Social media accounts affiliated with the Oregon occupation became a main line of communication between a crumbling clan and its curious followers. Occupiers asked for prayers and protection — and called on others to take up arms and join the fight.
On Tuesday, authorities pulled over several of the occupiers, including brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, whose father, cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, went head to head with federal agents in 2014 over a separate dispute.
During Tuesday’s arrest, Ryan Bundy was shot in the arm and LaVoy Finicum, a rancher who helped lead the group’s media campaign, was shot and killed, according to the Oregonian newspaper.
Finicum’s daughter, Thara Tenney, confirmed his death on Facebook, promising: “This fight is not over!”
“LaVoy Finicum has been murdered,” she wrote in the post. “LaVoy’s hands were in the air and he was shot in the face. Ammon Bundy reported there were 6 witneses. This evil doing must be told to everyone.
“We must all pull together and have our voices heard. Use your circle of influence to get the truth out.”
After the incident, it appeared that Finicum’s YouTube channel — which had once been used to promote calls to action — had been taken over by someone else inside the occupation.
“I hate to be the one to bring the bad news; I’ve been managing LaVoy Finicum’s YouTube page for a couple days,” a man said in a hushed voice. “Unfortunately, they say LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed.”
He continued: “Everybody that’s on LaVoy’s Facebook page, if you’re receiving this transmission, if you’re receiving this, you should call out for arms to help us. We need help. They’re probably going to raid us any minute.”
In another video, someone called out for “all patriots” to join the occupation.
“We’re prepared,” a man said. “We need people to come here. Send help, please.”
Long before Finicum’s death and the occupiers’ arrests, the social media apparatus affiliated with the Bundys had become a potent force — with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube serving as digital bullhorns through which to protest purported government land grabs, support local ranching and amplify calls for backup.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said the group has been especially “aggressive” in using social media.
“They’re savvy users,” she told The Washington Post. “They have used social media to raise money, get their message out and recruit people to come to the wildlife preserve.”
Many opposition groups worldwide have used social media to do the same — particularly Islamist radicals.
“Our domestic extremists are just as savvy about it,” Beirich said. “They really need the Web. They have to bypass the mainstream media to get their message out.”
Phil Howard, who teaches communications at the University of Washington and Oxford University, noted that social media is a critical tool for protest movements, allowing groups such as the Oregon occupiers to build communities and reach people they otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach.
“It’s very difficult to have a modern political movement without a social media strategy,” he said.
Howard said Ammon Bundy has been successful in reaching those who respect his mission.
“I don’t think he could achieve that goal just working with journalists,” he said.
The Bundys latched onto social media in 2014, when a longtime land dispute erupted into a confrontation between protesters and police, Beirich said.
They created a Facebook page, Bundy Ranch, to communicate their message.
By the beginning of this year, the Bundy clan was using Facebook again — this time to put the spotlight on Oregon, where they were protesting the criminal prosecutions of Dwight and Steven Hammond, father-and-son ranchers who were convicted of committing arson on public land in 2012.
Before the Bundy brothers and others took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month, they put out a call to arms.
“I know that we are to stand now, and that we are to do these things now, or we will not have anything to pass on to our children,” Ammon Bundy said in a Facebook video, posted Jan 1.
“I ask you now to come to Harney County to participate in this wonderful thing that the Lord is about to accomplish,” he added.
Over the past month, supporters on social media have encouraged them — and even others have joined the occupation in Oregon.
Then came Tuesday’s arrests and Finicum’s death.
Within hours, some people claiming to be close to the group began sharing conflicting accounts of what happened — and providing conflicting state-of-the-movement assessments.
“It’s over,” one said. “It’s time to move to the next stage.”
But as the FBI blockaded the wildlife refuge and urged the remaining occupiers to leave, a man appearing on a live video feed from the federal property called on supporters to join the cause.
“American people better wake up, get here and fight for your country,” he said.
“Right now!” he added. “It is on!”
Hours later, though, Ammon Bundy resurfaced the old-fashioned way: He released a statement, which was read to the media by an attorney outside a federal courthouse in Portland.
In his statement, Bundy attempted to cancel the call to arms and end the occupation.
“Please stand down,” the statement said. “Go home and hug your families. This fight is ours for now in the courts. Please go home.”
This post has been updated.