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Online activists accuse former BU student of involvement with neo-Nazi, white supremacist group

Twitter thread investigating a Boston University student for neo-Nazi beliefs
A former Boston University student was accused by online activists in a Twitter thread Thursday of being involved in neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups. ILLUSTRATION BY HANNAH YOSHINAGA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Online activists accused former Class of 2024 College of Arts and Sciences student Steven Van Zelst of allegedly engaging in hate groups centered on Nazism, racism, anti-semitism and misogyny in a Twitter thread and article posted Thursday.

Under the online pseudonym “Vlood,” Van Zelst is alleged to have promoted Nazi ideology and Holocaust denial, along with explicit comments about race, terrorism and sexual abuse. He is further alleged to have taken part in acts of vandalism and hate crimes by graffiting swastikas as a member of the Nationalist Social Club, or NSC-131 — a Massachusetts-based hate group.

NSC-131 is an organization centered around forming an underground network to engage in street-level actions, such as propaganda and protesting, as well as vandalism to oppose the “extinction of the white race,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Boston University spokesperson Colin Riley said he could only confirm that Van Zelst was no longer attending BU.

“The only thing I can say, because privacy reasons, is that he’s not currently a student and hasn’t been since December 2020,” Riley said.

In a photo posted to Twitter, Van Zelst — whose face is obscured — allegedly appears posing in front of a graffitied wall that reads “F— BLM and ANTifa” and “Join Your Local Nazis,” along with two swastikas. The person photographed is also seen holding up the “white power” symbol: the OK gesture.

“Garfield but Anti-Fascist”is the handle of an anonymous online researcher — whose identity has been verified by The Daily Free Press — posted the Twitter thread and collaborated with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network to write the article that followed. They said the information surrounding Van Zelst’s actions was collected by infiltrating these groups.

“There was a number of publicly available leaked chats, and then an archived chat that we were sent anonymously as a tip, which we did verify,” Garfield said. “We gradually went from there to find out more about the full scope of Steven and his activities in the online neo-Nazi community.”

Garfield, who focuses primarily on exposing alt-right — a white nationalist movement — members, said the information they discovered was especially startling when considering Van Zelst’s age.

“That was one of the most disturbing parts of the research,” they said. “This kid was literally 16 years old and talking about how Hitler was his hero.”

Garfield added the extent of Van Zelst’s commitment to these beliefs was evident by what he had said in these chats.

“He indicated that he had read several works of neo-Nazi literature that were both four or five hundred pages each,” Garfield said, “but you don’t just do that in a few weeks.”

While they do not know exactly how Van Zelst entered these circles, Garfield said it is common for his demographic to be targeted.

“The extreme right preys on young people like this,” they said, “because young teenage men are demographically probably the easiest to recruit to these groups and to these extremist online subcultures.”

Van Zelst allegedly had a run-in with police and narrowly escaped hate crime charges following an alleged incident where he graffitied swastikas and hate slogans in Sommerville.

There are currently four known neo-Nazi or white nationalist groups active in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Garfield said they believe NSC-131 is dangerous and Van Zelst’s involvement is of serious concern.

“They have access to weapons and they really like to post about how they train with weapons,” they said, “which is concerning, given the point that they want to violently create a white ethnostate.”

Garfield said while there was no way of knowing how prevalent involvement with these groups is at BU and other colleges, they are aware of how the extreme right targets universities around the country.

“I know neo-Nazis explicitly try to target college campuses,” Garfield said. “Putting up posters and stickers on campus, both as an act of intimidation to what they perceive is the Marxist liberal elite, or whatever they perceive it as, as well as to recruit disillusioned angry young people.”

A former friend of Van Zelst’s, who requested to remain anonymous, has known him since they attended the same elementary school and said the allegations, while shocking, did not surprise them.

“He’s a smart person honestly, I mean academically he knew his stuff and he worked and he knew how to communicate with people,” they said, “but there was just something off sometimes with him when it would come to political topics.”

The acquaintance said while Van Zelst was usually very timid in person, he would often make “cruel” comments, especially online and over social media.

“It was just to such an extent because whenever there would be a dispute or something,” they said, “he wouldn’t be able to hold eye contact in real life.”

While they said they weren’t sure if all of the accusations are true, the former friend believes most of the claims seem accurate from what they know about Van Zelst.

“I definitely think the anti-Semitic stuff is true,” they said. “If I had to guess which part of it I think is the most accurate, it would be the anti-Semitic parts.”

The acquaintance said they believed greater access and prioritization of mental health issues by those around Van Zelst could have prevented him from developing extremist beliefs.

“I honestly feel like someone should have picked up on something,” they said. “I feel like there definitely had to have been some warning signs.”

They noted while they believe Van Zelst deserves consequences for his actions, they do not believe that alone will solve the problem.

“We need to ask what do we do when someone does something this horrible,” they said. “Because obviously he deserves to be severely punished, like severely, severely punished, but then what happens after that?”

The former friend said even though they do not condone Van Zelst’s actions, they do believe he and his family are not deserving of the death threats and related comments they have seen on social media.

“It is a human life at the end of the day, and I believe in the sanctity of all humans whether or not they are horrible or murderers or rapists or a great person,” they said. “I don’t think that sending him death threats or something to that extent would benefit anyone in any way.”

It’s important for people to be aware of Van Zelst’s story, they added, as a way of raising awareness of how people develop these extreme ideologies.

“I think if we make people aware of why this happened, it might help someone in the future,” they said. “It might, so I think it’s worth trying.”

Van Zelst and his family could not be reached for comment.


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