The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Men wearing Hawaiian shirts and carrying guns add a volatile new element to protests

Demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A Tampa television reporter was broadcasting live from protests last weekend when two young men in Hawaiian shirts moved in front of the camera and began chanting the name of an obscure white nationalist group, drowning out protesters shouting “No Justice, No Peace!”

The incident was one of a growing number in which far-right extremists who once organized mainly online have been inserting themselves into the real-world protests roiling much of the nation, sowing confusion about the nature of the protests and seeking attention for their causes.

They’ve appeared, sometimes carrying assault rifles, at protests in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia and dozens of other cities, often wearing Hawaiian shirts — a seemingly goofy uniform that, within the ranks of their movement, signals adherence to a violent, divisive, anti-government ideology.

This increasingly visible spillover from radical online forums has alarmed researchers, who for months have tracked surging support for groups advocating armed rebellion as their conversations have spread from fringe platforms such as 4chan and Gab to mainstream forums on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube. The largest groups have hundreds of thousands of followers.

These groups have displayed a flexible ideology, espousing gun rights in Richmond in January, opposition to government public health restrictions in several state capitals in March and April and, over the past week, resistance to police brutality against African Americans, though the goal in some cases may be mainly to distract attention from those causes, according to recent research.

Some far-right groups have purposefully sown confusion by impersonating left-wing activists, adding chaos to already turbulent days of protests in which local officials have blamed unnamed outsiders and left-wing groups for the mayhem.

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Late Monday, Twitter announced that it had suspended an account for a purported radical left-wing group, @ANTIFA_US. Those behind the recently created account, which had been suspended after tweeting calls for violence during the protests, had ties to a white nationalist group, Twitter said. The company also suspended another fake Antifa account, after a far-right group claimed it had created it to infiltrate the movement.

Researchers have struggled since these movements emerged online last year to determine whether they represent a gonzo, self-consciously ironic exaggeration of long-standing far-right ideologies — perhaps confined to mere online bravado — or something more dangerous. Their appearance at recent protests, often with weapons, have convinced those who study radical online groups that there is growing potential for real-world violence, as well as a knack for using events to spread incendiary ideas.

“There’s a violent spear tip of people who take this way beyond a joke,” said Joel Finkelstein, director of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks the spread of online hate and published a report on the far-right groups on Tuesday. “There’s a ready made audience for the violent actors to get out of hand.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Sunday tweeted an Associated Press photo showing two white men atop an overturned police car in Salt Lake City, both holding what appear to be assault rifles. Spray painted on the side of the car is “4 George,” an apparent reference to George Floyd, the unarmed African American whose killing at the hands of Minneapolis police last month sparked the recent unrest. One of the men standing on the vehicle in the photograph was wearing what appeared to be hunting garb. The other was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, as was a third man filming the activity.

“Look at this photo, and using simple common sense ask yourself are these “protestors” in Salt Lake City: A. Outraged by racial injustice in America; or B. Domestic extremists taking advantage of protest to further their own unrelated agenda,” Rubio tweeted.

Federal authorities file charges against 3 alleged Boogaloo followers in Nevada

His point fits with a range of recent research on far-right extremist movements, including Tuesday’s Network Contagion report, “Covid-19, Conspiracy and Contagious Sedition,” which detailed the rising prominence of such groups. It concluded that a constellation emerging in what the report called “the Milita-Sphere” are coalescing around gun rights, anti-government messages and threats of violent action, often infused with the false claims of conspiracy theorists such as QAnon.

The report found evidence of rising militarism among followers of QAnon, which once spoke cryptically of shadowy forces within the federal government. Now many adherents describe themselves as part of a “Qarmy,” a term whose use doubled on Twitter in 10 days recently, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute. The researchers also found an explosion in the use of military badges and revolutionary flags online and in real-world protests.

Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy, said Boogaloo group members had shown particular ability to insert themselves into events started by others, a tactic called “stream sniping.” Common in the world of Internet gaming, it refers to interrupting someone else’s live stream to bring attention to yourself and to provoke authorities to appear on the scene.

“Extremists across the ideological spectrum exploit poor governance and state fragility. We know this from the history of terrorism around the world,” said Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorism and a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. “We can expect, based on recent U.S. history, that hard-left groups, hard-right groups and international actors will try to exploit this tragically chaotic moment.”

Boogaloo Bois seek a new civil war

Adherents of one particularly radical fringe group, which goes by Boogaloo Bois and several similar names, openly anticipate a civil war. The term Boogaloo comes from a 1984 break dancing movie, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” considered all but indistinguishable from the original, much as adherents claim a coming civil war will serve as a repeat of the one that occurred in the 1860s.

The Boogaloo were the first to don Hawaiian shirts as symbols of their extremist ideas. As social media companies cracked down on their posts for violating various policies, the supporters adopted new names and images to avoid detection, such as “Big Igloo,” “Boojahadeen” and “Big Luau.” The latter gave rise to wearing the distinctively patterned shirts.

Researchers are uncertain what role these groups have in the violence that has exploded across dozens of U.S. cities in recent nights, but they cite worrying signs. These include the seizure by Denver police last week of guns and ammunition from a man who said he was inspired by the Boogaloo but kept the weapons for sport shooting.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors in Nevada charged three men with terrorism offenses, saying they plotted to use Molotov cocktails and explosives to spark violence at protests over Floyd’s death. Prosecutors said the three — Stephen T. Parshall, 35, Andrew Lynam, 23, and William L. Loomis, 40 — were members of the “Boogaloo” movement.

“It’s getting a bit more real. In that mix there are always people who are taking it very real and very seriously,” said Devin Burghart, president at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a group that tracks far-right movements. His group has tracked the presence of far-right militias and Boogaloo-related groups at 40 protests related to the Floyd killing across the United States.

The Tech Transparency Project, an advocacy group critical of the tech companies, has reported that Boogaloo groups are especially active on Facebook, where at least 125 operate. More than half of those groups have been created since January,

Reddit shut down several Boogaloo-related communities in February and another set in May, said company spokesman Anna Soellner, for inciting or glorifying violence.

But the Boogaloo and their messages remain easy to find on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and the messaging platform Telegram.

Twitter became a major vehicle for misinformation about unrest in D.C.

On Telegram, a platform with limited moderation efforts, several accounts that were posting using the #DCBlackout hashtag had previously used derogatory language to describe African Americans and Jews, according to Eric Feinberg, vice president of content moderation at Coalition for a Safer Web.

Since the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, a march organized by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in which a counterprotester was killed, Facebook has banned groups dedicated to hate and white supremacy.

Facebook spokeswoman Sarah Pollack said that the company had already removed many of the accounts in the reports cited by The Washington Post, and had updated its policies as well.

“We already removed accounts referenced in both reports and last month we updated our policies to prohibit the use of these terms when accompanied by statements and images depicting armed violence. We are removing posts that violate our policies and preventing pages and groups from being recommended on Facebook,” she said.

Twitter’s hateful-conduct policy bans direct attacks or promoting violence on the basis of race, ethnicity and other protected categories, and bans accounts whose primary purpose is to cause such harm, the company says. Twitter spokesman Brandon Borrman said that the company views the term “boogaloo” as a form of free expression, and would not remove accounts on their use of the term alone. However, the company had suspended many accounts associated with the term because those accounts had broken other rules, such as spam or trying to get around a previous suspension.

Far-left or far-right agitators?

The protests, which began peacefully last week but have taken violent turns in recent days, have attracted a wide range of people motivated by their outrage at yet another police-involved killing of an unarmed black man. But state and local officials have complained that outsiders with more nefarious motivates are infiltrating the protests and driving at least some of the violence.

President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr have blamed far-left extremists for this escalating violence, but the far right also has spread disinformation online and encouraged followers to take violent action against both protesters and the police, according to experts and posts on Telegram, which is popular with some extremist groups that organize and spread messages privately.

Far-right groups also are using social media to exacerbate tensions between law enforcement and protesters, urging their members to hurl molotov cocktails and fire weapons as protesters gather to encourage a police counterattack. One Telegram group, Eco-Fascist Central, with about 2,500 subscribers, on Sunday called on members who encountered rioters to either attack them or “keep your mouth shut and start handing out pamphlets on how to make napalm, molotov cocktails, [and] slam bangs.”

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Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst and the co-founder of SITE Intelligence Group, said the far left has bad actors but that the far right is more cohesive and stages attacks on people as opposed to the far left’s targeting of buildings.

Among those seeking to exploit the recent protests are neo-Nazi groups, which Katz said are “using these tumultuous times to incite terrorist attacks and recruit. Recent days have included discussions on how many synagogues they can attack while most police, firefighters, and paramedics are being tied up in rioting cities.”

The tactics of the far-right extremists are the latest attempt to “accelerate” violence between police and protesters — an idea embraced by those who call themselves “accelerationists.” Their goal is a race war that would lead eventually to the disassembling of the government through violent struggle, according to Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League.

“Extremists of all kinds never miss an opportunity,” he said.

Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.