- Far-right militias are regrouping around anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, experts told Insider.
- It appears designed to replenish the ranks after the Capitol riot threw the movement into disarray.
- Insider flagged a prominent militia group selling anti-vaxx t-shirts, which Facebook removed.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, so-called militia groups such as the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers were in disarray.
Their members, dressed for war, were on the front line of the violence that rocked the seat of US democracy that day.
But involvement in the attack brought intense pressure on the groups from US law enforcement. Six members of the Three Percenters were in June charged with conspiring to attack the Capitol, following a slew of similar charges against Oath Keepers members.
The wider movement was racked by fear of informants selling out other members in the hope of lenient treatment in the courts.
But they are far from defeated, instead regrouping and rallying round a new cause: anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Members of the groups use apps such as Telegram to evade scrutiny and plot their next moves, experts told Insider.
On mainstream platforms such as Facebook they are seeking to pull in new recruits under the anti-vaccine cause.
The development marked a new intertwining of two dangerous conspiracy-theory movements, according to Jason Blazakis, Director of Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are certainly being used as a recruitment tool by these organizations to try to increase the number of individuals included in the fold. It’s one of their primary narratives,” he told Insider.
Insider has seen proof of this happening on Facebook.
Katie Paul is director of the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit that monitors the spread of violent propaganda and disinformation on major tech platforms.
She told Insider that militias have an extensive Facebook presence despite policies to ban both them and anti-vaccine disinformation more broadly.
She said that militias on the platform aim to convert people’s anger into “this belief that any kind of government action… is either tyranny or some sort of infringement.”
She shared screenshots from several public militia groups promoting anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.
One page, Mike’s Corner, has nearly half a million followers. Its profile picture features the logo of the Three Percenters militia group.
The screenshot showed a merchandise page selling t-shirts with anti-vaxx slogans. Paul said that Facebook was likely profiting from the sales.
Another militia group, The West Texas Minutemen which has more than 1,000 members, is almost entirely focussed on anti-vaxx propaganda, said Paul.
“It gives them opportunities to recruit new people who may not have otherwise been interested in militia, but they’re following vaccine disinformation that they’re buying into,” said Paul.
In response to a request for comment from Insider, Facebook said it was removing Mike’s Corner for violating its policies. As of July 13, the page was inaccessible.
A statement from Facebook said: “Since August, we’ve removed 3,400 Pages, 19,500 groups, and 7,500 Instagram accounts representing militarized social movements, and more than 18 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram that violate our COVID-19 and vaccine policies since the pandemic began.
“Since we know that these groups are always evolving, we adjust how we enforce our rules against them to keep people safe.”
Militia groups plotting attacks on government targets, warns US intelligence
Some of the best-known militia groups included disillusioned former US military personnel.
In a report issued in February, US intelligence agencies warned of the ongoing threat posed by far-right extremists, singling out white supremacist and militia groups. Militia groups, they said, were plotting attacks on government targets, both buildings and people.
Blazakis said that he feared that vaccination clinics of those seeking inoculation could soon be the targets of violent plots by an individual or individuals radicalised by militia propaganda.
He pointed to the Netherlands, where opposition in some quarters to vaccines had spilled into violence. A 37-year-old man was arrested in April, accused of plotting to attack a coronavirus vaccination center. A coronavirus testing centre north of Amsterdam was bombed in March.
“My concern is that through online chatter they could individually radicalize a person to carry out real-world harm against, say, a vaccination clinic,” he said.
“And it is unfortunately also a really easy target because you have people waiting in line, vehicles in line with people, that there are what I would call soft targets.”