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Inside the great social media divide over the Oregon standoff

Our digital lives mirror the ever-growing radicalism of our beliefs.


Gillian Branstetter


Before a group of heavily armed and well-supplied survivalists—dubbed by Twitter as #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS—took over the offices of a wildlife reserve in rural Oregon over the weekend, you probably hadn’t thought much about militias. These paranoid, anti-government groups of scared, mostly white gun owners are perhaps the most fringe element of the conservative movement in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the growth and development of hate groups in the United States, has cited record recruitment since the election of President Barack Obama and claims the last peak was 1996, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing by anti-government lone wolf Timothy McVeigh brought such ideals to front pages in horrific fashion.

The rise of such far right organizations should be one of the most frightening features of American life, and it’s happening right in your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Just as these tools have helped African-Americans rightfully fight the very real inequalities of the justice system, they are allowing a delusional and dangerous minority of conservatives to take real action against the perceived threats of “white genocide.”

Far from connecting us, the Internet divides us—or, rather, we use it to divide ourselves. Much has been made of “filter bubbles,” a term coined by Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser to describe the way search and news aggregation algorithms restrict our viewpoint by giving us what we want. The more we consume our news and seek information online, says Pariser, the less likely we are to confront new ideas or counterarguments to our assumptions.

What this makes for is an environment that can foster hatred with impunity, but the degree to which that happens is far from even-keeled.  

This makes for thickly divided spheres of discussion online, such as those seen after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided against charging Police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Statistician Emma Pierson analyzed the thousands of tweets sent out in response to that decision and found two nodes of conversation—one in favor of the decision and one against—with little to no peaceful interaction. Pierson describes the divide as “two groups of people who rarely communicate, have very different backgrounds, think drastically different things, and often spray vitriol at each other when they do talk.”

What this makes for is an environment that can foster hatred with impunity, but the degree to which that happens is far from even-keeled. As many have pointed out since the shootings at a South Carolina church last June, a Colorado Planned Parenthood last November, and Donald Trump’s call for a ban on all entry of Muslims into the country, the greatest terror threat facing the United States are not ISIS-inspired extremists. The most likely terrorists to act in the U.S. are well-armed, white conservatives spurred on by immigration policies, an African-American president, and the dog whistle politics of Republican leaders.

The protesters who say they will occupy the Oregon wildlife reserve office “for years” claim they have been called to action by the injustice against Dwight and Steve Hammond, father-and-son ranchers called back to prison for setting a controlled burn on federal land that bordered their own. Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward has called this bluff, writing in a statement: “These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.” Even the ranchers supposedly at the center of this controversy have written of their lack of want for a standoff alongside their own intent to surrender.

These movements, whether they know it or not, are the product of a digital culture which does for conservatives what Fox News has done for years, only without the editorial oversight of production managers, reporters, and hosts. 

We saw such coverage techniques during the 2014 standoff over the Bundy ranch. Despite the insistence of the self-appointed guards and snipers preventing federal officers from reclaiming federal land Cliven Bundy used for cattle grazing, it was clear the incident was not a libertine protest of government overreach but merely an opportunity for a frightening and growing movement to show off its muscle and willingness to escalate conversation into action. This was abundantly clear from the coverage of conservative talk show hot Sean Hannity, who seem to treat the gun-heavy strong-arming as yet another Tea Party rally.

The rise in such militias since 2008 has long held the hand of a conservative movement less afraid of its own racism. The candidacy of Donald Trump, who uses white nationalism like a clown might use a cream pie, has brought into daylight the “Alt Right,” the self-adopted moniker for conservatives who feel the current Republican Party has been taken over by political correctness and weak-kneed capitulators. As Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray recently reported, the Alt Right is born out of the anything-goes mentality of 4chan and the darker corners of Reddit, but backs its message of racial purity and anti-governance with pre-Enlightenment thought and archaic ideals about traditional family life and the value of monarchies.

These movements, whether they know it or not, are the product of a digital culture which does for conservatives what Fox News has done for years, only without the editorial oversight of production managers, reporters, and hosts. Fox News fostered the Tea Party as a rowdy albeit peaceful movement against the government. The digital far right has no such hindrances, painting their movement as a struggle against cultural impurity and the chaos caused by multiculturalism and miscegenation.

The hostile takeover of a federal office in Oregon is not a peak for such militias but merely the next step towards real action, what Esquire magazine aptly called “armed sedition.” The central effect of our digital lives is the ever-growing radicalism of our beliefs. Bernie Sanders, the current second-place candidate for the Democratic Party is a self-avowed socialist, after all, and the Republican Party has spent years chasing its own base further and further to the right. The lasting effect of this won’t simply be increasing partisanship. The further we push ourselves to the ends of our political spectrum the more likely we are to push a paranoid, well-armed few over the edge. 

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Image via Cacophony / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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