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How Online Extremists Could Interfere With the Election

As the presidential election draws closer, online extremists are restive. From private Facebook groups devoted to the QAnon conspiracy theory to alternative social media sites colonized by white supremacists to Telegram group chats for anti-government militias, far-right chatter has risen to a constant hum. Some groups talk endlessly about unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and the corrupt Democrats supposedly behind it. Others agitate and try to stir people into joining the Army for Trump, a Republican poll-watching effort widely criticized as voter intimidation that has already recruited thousands. Some call for an armed rebellion if President Trump were to lose the election, often via meme. Others actually organize paramilitary training exercises. You could spend days or weeks trying to get to the bottom of what’s a genuine threat and what’s just bravado. Trouble is, there is no bottom.

Experts are concerned about what extremists might do during and after the election, and for good reason. President Trump has constantly stoked paranoia about the election’s legitimacy, and, when asked to condemn the Proud Boys and white supremacists on national television, he told them to “stand back and stand by” instead. Proud Boys took the phrase as a (thinly) veiled endorsement of their violent confrontations with progressive protesters, plastered it onto their merch, and talked about being foot soldiers of the Trumpian revolution. And the Proud Boys are just one of the internet’s many far-right factions. Some camps say they want Trump in the Oval Office because he’s “pro-white,” others because he’s a political outsider, and still others because they believe he’s the kingpin of a grand plan to arrest a cabal of Democrat sex traffickers. Regardless of reason, they all say they’re willing to take action to ensure he stays there. Now the question becomes whether these actions could be dangerous, let alone work.

First off, let’s take it as a given that Proud Boys will not be capable of mounting a coup if Joe Biden were to win the election. “You can’t be loud and obnoxious if you want to overthrow the government. They’re young and disorganized. They’re foot soldiers to nowhere,” says Shannon Reid, who researches street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte. Media narratives around the Proud Boys might make it seem like they’re a national organization, but in practice, they are not. “People have the same misperception about the Proud Boys that they do about the Bloods or the Crips,” Reid says. “[Individual groups] might have a similar name, but the chances of them talking to each other and coordinating are minimal.”

More realistic risks are rioting and other forms of localized violence, and voter suppression via misinformation and intimidation. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election and 2018 midterm elections, far-right extremists (unwittingly or otherwise) became megaphones for foreign actors, notably Russian operatives working for disinformation-producing “troll farms.” They spread hashtags and posts that promoted voting on the wrong day, adopted false identities online and used their platform to discourage voting at all, and bought ads to promote those ideas on social media. “The overarching theme is race,” says Dhanaraj Thakur, research director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, noting that many of these efforts to discourage or misinform voters targeted Black and Latinx communities specifically. “It’s too early to say if they’ll use the exact same techniques this election,” Thakur says. “But we have no reason to believe that they wouldn’t.”

The months around the 2016 and 2018 elections also saw sharp spikes in hate crimes and militia groups like the Oath Keepers organizing armed poll-watching operations. Will November 3, 2020, see more of the same? “I don’t see why they wouldn’t do that again,” says Sam Jackson, author of Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group. Of course, potential for violence doesn’t have to be organized to be a concern. “I think most of what is going on right now is more on the conspiracy-theorizing and venting side of the fence, but as we have seen before, there are frequently under-the-radar loners and cells who will direct their aggression toward those identified as legitimate targets,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

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In addition to the tactics researchers observed in 2016 and 2018, the peculiarities of 2020 have created new worries, like the Army for Trump. According to watchdog group Media Matters for America, the poll-watching effort has been heavily promoted across the far-right internet. (On thedonald.win, the off-platform rebrand of the notorious subreddit r/The_Donald, the organization was promoted over 1,000 times in two days.) “In private and closed Facebook groups that QAnon has repackaged themselves into, people are announcing that they have successfully become poll watchers or election judges and are encouraging others to join up and reach out to them directly if they want to walk through the process,” says Angelo Carusone, Media Matters’ president. “That would allow them to infect the conversation by making claims from a position of more authority, and that’s so toxic.” Carusone is also concerned about online harassment and doxing of election officials (think: the Brooks Brothers riot as done by 4chan). So experts won’t give you hard answers about what is to come, but their forecasted fears are pretty specific.

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