Conservative social media network Parler asserted in a letter to a Democratic lawmaker that the platform warned the FBI of “specific threats of violence” days ahead of the January 6 Capitol riot.
The letter, addressed to Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York on Thursday, said the platform reported these threats to the FBI more than 50 times, the Washington Post reported.
Parler, which advertises itself as a platform for unregulated language and “free speech,” said it alerted the FBI to posts containing specific references to the Capitol, according to the Post.
One post, published December 24 on the platform, was from a user who “called for the congregation of an armed force of 150,000 on the Virginia side of the Potomac River to ‘react to the congressional events of January 6th.'”
Another user allegedly wrote on the platform that a planned event on January 6 was “not a rally” and “no longer a protest,” lawyers wrote in the letter, according to the Washington Post.
“This is the final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill,” one user allegedly wrote, according to the letter. “I trust the American people will take back the USA with force and many are ready to die to take back #USA so remember this is not a party until they announce #Trump2020 a winner . . . And don’t be surprised if we take the #capitalbuilding” [sic].
Upon news that the riot breached the building, lawmakers began to shelter in place and many evacuated.
Parler, which has become a mainstay in alt-right communication, has been criticized and scrutinized for its alleged role in the Capitol riot.
As Insider’s Jacob Shamsian reported, Parler’s userbase is largely made up of far-right extremists. The Justice Department has previously said many of those extremists organized the violent events planned for January 6 using the platform.
In the days following the Capitol riot, Apple and Google app stores blocked Parler for violating terms of service. Amazon Web Services also dropped it. These actions effectively took the platform offline.
In February, the company announced that site was up and running with a Tea Party co-founder serving as interim CEO. Mark Meckler, an attorney, political activist, and founder of the Tea Party Patriots, replaced former CEO and co-founder John Matze, who was fired by the company’s board.
Parler has previously shared information with the FBI during the DOJ’s investigation into the Capitol riot. It’s not clear whether Parler handed over information to the FBI after the Department of Justice issued a warrant or subpoena for it or whether the company gave the information over of its own accord.
Parler, Maloney’s office, and the FBI did not immediately return Insider’s requests for comment.
Insider’s Jacob Shamsian contributed to this report.
“My kids have had a pretty progressive upbringing,” Joanna Schroeder told Insider. “So it was pretty shocking to me when I started looking over their shoulders to see that there was some really disturbing content showing up on their Instagram feeds.”
Schroeder, a parenting writer from Los Angeles, was troubled by the photos and videos being recommended to her two teenage sons on Instagram. “There was alt-right and borderline Holocaust-denial stuff, memes, showing up on there,” Schroeder said.
While Schroeder was shocked and appalled, the abundance of far-right content on the photo and video sharing platform is well-known to researchers.
Instagram has allowed itself to emerge as a fertile ground for extremist propaganda, experts on extremism told Insider.
“Instagram is actively pulling its predominantly young users down an extremist rabbit hole,’ Imrah Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, wrote in an email.
The rabbit hole, in some cases, leads to kids being introduced into neo-Nazi groups. So much so, in fact, that Instagram has become the primary platform for far-right groups to recruit vulnerable teenagers in recent years, several experts said.
‘A premium on recruiting youth is really standard’
Instagram has become the “platform of choice for young Nazis to radicalize teenagers,” according to the UK anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate’s annual report. Neo-Nazi groups are using it to prey on vulnerable young people and sign them up to their extremist causes, the report said.
In the past year alone, Hope Not Hate found that two violent far-right groups have used Instagram as their primary mode of recruitment. The British Hand and the National Partisan Movement – two UK-based extremist groups – actively recruited teenagers on the app, the study found.
Three teenage boys, all alleged to be members of The British Hand, are now facing trial on terrorism charges.
Similarly, in the US, a neo-Nazi group’s presence on Instagram led to two young men’s arrest. Both were involved in the hardcore, white supremacist Iron Youth group, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
One of the young men had shared Instagram posts urging fellow group members to kill Jewish and Black people, according to a court document.
“The idea that white supremacists and other far-right extremists would put a premium on recruiting youth is really standard,” the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism’s vice president, Oren Segal, told Insider. What is novel, he said, is how neo-Nazi groups are skillfully utilizing Instagram’s functions.
“Extremists never miss an opportunity to leverage their hateful ideas through the lens of the latest technology,” Segal explained.
Memes are an effective way to cloak more sinister views
The focus on visual media and the abundance of young users makes it “a great platform to push far-right propaganda which is stylized and punchy,” said Hope Not Hate researcher Patrik Hermansson.
The punchiest way to garner attention from young people is through memes, Hermansson said. “Memes are easily consumable and they are funny and they’re easy to share,” he added. “They spread quickly and it exposes a lot of people to them.”
Memes are also an effective way to cloak more sinister views under a layer of humor or irony, Hermansson said. “The humor makes them easier to swallow,” he added.
Some of the more inoffensive memes use characters popular with the alt-right – Doge, Pepe the Frog, Cheems – to articulate controversial sentiments.
“What many extremists have learned is that explicit expressions of hatred may not attract as many people as more subtle references,” the ADL’s extremism expert said.
“It’s a tried and true technique of how to win hearts and minds,” Segal added. “You don’t hit them over the heads with the hatred. You sort of slow roll that process.”
‘Instagram’s algorithm leads users down rabbit-holes’
The “slow roll” process, which gradually introduces youngsters to more troubling material, is enabled by Instagram’s algorithm, say experts. Liking a seemingly innocuous meme can, in turn, present the teenager with more radical content.
Schroeder saw this process unfold when she began to monitor her teenage sons’ Instagram use.
“A kid might like something edgy, Pepe the Frog or something, and that triggers the algorithm,” she said. ‘That then sends them tumbling down into anti-feminist, racist, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi type of content.”
While the Instagram algorithm is relatively opaque and constantly evolving, it is known that the Explore page is a curated page of recommended content. The content is chosen “based on an individual’s historical interactions,” according to social media marketing company Later.
Liking content relating to any form of misinformation – election, vaccination, or race-based – leads to anti-Semitic and extremist content being promoted to the user, it found. “Instagram’s algorithm leads users down rabbit-holes to a warren of extremist content,” the study said.
“Instagram’s algorithm actively seeks out individuals who have not yet engaged with the extreme or radical accounts, but who have characteristics that the algorithm determines may find it appealing and then serves it to them,” Angelo Carusone, president of the right-wing watchdog Media Matters, told Insider.
He believes that directing younger users to problematic users makes Instagram a recruiting sergeant for extremists.
“Instagram isn’t merely hosting the content; it is actively building extremist movements by recruiting new adherents into the fold and connecting them with like-minded extremists,” Carusone said.
Direct messaging can lead to ‘grooming’
The DM feature allows users to send a message to any other use of the app and facilitates sending messages en masse aiding the indoctrination process, said Hope Not Hate’s Hermansson.
“They [extremists] can directly get in touch with people and say, “why don’t you join my group?'”
This can lead to “grooming,” according to far-right researcher Miro Dittrich. “You see 30-somethings talking to 14-year-olds and kind of grooming them for the far-right ideology.”
It’s particularly hard for social media platforms to police private messages unless a user reports them, Dittrich noted.
While it is hard to moderate direct messaging, experts believe that moderation generally is insufficient on the apps.
“There’s the question of how long viral content can stay up on the platform and, therefore, be exposed to a lot of people,” Hermansson said. “On Instagram, it appears that it’s too long. We see recruitment accounts for fascist groups that stay online for two months.”
Instagram faces an even bigger challenge in spotting and removing harmful content published on Instagram Stories. The feature allows users to host videos for 24 hours before they disappear from a user’s profile.
“I think they definitely have a problem with Instagram Stories,” Dittrich said. “A lot more of the content that violates the terms of service is shared via Stories. I think that’s a really hard space to moderate.”
When accounts are locked, the content reaches fewer people but has less chance of being reported. “Accounts among the neo-Nazi radical front usually have a locked account, so it’s not easy for people to flag stuff. Only the inner circle is allowed in these spaces,” Dittrich added.
Parents have to warn their kids
Every expert Insider spoke to agreed that Instagram needs to speed up the moderation process and removing the odd post isn’t enough.
“You can’t just take down one player or delete one picture someone posted,” Dittrich said. “You have to analyze and see that this is a network that all post content that leads to offline violence and do a systematic takedown.”
Insider asked Instagram about its policy on extremist content but it did not respond to the request for comment.
The responsibility isn’t entirely on Instagram, Dittrich told Insider. It also falls upon parents to be aware of the sort of content that their kids are consuming.
Hermansson agrees. “I think the solution to these issues comes down to the parents and schools because they are the closest to the kids,” he said. “The more you know about the terminology and language of the far-right today, the easier it is to see the signs.”
Schroeder, who has taken it upon herself to learn how to protect her kids, said: “It’s like teaching your kids to swim or teaching them to dial 911. They have to learn critical media skills, and they have to learn how to sniff out propaganda.”
Timothy Hale-Cusanelli liked to impersonate Adolf Hitler. He would strut around his workplace sporting a Hitler mustache, spouting vicious anti-Semitism while his intimidated colleagues did not dare to confront him.
An Insider investigation can reveal what is shocking is that Hale-Cusanelli, a Navy contractor, held a secret-level security clearance at the Naval Weapons Station Earle and had received numerous honors for his service in the Army Reserves.
Hale-Cusanelli also has a history of arrests and antagonizing his local Jewish community, the investigation finds.
The insurrectionist’s disturbing world has only now come to light because he faces several criminal counts, including obstructing a law enforcement officer and civil disorder, relating to his role in the insurrection of January 6.
‘The makeshift weapon was inscribed with …. a drawing of a confederate flag’
Even the most cursory of background checks by the Navy or the Army would have revealed that Hale-Cusanelli began dabbling with white supremacist philosophy at least a decade ago.
Hale-Cusanelli lives in Colts Neck, New Jersey. He was arrested, nearby, in August 2010 on charges of unlawful possession of a weapon and criminal mischief, Howell Municipal Court records show.
According to a March court filing, the incident involved Hale-Cusanelli and a friend using a “potato” gun to shoot frozen corn at houses. The crude weapon used was inscribed with the words “WHITE IS RIGHT” and a drawing of a confederate flag, the documents said.
Hale-Cusanelli was found guilty of criminal mischief, paid a $180 fine, and the other charges were dismissed. But this was the first of many brushes with the law and early indicators of far-right views.
Run-ins with the police
Since his first arrest in 2010, Hale-Cusanelli has been charged over 30 times, according to court records.
Prior to the January 6 siege of the Capitol, court records show a string of minor infractions and some more serious charges – but no felonies.
In 2011, Hale-Cusanelli was arrested for stabbing another man in the abdomen, Asbury Park Press reported.
He was accused of an aggravated assault attempt, causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon, possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes, unlawful possession of weapons, and simple assault, Freehold Municipal Court records show.
“There was an altercation between his mother and her then-boyfriend who became violent when intoxicated,” Hale-Cusanell’s attorney wrote in the defendant’s motion for modification of bond. “Based upon information and belief, Mr. Hale-Cusanelli intervened to protect his mother and was subsequently arrested.”
The case was moved to the state Superior Court but records do not show that it resulted in a conviction.
A year later, Hale-Cusanelli was charged with breach of peace, found guilty, and fined $189, according to Howell Municipal Court records.
Hale-Cusanelli was arrested again in 2013 following an investigation into scrap metal theft, Freehold Patch reported in 2013. Most of the charges were dismissed but he was found guilty of loitering and failure to have his car inspected, Manalapan Municipal Court records show.
Hale-Cusanelli threatened Jews. He said he was going to show up at their homes on the Sabbath.
Between 2013 and 2020, Hale-Cusanelli added Jew-baiting to his resume of petty crime and delinquency.
He was found guilty and fined for littering on state property in 2014, according to Freehold Township Municipal Court records. He also pleaded guilty to driving an unregistered motor vehicle a year later, according to Mansfield Township Municipal Court records.
But a more serious charge against him emerged in early 2020. Hale-Cusanelli was reported to the police on two occasions for engaging in anti-Semitic harassment.
Members of New Jersey’s Jewish community had already felt the force of his Jew-hatred.
“Those who followed anti-Semitism in the area knew about Hale-Cusanelli,” a New Jersey rabbi, who wished to remain anonymous, told Insider.
The insurrectionist was a member of the ‘Rise Up Ocean County’ Facebook page – a controversial page rampant with anti-Semitism that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy eventually condemned.
In 2019, Murphy’s administration sent a letter to Facebook addressing concerns with “racist and anti-Semitic statements on the page, including an explicit goal of preventing Orthodox Jews from moving to Ocean County.”
Facebook eventually removed it.
During the height of its popularity, Hale-Cusanelli was ominously vocal on the ‘Rise Up Ocean County’ page.
The original group’s moderator, Richard Ciullo, told Insider that Hale-Cusanelli had made multiple “incendiary” comments on the page and was eventually banned. Insider has seen screenshots confirming Hale-Cusanelli’s involvement.
In February 2020, the insurrectionist got into an online argument with Jewish commenters.
“Hale-Cusanelli was making veiled threats, saying that he was going to show up to people’s houses on the Sabbath,” the New Jersey rabbi said.
One of the people impacted by the Facebook feud reported Hale-Cusanelli to the police for anti-Semitic harassment on February 29, 2020.
“Hale-Cusanelli made vague threats stating, ‘I’m not scared of people knowing my face, I’m happy to be a lightning rod. Make me famous as your own risk,'” a police report seen by Insider said. Hale-Cusanelli also included references to the individual’s address, it said.
A week later, another person reported Hale-Cusanelli for anti-Semitic harassment and cyberharassment.
Toms River Police Department confirmed both of these incidents.
County prosecutors were also aware of Hale-Cusanelli’s provocative anti-Semitic behavior. He was on their “radar,” a press officer at the Office of the Ocean County Prosecutor told Insider.
A social media troll
Hale-Cusanelli deleted his Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts in an attempt to “obstruct or destroy evidence” before his arrest, federal prosecutors said.
Insider, however, has seen verified screenshots of Hale-Cusanelli’s now-deleted Twitter posts. In one post, the insurrectionist refers to Jews as “locusts.” In another, he targeted New Jersey’s Orthodox Jewish community.
He used his Twitter account to promote his YouTube show, “Based Hermes,” which he also deleted after the Capitol riots.
However, special agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service were able to recover content relating to the show. One YouTube teaser, included in a court filing, showed the insurrectionist falsely claiming that Jewish people were behind 9/11.
Hale-Cusanelli’s lawyer, Jonathan Zucker, argued in the defendant’s pretrial release that the YouTube channel was “controversial” but was primarily about New Jersey politics. Prosecutors refute this.
Investigators also uncovered hundreds of anti-Black and anti-Semitic memes from his cellphone, the court filings show.
A 2019 photo of Hale-Cusanelli displaying the “OK” hand gesture – a hate symbol associated with the far-right and white supremacy – was retrieved too.
Several images of the young man sporting a Hitler mustache and haircut were also found.
Hale-Cusanelli received several honors for his service in the Army Reserves
These discoveries did not surprise Hale-Cusanelli’s co-workers at NWS Earle Security Forces.
Many who worked with him at the Naval base were aware of his anti-Semitic views, Insider previously reported.
One Navy Petty Officer said that it was “well-known” that Hale-Cusanelli did not like minorities or Jews. A Navy Seaman recalled an incident where he said that if he were a Nazi, he would “kill all the Jews and eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
An HBC contractor said that spoke about his “dislike of Jews every day” and that people were afraid to report him because he was “crazy.”
Despite a history of arrests and racist behavior, Hale-Cusanelli received several honors for his Army Reserves service.
He joined in May 2009 and is still serving in the 174th Infantry Brigade out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, an Army spokesperson said.
He has never been deployed but has received four Army awards; an Army Achievement Medal, an Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, and the Army Service Ribbon.
One honor bestowed upon him, the Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, is awarded for meritorious service. The criteria for receiving it are “exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity,” according to the Army’s website.
Insider, recognizing the discrepancy between Hale-Cusanelli’s problematic history and the criteria of this medal, asked the Army Reserves whether they were aware of his past behaviors.
“Sgt. Hale-Cusanelli’s leadership was not aware of his prior involvement with law enforcement, to include run-ins, arrests, or convictions, or of the videos posted on social media,” Simon B. Flake, the Army Reserve’s media chief, said.
Yet, despite the insurrectionist’s arrest for his involvement in the Capitol riots, he has not yet been discharged by the Army Reserves.
Flake told Insider: “The U.S. Army Reserve takes all allegations of Soldier or Army civilian involvement in extremist groups seriously and will address this issue in accordance with Army regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to ensure due process. Extremist ideologies and activities directly oppose our values and beliefs and those who subscribe to extremism have no place in our ranks.”
‘He was granted a secret-level security clearance’
Similarly, the Navy had a blind spot when it came to Hale-Cusanelli and employed him as a security contractor at Naval Weapons Station Earle. His open adoration for Hitler, his vocal racism and anti-Semitism, were no barrier to advancement, and he was granted a secret-level security clearance.
A secret-level security clearance allows individuals access to information which if disclosed without authorization could reasonably be expected to “cause serious damage to the national security,” according to the Code of Federal Regulations.
To receive this level of security clearance requires a background check and the provision of vast quantities of personal information. A history or pattern of criminality might raise concerns about granting security clearance but it is not an automatic disqualifier, according to Military.com.
Showing an “enthusiasm for another Civil War,” as federal prosecutors suggest the evidence indicates of Hale-Cusanelli, would almost certainly disqualify an individual from gaining clearance.
Since his arrest, Hale-Cusanelli has been “barred” from the naval base, according to federal prosecutors.
Insider contacted the Navy Office of Information to ask about Hale-Cusanelli’s secret-level security clearance in light of former arrests. The office confirmed receipt of the request for comment but did not provide one.
Extremism within US military ranks
Prior to Hale-Cusanelli’s arrest for his involvement in the Capitol riots, there were clues that he held a white-supremacist ideology and might later participate in a violent crime. These signs, however, were not picked up on by military officials.
Hale-Cusanelli was one of many active-duty military members involved in the deadly siege of the Capitol. Almost one in five rioters were active-duty members of veterans, Insider previously reported.
Parler will be kicked off Amazon’s web servers early Monday morning, forcing the controversial social networking site to go dark for at least a few days. But experts say that it’s unlikely to be the end of the platform.
Technology giants including Amazon, Apple, and Google have taken a flurry of actions against Parler since the insurrection at the US Capitol by a mob of President Donald Trump supporters. While the actions are likely to lead to a decline in Parler ‘s popularity, experts said the app isn’t necessarily dead in the long-term.
“It is realistic to expect that Parler will find another provider to host their services like AWS,” Max Aliapoulios, a computer science Ph. D candidate at New York University focused on understanding and mitigating socio-technical problems like cybercrime and online extremism, told Insider in an email.
“Probably not the end to Parler,” Carley wrote in an email to Insider. “They just have to find another server space.”
Parler grew to prominence by cultivating far-right audience
In the past few months, Parler has attracted a far-right conservative audience by pitching itself as a social network with minimal content moderation. The network appeared to play a crucial role as a meeting place for many of the insurrectionists who ultimately stormed the Capitol on January 6 in a rampage that left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer.
After Twitter banned Trump’s account on Friday, some top conservative figures recently announced they would be moving to the Parler app and encouraged others to do the same.
Now, the future is uncertain for the once hot social app. While it may not be dead, Parler appears to be on life support by no longer appearing on the Apple or Google Play app stores and now being kicked off of AWS’ servers. Amazon said it will boot Parler off at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday.
“This was a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the market place,” Matze said in a statement. “We were too successful too fast. You can expect the war on competition and free speech to continue, but don’t count us out.”
Plan to ‘rebuild from scratch’ could be a daunting task
Matze also said Parler could be offline for up to a week as “we rebuild from scratch.” It’s unclear what that would entail, or how reliant Parler was on AWS for cloud services and hosting. BuzzFeed News first reported Amazon’s decision to sever ties with Parler.
“Getting booted off AWS is virtually unheard of; when people leave intentionally the planning takes months; execution can take years,” Corey Quinn, chief cloud economist at The Duckbill Group wrote on Twitter.
Quinn said it takes time to move all the data from web servers, and other AWS offerings aren’t directly compatible with other servers. “Making what you built on AWS’s systems work elsewhere is super challenging,” he added.
Moving to a new provider typically takes months or years. Parler received about 30 hours of notice, Quinn said.
The platform said it had about 4 million active users as of November.
Beyond the problems of finding a new host, Parler could also face the challenge of actually running a profitable business.
Aliapoulios noted that Parler had been planning for months to launch an influence network – “basically just a portal for advertisers and influencers to make money,” he added.
“I think they may have a hard time finding enough companies, who want advertising on a site that is full of violent extremists, to offset the cost of their cloud provider bill,” Aliapoulios said.
But in the long-term, Parler may well survive given its existing popularity. Aliapoulios noted that other controversial sites like 8kun and Gab are still around. In fact, Gab said it was seeing a surge in demand over the weekend as other social media sites cracked down.
Being appointed as a US elector is often a once in a lifetime honor that politically involved citizens look forward to and celebrate.
But this year, a group of extremists who believe conspiracy theories that the election was rigged or stolen from President Donald Trump have dampened the experience by aggressively trying to intimidate electors not to vote for President-elect Joe Biden on Monday.
Electors Khary Penebaker, of Wisconsin; Van Johnson, of Georgia; and Mark Miller, of Michigan, are among those who were on the receiving end of some of the pressure in recent weeks. All three are Democrats, and say they won’t be swayed by the concerning behavior.
More than a month after most US voters cast their ballots in the 2020 election, the 538 electors will cast their vote to officially make Biden the next president. Americans don’t directly elect the president. The founders devised the Electoral College system whereby electors do. Most states use a winner-takes-all system to give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes in that state.
This year, electors are receiving threatening messages from Trump supporters
Penebaker, who’s also a vocal gun reform activist, told Insider that the threatening messages started coming as early as election night, and they were all on social media.
Most of them came from Trump loyalists using irrational logic to try to convince him that he should be a “faithless elector” by casting his ballot for Trump instead. Some messages said they didn’t believe Penebaker’s vote should count in the electoral college.
“What they failed to realize, No. 1, is that I committed to voting for Joe Biden as an elector. No. 2 is that I voted for Joe Biden in the primary as a citizen,” Penebaker said. “I’m a proud Democrat. The last thing I’m going to do is go against the things that I stand for just because of someone wants to harass me or come up with some crazy logic about why I shouldn’t.”
On Sunday, one man visited Penebaker’s personal Instagram page and posted a message on a photo of his son trying to pressure him to vote for Trump.
“I took my son to get a cool haircut, so I took the picture and put it on Instagram. This guy comes on and comments that I shouldn’t vote for Joe Biden,” Penebaker said. “I responded that, do you honestly think that behaving this way, commenting on my son’s picture, is a way to convince me to not to do something I want to do?”
While there were no direct threats in the notes to the three electors, the nature of them is concerning at a time when armed Trump supporters have surrounded the homes of Democrats and Republicans who they disagree with, the electors told Insider.
Mob-like protesters have targeted election officials and protested outside their homes
This month, mob-like protesters have targeted elected officials in several states.
In Michigan, dozens of armed protesters surrounded the home of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, screaming at her while she tried to watch a Christmas movie with her son, NPR reported.
They targeted her because of her role overseeing elections in the state.
“At least one individual could be heard shouting ‘you’re murderers’ within earshot of her child’s bedroom,” officials told NPR.
In Idaho, hundreds of anti-lockdown protesters gathered outside a county health district headquarters and at least three board members’ homes as the county considered changes to COVID-19 safety mandates.
A county commissioner had to leave the meeting early after she learned protesters were outside her house, where her 12-year-old son was home alone, the Idaho Press reported.
“While I would say the overwhelming majority of them wouldn’t do anything to us, I don’t think they’ll engage in any violence towards us, but those who are more extreme are the ones that will,” Penebaker told Insider. “They will take this all personally and believe that they have been robbed of something sacred.”
“Those are the people who are going to lash out in violence,” Penebaker, who is Black, added. “And the people that they are likely to attack are going to be people who look like me.”
Johnson, who is also the mayor of Savannah, Georgia, has also been targeted by extremists that he refers to a “Trumpocrats” in the last month.
“These are not Republicans as I’ve known,” he said.
Johnson, a former law enforcement officer, said the messages his staff has received haven’t been outright threats of violence, but that his office has increased security protocols to keep everyone safe.
“When it was announced I was an elector, we would get those little phone calls about, people just saying – I wouldn’t say threatening things – but certainly mean and inappropriate things,” Johnson said. “During the times we live in, anything is possible. You can’t take your personal safety for granted.”
In Michigan, Miller, a town clerk in Kalamazoo, said he heard from Trump supporters in the days after the election, but the emails have since stopped.
He told Insider that he’s aware of the potential for protests during the Monday meeting of the electors, but isn’t too worried.
“Several of us right immediately after the election received some emails from folks spinning wild conspiracy theories about Joe Biden and pedophile rings and all this kind of garbage, and telling us that we shouldn’t vote for him,” Miller said. “Yes, we did have situations in Michigan, in Lansing, with people showing up with long guns in protests against Gov. Whitmer’s measures against the virus. So it’s possible that people could show up, but I’m going to trust that our security will be taken care of, and I’m not overly concerned.”
A virus and political strife will dampen this year’s meeting of the electors
Penebaker attended a briefing over Zoom this week preparing electors for the event on Monday.
“Because of the pandemic, the pomp and circumstance and, you know, the funner part of it wont be happening,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty straightforward. There are six certificates that each one of us needs to sign, six signatures for each elector. We’ll be in a large room that allows for social distancing, and we’ll be masked.”
The event will be closed to the public, but will be live-streamed.
During the briefing, there were advisories about how to avoid possible protesters, but that information is not being released to the public for safety reasons, Penebaker said.
Miller and Johnson also said the meetings in their states will be a little different this year.
“Under COVID conditions, I’d like to get a picture next to the governor, but I dont think that will happen,” Miller said. “We’ll be socially distanced, we’ll be masked, we will have a table where all the certificates will be laid out and there are multiple copies … we’ll sign our name on the line a number of times.”
“It’s kind of pro forma, but it’s an honor nonetheless,” he added.
In some states, like Nevada, electors won’t even be meeting in person.
“The Nevada electors are meeting virtually via Zoom. While there may be increased activity at the Capitol in Carson City, we have not had any threats and do not anticipate any,” Jennifer Russell, spokeswoman for Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, told Insider. “None of the meeting components are taking place here. Each of the electors will participate from a location of his [or] her choosing.”
Under any conditions, being an elector is a privilege
Penebaker told Insider that, on some level, he can sympathize with some of the men and women who have been consumed by the conspiracy theories and propelled into what they believe is activism.
“It’s honestly unfortunate because these folks have been lied to by Trump and his enablers. People are being made to believe that there is this widespread conspiracy where Democrats and Republicans have stolen this election, but only from Donald Trump,” he said. “They keep believing these things and it’s going to drive them crazy and it’s going to drive them to act violently. That’s not what a democracy is supposed to be like; it’s not what this country is about.”
Penebaker said the behavior of these people has ventured out of the realm of politics and become “cult-like.”
“I think people, at their core, just want to believe in something. It’s unfortunate that the thing they believe in is based on lies,” he said. “With cults, those cult leaders can make you do hideous things; whether that’s harming yourself, someone you love, or someone you don’t even like.”
Johnson agrees that the divisiveness of 2020 is like nothing he’s seen in politics before and believes that it will stick around for a while.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to normal, unfortunately. I think the lines have been drawn in the sand, and the lines of stability have been forever blurred,” Johnson said. “Long after the election is over, I think for quite some time, you’ll still have people who are doubting the election.”
Despite the negativity, though, none of the electors would let these tensions sway them from carrying out their duty on Monday.
“Have you considered that John Lewis walked across the Pettus Bridge knowing the brutality that was waiting on the other side and still kept going; the threats that Dr. King got and he still kept going; the threats that Malcolm X got and he still kept going?” Penebaker said. “I don’t have a fraction of what those amazing human beings had, and I’m going to keep going, too. There’s nothing that they can do that will stop my vote on Monday.”
Capitol police in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment about security on Monday.
“I feel exhilarated and humbled and cautious all at the same time,” Johnson said. “It’s just a waiting game, it’s running out the clock. Monday at 12 noon is the day Georgia will cast 16 votes for the president and the vice president of the United States, and I’ll be blessed to be among them.”