. Another risk is that DAOs can serve as safe havens for extremist movements by enabling users to circumvent government regulation and security services monitoring activities. They might also allow extremists to find new ways to fundraise, plan, and plot radicalization campaigns or even attacks. While many governments have focused on developing legal frameworks to regulate AI, few have even recognized the existence of DAOs. Their looming exploitation for extremist and criminal purposes is something that has flown under the radar of global policymakers.
Technology expert Carl Miller, who has long warned of potential misuse of DAOs, told me that “even though DAOs behave like companies, they are not registered as legal entities.” There are only a few exceptions: The US states of Wyoming, Vermont, and Tennessee have passed laws to legally recognize DAOs. With no regulations in place to hold DAOs accountable for extremist or criminal activities, the big question for 2024 will be: How can we ensure the metaverse doesn’t give rise to digital white ethnostates or cyber caliphates?