Since 2014, quite a few of us have been tracking the “Web of Hate” that connects far-right extremists. Since last year, we’ve gathered on this site to take a closer look at these extremists and the networks that connect them. And since March, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent violent reactions to the health safety shutdowns and the Black Lives Matter protests of this past summer have only made it more painfully obvious just how much of a crisis this truly is.
WARNING: This story contains adult language and discussion of violence and terrorism. Reader discretion is advised.
First, a quick review of the “Web of Hate” behind this ongoing violence
Back in “The Gateway” from August 2019, we examined how far-right extremists like the Las Vegas man who plead guilty (in February 2020) to planning attacks on a synagogue, the Nevada branch of the Anti-Defamation League, a local LGBTQ+ run business, and other organizations last year got sucked into far-right terrorist networks through seemingly “mainstream” online “shitposting”. Then in “Red Pill”, we noticed how the 2014 “Gamergate” coordinated harassment campaign was a major warning sign of the extremist violence that would unfold later that decade.
Of course, that wasn’t the only warning sign that materialized in 2014. At least two others emerged right here in Nevada: The Bundy Ranch armed insurrection against the federal government’s management of federal public lands in April of that year, and two Bundy Ranch expats’ assasination of Las Vegas Metro Police Officers Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo and civilian Joseph Robert Wilcox in June of that year.
The violence only continued to escalate in the Trump era, from Charlottesville (August 2017) to El Paso (August 2019) and many more tragedies in between. In “Chosen One”, we saw why President Donald Trump has become a key figure in the growth and ascension of American Fascism. And in “A Brief(ish) History of American Fascism”, we reviewed this country’s horrifying history of institutionalized racism that laid the foundation for Trump’s political career and so much of the violence we’re seeing now.
Yes, this is why that “protest” outside the Governor’s Mansion was so frightening.
In April of this year, about 100 far-right activists gathered within a block of the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City to echo Trump’s “liberating” rhetoric, and for some of them, wear military-style fatigues and brandish military-grade assault weapons just feet away from Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and his spouse Kathy. This was just one of multiple armed “protests” that emerged across the country while Trump began to agitate against multiple Governors’ health safety rules meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
As dangerous as the Carson City “protest” appeared, an even more alarming scene emerged in Lansing, Michigan. At the time, it was more than disturbing enough to see these men storm the Michigan State Capitol with their guns, nooses, swastikas, and Confederate flags. But now, we also know that behind the scenes, they were developing a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D), possibly murder her, and incite the Second American Civil War that many in the extreme right militia movement have wanted for years.
This week, we’re learning that in addition to their attempt to kidnap Whitmer in Michigan, they also plotted to kidnap Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D). And contrary to “conventional wisdom” of such extremists solely operating in the deepest and darkest corners of the “dark web”, they were organizing and recruiting on Facebook. Even after Facebook removed one such group from its platform in June, they returned under different aliases but with the same message and goal in mind.
No really, this unfolded right under our noses. We just didn’t notice them on Facebook.
In June, three men were arrested on charges relating to their apparent plot to attack multiple targets in Southern Nevada, including the Black Lives Matter protests that launched following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other black Americans at the hands of police departments. We then began to learn more about the Boogaloo Bois, another far-right militia movement that these three men called home.
Like so many other elements of the extreme right, at first glance the Boogaloo Bois appear to be a bunch of edgelords who spend way too much time shitposting on Facebook and elsewhere online. But in reality, the Boogaloo movement is a much more cynical and dangerous network of extremists.
Though we can’t always tell whether or not the Boogaloo Bois have any one overarching doctrine or ideology to unite them all, it’s not hard at all to see why so many white supremacists have found a welcoming home in the Boogaloo movement. At its heart is an accelerationist mindset that encourages more violence in order to spark the Second Civil War. At its root is the same belief in the inherently racist Posse Comitatus principle that the Bundys used to justify their 2014 “Range War”, and that neo-Nazi militias use to justify their violent acts. (And by the way, it’s quite easy to find various Bundy Ranch pages on Facebook.)
Yes, Facebook really is this bad.
"All you need to do is have one person who snaps, one person who fires the gun, and it could lead to complete chaos. And Facebook is the fertile ground where that chaos is being sewn."@fadiquran pic.twitter.com/KRWaV3Kw4I
— The Real Facebook Oversight Board (@FBoversight) October 14, 2020
It’s easy for pundits to mock Hillary Clinton for saying Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “should pay a price” for undermining democracy, and it’s easy for them to chide Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) for using a Congressional hearing to grill Zuckerberg over his company’s monetization of international criminal activities. It’s much harder for them, and especially for so many of those who had the power to take on such international criminal activities, to come to terms with the full and ugly truth behind the glitzy and glamorous facade of “our new digital economy”.
In recent years a few incredibly intrepid journalists, such as Carole Cadwalladr at The Guardian and Robert Evans at Bellingcat and iHeartRadio, have uncovered a startling amount of disturbing activities happening on Facebook’s social media platforms, from far-right militias openly organizing on Facebook’s flagship platform to the incitement of the 2017-18 Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar (Burma).
Of course, no history of “Facebook’s dark side” is complete without recalling the Cambridge Analytica scandal that explains how Russia’s government used Facebook to infiltrate and undermine the U.S. and British governments. And of course, as we’ve documented in our complementary “This Week in Corona Scams” series, both Facebook’s flagship platform and Instagram have become “Info-demic” hotspots of propaganda and other disinformation designed to obscure the truth on COVID-19. And to be fully fair and accurate, it’s not just Facebook: It’s also happening on YouTube (which is owned by Google), Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, and elsewhere.
Why does any of this matter?
— Andrea Chalupa (@AndreaChalupa) October 14, 2020
Did we ever nail down whether Seal Team Six was, in fact, murdered as the president’s twitter account suggested earlier today?
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) October 14, 2020
There’s a reason why Trump and his campaign are spending so much time and money on Facebook. It’s the same reason why Trump is spending so much on YouTube ads. With Americans’ TV consumption increasingly streaming online and cutting that cable cord, it’s getting easier for people to bypass the typical flood of TV ads that defined the political landscape in the 1990’s and 2000’s. And especially now that our lives are increasingly being lived online, “Big Tech” conglomerates like Facebook and Google are becoming more important to our daily lives than ever before.
Of course, this also explains why multiple extremist groups use the major social media hubs, typically for initial “red pill” recruitment but sometimes even for higher-level organizing (as we can see with the Boogaloo Bois). It’s simply where they can find the most people.
This also shows us why online disinformation campaigns are more dangerous than ever before. How many people have already seen Trump’s mendacious attacks on vote-by-mail, and how many have seen state and local election offices’ rebuttals? How many people have already seen Russian operatives’ latest attempt to smear Joe Biden with “email leak” propaganda, and how many people have seen the far more accurate accounts of what Donald Trump, Bill Barr, Rudy Giuliani, and their apparatchiks have been doing on their globetrotting fishing expedition and grifting operation? How many people have already seen Trump’s retweet of an absolutely batshit and nonsensical Benghazi conspiracy theory, and how many have seen the fact check columns explaining that contrary to QAnon’s claims, Osama bin Laden and JFK Jr. really are dead?
Please stop with the guillotine memes. No really, this shit should scare the fuck out of all of us.
As someone who accidentally stumbled into digital journalism years ago, I’ve gradually come to know and love the journalistic way of searching for facts, verifying the facts, and reporting the facts. And over time, I’ve come to loathe the “meme culture” that our media landscape has gradually been devolving towards. It’s especially infuriating whenever I seek to fact-check the conspiracy theories that have come to dominate American politics in the Trump era, only to run into countless threads full of debates on whether “the left can’t meme”.
It only gets worse when I see the growing trend of select far-left networks countering far-right “meme culture” with their own take on “meme culture” that propagates violent imagery of guillotines, assassinations, and “revolution” as an excuse to recreate something on par with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution on U.S. soil. Even though this is absolutely not the “political revolution” that Bernie Sanders preached on the campaign trail, we nonetheless saw people use Sanders’ presidential campaign as an excuse to harass Culinary Union leaders and threaten violence against them in the final days before the Nevada Democratic Caucus.
Even though I myself experienced a tiny bit of that harassment during that stretch of post-caucus convention drama in 2016, I didn’t want to assume it was all that widespread of a problem in 2020 just because a few people would tell me about the ugly content they encountered on Facebook, on Twitter, and elsewhere online. But as we ended up witnessing early this year, the shocking news of the harassment campaign against the Culinary Union ultimately led to a much broader dissection of the larger “Bernie Bro”/“dirtbag left” movement where toxic behavior and rage-filled bigotry are spun as “revolutionary fervor”.
Has the “Web of Hate” already begun to entrap us all?
Tomorrow, @FBoversight will host an emergency board meeting at 12pm EST with @rashadrobinson @DerrickNAACP & others. Trump has openly incited armed militias. They are organizing on Facebook. It is imperative the company takes action now
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) October 14, 2020
Especially now, this truly scares me. We increasingly see real life events get distorted on social media, yet more people want to believe the social media distortions because they’re easier to access and easier to understand than our much messier and more complex real lives. Again, it often feels like “meme culture” really will mean the end of us…
Or will it? As easy as it is to just succumb to all this and subscribe to a fatalistic view of the future akin to the The Terminator series, Westworld, I. Robot, and our other favorite “robots take over the world” dystopian sci-fi stories, we really don’t have to.
We can choose whether or not we want a handful of “Big Tech” companies to consolidate so much power over our economy, our government, and our lives in general. We can choose whether or not we accept bigotry and violence as “politics as usual”. We can choose how we want the internet to fit into our daily lives. As easy as it is to give into fatalism, it’s much harder, but ultimately more productive and more promising as well, to realize the power we still have to rein in this “Web of Hate”.