Just before Jan. 6 when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington D.C., Alexander Reid Ross examined follower counts for several Telegram accounts used by white supremacists and eco-fascists to communicate. Since the Capitol riot — and with the shutdown of Parler, a favorite communication platform for the Proud Boys — subscribers to two Telegram chat channels increased by 69% and 83%.
Ross is a lecturer in geography at Portland State University and an expert in white supremacism in the Pacific Northwest as well as the international fascist movement. He discussed what his findings mean, what impact regulating these communications spaces might have on the movement and how events in Oregon are impacting the far-right movement nationally.
Q: Since Jan. 5, you found that two Proud Boys channels on Telegram have increased in use by 69% and 83%. What are these channels used for?
Ross: It was actually two "Terrorgram" channels — this means that they are connected to a network of channels who promote accelerationist ideas of heightening contradictions in U.S. society in order to bring about a civil war, which ultimately would result in white nationalists taking power either over the whole of the country or in certain regions.
As he told the Washington Post, Salem, Austin, Sacramento, Richmond and Salt Lake City are all places where new demonstrations by these groups could become particularly unruly.
Q: Can you explain this sudden user increase?
Ross: The user increase really came as a result of disillusionment and desperation. As Trump and myriad fascist accounts were suspended from Twitter, Parler lost the support of Apple and Amazon, and even the more obscure DLive dropped white nationalist ideologues from their service. As well, news emerged that Parler's data security had been compromised, and the GPS coordinates of Parler users was leaked to the public by hackers. In a flight of rage, many far-right denizens fled to Telegram to find like-minded people and plot their next moves. This led to about a 5-10% spike in Telegram users, which was disproportionately reflected in the 15-20% spike felt across fascist terrorist channels.
Q: What does this finding tell you about the Proud Boys and how they might be shifting their organization?
Ross: The Proud Boys have by-and-large rejected "the political solution," and are now opposed not only to the Democrats and liberal democracy, in general, but even the Republican Party and Trump, himself. They believe that the Republicans betrayed Trump, particularly Mike Pence. In fact, a group of Proud Boys noted, after the January 6 Putsch, that they would have assassinated Pence had they found him. At the same time, Proud Boys feel betrayed by Trump for telling everyone to go home in peace, and later condemning violence.
Q: Did you find anything else related to the Proud Boys and their communication methods? A shift in rhetoric?
Ross: The real shift nationally could be felt during the weekend before January 6, when Proud Boys took to the streets of Salem and were rebuffed by the police. Their rhetoric swerved from "Back the Blue" to extraordinary hostility to the police over the course of a matter of hours, and this incident, which also involved a number of far-right militia groups, laid the groundwork for the fury that was unleashed against police on January 6 with Trump's full backing.
Q: What else do we need to know?
Ross: Some commentators have said that the more embarrassed and disempowered the far right feels, the more destructive they will become, but this is only half the story. The far-right has spun into a conspiracy theory-fueled spiral of mass violence. It has been building since the anti-lockdown protests last spring, and was boosted by violent anti-BLM counter-protests across the U.S. throughout the summer. Indeed, as the momentum of protests swung to the far right in late fall and into the winter, they simply became more emboldened to attack journalists, vulnerable populations and police. Their trajectory has been increasingly violent for weeks, which foreshadowed the January 6 conflagration.
The genie is out of the bottle, and the fact that they are being denied platforms for inciting and engaging in a putsch is not going to make them any worse than they already are. We have already seen what they do when they are empowered and emboldened, and it is good that more people are starting to respond, although it's hard not to imagine how much better things might be if the response had come earlier. So while we are likely to see more political violence resulting from chaotic entropy pursuant to the decay of the Trump coalition, this is a result of systemic problems that are internal to the far right's system (i.e., why they lost the election) rather than the consequence of external forcing. To put it more simply, the far-right took to the streets instead of the ballot box, and instead of losing graciously, they maintained the street energy in efforts to overthrow the state. Because although they call themselves "Patriots," they ultimately reject the post-war governmental system in the United States.