The new Twitter account looked like it came from a smiling blond woman who lives in D.C., retweeting neighborhood news about a Thanksgiving giveaway, a bald eagle sighting and bike lanes near Lincoln Park.
Then she finally sent the first tweet of her own: “HAPPENING NOW,” she wrote on Saturday. “About 500 men with riot shields are marching in #WashingtonDC.”
But this was not just a march on the National Mall, a common occurrence in a city accustomed to protests. The men were part of Patriot Front, a white supremacist group that rebranded after one of its members plowed his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville in August 2017, killing anti-racism protester Heather Heyer. And the Twitter account that announced the march wasn’t real, anti-hate group and disinformation researchers say.
The small march — about 100 people — and the attention it generated, experts said, displayed the ways hate groups such as Patriot Front use the nation’s capital as a backdrop for propaganda materials and manipulate social media to their advantage.
“It shows how a small troupe of fascists in uniform can … exploit the loopholes around a social media company like Twitter and absolutely make themselves look much more fearsome, look much more scary,” said Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter and spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, “and give themselves a much better shot at getting the mainstream coverage they so desperately crave.”
The group did not have a permit, according to National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst.
After the brief march, the Twitter account became overtly fascist, changing the display name to “Reclaim America” followed by a link to the websites of Patriot Front and another neo-Nazi propaganda site. The account is now suspended. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
But experts said violent, far-right extremists will continue to leverage social media while seeking recruits and in attempts to intimidate people across the country. The nation’s capital, experts said, remains an attractive location for these hate groups, as it has for generations, including when white-robed Ku Klux Klan members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925.
“Our nation’s capital, the optics of it are compelling. It’s about the entire country as opposed to any one community,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s very possible that Patriot Front will use the backdrop of the Capitol again in the future.”
The group also staged a march in Philadelphia on July 4 and one in Pittsburgh last month, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which studies online extremism. But on Saturday, they traveled from Virginia to the Mall, passing the Lincoln Memorial and marching to the U.S. Capitol, where its leader, Thomas Ryan Rousseau, gave a speech.
D.C. police confirmed that the Patriot Front group marched from Virginia to the Capitol and that officers monitored the protest to “ensure the demonstration remained peaceful.” There were no incidents or arrests, police said.
Rousseau, who grew up in the Dallas suburbs, participated in the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as a leader with Vanguard America. That group was one of the defendants in a recent federal civil trial. The jury listened to a deposition from Rousseau and specifically ordered Vanguard America to pay $1 million in punitive damages.
On Saturday, Rousseau and his men in khakis marched again, holding a banner that read “VICTORY OR DEATH.” They wore white neck gaiters to cover their faces, with many also wearing sunglasses, hats, brown boots and knee pads, according to videos posted in far-right chat rooms. They held shields and American flags, including some that were turned upside down on poles.
Their chants of “Reclaim America” over the weekend were similar to the 2017 torch-rally call in Charlottesville of “Jews will not replace us!” both stemming from the “Great Replacement Theory,” the conspiratorial idea of an engineered demographic replacement of White Christians that is frequently repeated by right-wing pundits such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
“What we saw in D.C. was an extension of an effort to remind Americans that the fight against white supremacy isn’t over,” Segal said. “We can’t just sit back and rest after a Charlottesville case. We can’t just sit back and rest after white supremacists are de-platformed. We have to recognize that the battle against white supremacists continues.”
Rousseau could not be reached.
A post-Charlottesville rebrand
Patriot Front’s name is an attempt to make its message more palatable to the masses after its group was associated with the Charlottesville murder.
Rousseau led members of Vanguard America in the streets of Charlottesville in 2017. Pre-march messages presented during the recent federal trial indicated that many in the group came for and plotted violence. Among those was James Alex Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi who marched with Vanguard before plowing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heyer.
Afterward, realizing it was detrimental to be associated with Charlottesville, Rousseau and his followers broke off, founding Patriot Front. The change came during upheaval in what was then the “alt-right” movement, as overwhelming public opinion condemned the neo-Nazis marching on the streets.
Since then, white supremacist groups have argued over the most effective way to spread their hateful messaging. For Patriot Front, that has mostly been through distributing fliers and posters.
There were more than 5,000 cases of white supremacist propaganda in 2020, a near doubling from the prior year, the ADL found. The Patriot Front accounted for more than 80 percent.
Their messaging includes the American colors of red, white and blue and a manifesto with photos of Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, in a warped view of patriotism that calls for an all-White ethno-state.
Although the group proudly declares its beliefs online, members hide their identities and use more stealth tactics, said Megan Squire, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. This came after anti-fascist activists identified many neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville through photos and crowdsourcing on social media.
If Rousseau does plan a rally, it is often unannounced, such as the one in D.C. over the weekend. Members cover their faces to avoid being doxed, or having their identities publicly revealed, and even refrain from telling others their real names. And Squire said Rousseau has set up multiple different chats after a hack of the main Unite the Right rally planning server was used as evidence in court.
This paranoia came after the public blowback to the Unite the Right rally, Squire said, showing the ways hate groups and leaders like Rousseau took some lessons from four years ago and apply them today.
“None of that happened until the massive public blowback after Unite the Right,” said Squire, also a computer science professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism. “They’re scared and they’re prioritizing security over recruitment, security over propaganda. And they’re sort of marginalized now and having to do these kind of tiny little stealth rallies.”
Organizing for optics
At least 1,500 people retweeted the fake account “reporting” of the march, according to an archive of the Twitter account. The message was amplified — and in that way, experts said, it was a success.
At the same time, the media arm of another white supremacist organization embedded with Rousseau’s group. They shot videos and posted them in far-right chat rooms.
“Thomas, why are we marching in D. C.?" the person behind the camera asked.
“Our demonstrations are an exhibition of our unified capability to organize, to show our strength not as brawlers or public nuisances,” Rousseau replied, “but as men capable of illustrating a message and seeking an America that more closely resembles the interest of its true people.”
On Telegram, a social media app favored by far-right extremists, Patriot Front called their members “activists” and touted their ability to march “across the Potomac, through Washington DC … with peaceful and orderly conduct before their full, safe departure.”
Rousseau’s supporters, including Mike Peinovich, more commonly known by his pseudonym “Mike Enoch,” a popular far-right podcast host, praised the rally. But many other right-wing figures had their doubts.
They alleged, without evidence, the men with their faces covered were actually federal agents and the entire rally was an FBI trap, experts said, illustrating the true failure of the propaganda effort: The very people they hoped to recruit doubted the event was even real.