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Here's Where The Threat Of Militia Activity Around The Elections Is The Highest

Oct 22, 2020
Originally published on October 25, 2020 11:49 pm

Five states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon — have the highest risk of seeing increased militia activity around the elections: everything from demonstrations to violence.

That's the conclusion of a new report by ACLED, a crisis-mapping project, and the research group MilitiaWatch. They worked together to map out potential hot spots for militia-style activities around the elections.

Their report looks at states where militias have had recruitment drives and training, where they have cultivated relationships with law enforcement and where there has been substantial engagement in anti-coronavirus-lockdown protests.

Those factors are local indicators of whether militia activity might occur. For example, cultivating relationships with police suggests that law enforcement might view the militia groups as helpful, rather than a threat. And anti-coronavirus-lockdown protests are linked to militia activity because many of those groups believe that the state doesn't have the authority to impose such restrictions.

The report comes out as the risk of political violence around Election Day by vigilantes or militia-style groups is increasing, researchers say. Far-right, militia-style groups have been busy this year: Their numbers are growing, their online chatter is increasing and their threats are becoming more specific.

"In the conversations that I observe, the heat is higher. The vitriol is greater," said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism and online spaces.

The range of real-world militia activities that could occur include everything from armed demonstrations to voter intimidation to violence. The rhetoric is heated, in part, because a mosaic of groups on the far right with different goals agree on one thing: that President Trump can lose the election only if it's rigged.

"There's circulation of rumors of left-wing intervention at the polls or in the election, which has led to individuals and militia groups discussing primarily showing up armed at the polls, like to see if there's anything suspicious or what they deem suspicious," said Hampton Stall, the founder of MilitiaWatch, which tracks the right-wing militia movement.

The commentary and planning are getting harder to track online. Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on militia-style groups, but such groups have moved the conversation to other places. Those places include social media networks that are more permissive with the groups' content and discussion boards where militia members can meet and organize.

"It becomes a lot harder for people like me and my colleagues to track them, because we watch them kind of splinter into other places," said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The threats by militia-style groups have been growing in number, vitriol and specificity — culminating in things like the alleged plot by six men in Michigan to kidnap that state's governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

"There's a lot more worst-case-scenario thinking that is leading to fantasizing about violence and very real militarized action that hasn't really been as widespread in the militia movement as it is now," said Stall.

A patchwork of federal and state laws against voter intimidation exists to protect the process.

And voting rights activists say they worry that the attention generated by the militias could depress voter turnout. They say that even if there is an increased risk of militia activity, it is important to keep it in perspective.

The risk, says Gerry Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, is that people may be afraid to go to the polls if there is too much hype around militia rhetoric.

"It is designed to maybe keep people from showing up because they fear that there might be some activity, when, in fact, it's just a chilling commentary," he told NPR.

All of this adds to the tensions in an already deeply contested and divisive election season.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How concerned should we be about the possibility of political violence after Election Day? Some experts are watching online chatter and see some people arguing for people to show up armed at the polls. NPR's Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Far-right militia-style groups are busy this year. Their numbers are growing, their online chatter is increasing, and their threats are becoming more specific. Megan Squire is a computer science professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism and online spaces.

MEGAN SQUIRE: I would say the heat - in the conversations that I observe, the heat is higher. The vitriol is greater.

MAK: A mosaic of groups on the far right with different goals agree on one thing - that President Trump can only lose if the election is rigged. Hampton Stall is the founder of MilitiaWatch, a blog that tracks the right-wing militia movement.

HAMPTON STALL: So there's circulation of rumors of left-wing intervention at the polls or in the election, which has led to individuals and militia groups discussing primarily showing up armed at the polls to see if there's anything suspicious or what they deem suspicious.

MAK: A patchwork of federal and state laws against voter intimidation exists to protect the process. And voting rights activists say that even if there is an increased risk of militia activity, it is important to keep it in perspective. The risk, says Gerry Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, is that people may be afraid to go to the polls if there is too much hype around militia rhetoric.

GERRY HERBERT: It is designed to maybe keep people from showing up because they fear that there might be some activity, when, in fact, it's just a chilling commentary.

MAK: But the commentary and planning is getting harder to track online. Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says that while Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on these groups, they've moved the conversation to other places.

CASSIE MILLER: You know, it becomes a lot harder for people like me and my colleagues to track them because we watch them kind of splinter into other places.

MAK: Other places like fringe social media networks that are more permissive of their content and to discussion boards where militia members can meet and organize. It's hard to predict how much online threats could spill into real world violence, but there are efforts to assess the risk of militia activity. ACLED, a-crisis-mapping project, teamed up with MilitiaWatch to map out potential hotspots for militia-style activities around the elections. The report, exclusively obtained by NPR, looks at states where militias have had recruitment drives and training, where they have cultivated relationships with law enforcement and where there have been substantial engagement in anti-coronavirus lockdown protests. They assess that five states - Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon - have the highest risk of seeing increased militia activities around the elections, everything from demonstrations to potential violence. Stall, who worked on this report, said one of the reasons he is so alarmed now is because of how the members of militias are talking.

STALL: There's a lot more sort of worst-case-scenario thinking that is leading to fantasizing about, like, violence and, like, very real militarized action that hasn't really been as widespread in the militia movement as it is now.

MAK: The threats by militia-style groups have been growing in number, vitriol and specificity, culminating in events like the alleged plot by six men in Michigan to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. All of this adds to tensions in an already deeply contested and divisive election season. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.

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