Social Media Lets Anti-Government Bundys Reach Followers

Jul 27, 2017
Originally published on July 27, 2017 4:45 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Anti-government militants are using social media to promote armed protests. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on jailed rancher Cliven Bundy, his followers and Facebook Live.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Thanks to Facebook Live, Cliven Bundy's son Ammon is able to talk directly to his followers in real time from prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

AMMON BUNDY: I want people to understand that, you know, that they're not breaking us down. They're actually teaching us to be strong and to stand.

SIEGLER: Ammon Bundy is awaiting trial for his role in the armed standoff against federal agents near the family's ranch in Nevada in 2014. In this video, he's being interviewed by a supporter who has him on speakerphone from the jail and is streaming to Facebook with a camera on a second phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

AMMON BUNDY: And we do what is right and let the consequences follow. That's just what he have to do. And...

AUTOMATED VOICE RECORDING: Your time is up.

SIEGLER: The prison's computer system abruptly cuts the call short.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED BUNDY SUPPORTER #1: Thanks, Am (ph). We love you. Guys, they cut him off. And it's been...

SIEGLER: Rarely deterred, these self-described patriots also livestream their reports on the daily happenings in the federal government's trials against the Bundys and their associates. They set up a tripod and selfie sticks on the sidewalk outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

ANDREA OLSON-PARKER: Some things that happened this morning - we are now allowed to have our pocket Constitutions inside the courtroom.

SIEGLER: Sometimes, it's housekeeping items, but more often, it's a readout of the day's events to their legions of online followers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

OLSON-PARKER: The government started out with a few questions. And they were really...

SIEGLER: Andrea Olson-Parker, the wife of one of the militiamen on trial, mixes in commentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

OLSON-PARKER: The more I do this and the more I get into this, the more I hear of other people that have been railroaded by the exact same system that's doing this.

SIEGLER: These are people with a deep mistrust of the federal court system, political elites and especially the traditional news media. One woman out here tells me she doesn't even trust Fox News. She goes to the Internet so she can do her own researching of the issue, she says. And I'm frequently asked whose side I'm on.

I do my job.

UNIDENTIFIED BUNDY SUPPORTER #2: Good luck, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED BUNDY SUPPORTER #3: (Laughter) That's not the right answer.

UNIDENTIFIED BUNDY SUPPORTER #4: You didn't answer my question.

SIEGLER: Spend some time on this sidewalk, and it's easy to see that there's just as much of an information divide in this country right now as there is one over politics or culture.

One of the organizers who's usually here is Shawna Cox. She was acquitted last year for her role in the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

SHAWNA COX: You have to have somebody you believe. So if it's somebody that you know or trust that's giving you that information, that's the line you're going to follow.

SIEGLER: Cox says this movement sees the news media as one player in a much larger corrupt system. And social media is giving them an unfiltered voice and a powerful recruiting tool.

COX: Because one person will be here on the ground, and they'll send it out. And then people on their following will have another following, and they'll pick it up, and they'll share it. And so Facebook goes ballistic.

MARK PITCAVAGE: The main thing they try to use it for is propaganda.

SIEGLER: Mark Pitcavage tracks far-right extremism for the Anti-Defamation League. He says the militia movement in particular has always used newsletters and chat forums to spread their conspiracy theories. And social media is now much faster to get the word out.

PITCAVAGE: These are fringe movements. These are radical movements. They're unhappy with the status quo. They want to change society. They got to get their message out.

SIEGLER: Experts who monitor these groups say some people also appear to be more comfortable inciting violence when they're online. One of the more high-profile examples of this was up in Oregon toward the end of the 41-day siege at the wildlife refuge. Here, one of the final holdouts shouts on YouTube, threatening violence if the FBI moves in.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The American people better wake up, get here and fight for your country - right now. It is on.

SIEGLER: When it comes to the Bundys and their close followers, these types of examples appear to be rare. Especially recently, some of the men's wives have been taking to Facebook with tearful and often heartfelt pleas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

ANGIE BUNDY: We have been married 19 years, and the guy hardly ever raised his voice at me even. So...

SIEGLER: This is Angie Bundy, the wife of Ryan Bundy, streaming from her car.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

ANGIE BUNDY: It's going to take all of us doing those things that Heavenly Father inspires us to do if we're going to save this country because they have violated every single one of our rights during all of this.

SIEGLER: More than three years after the Nevada standoff, Erika Schumacher is frustrated. She was there in charge of the federal government's law enforcement response. She retired recently.

ERIKA SCHUMACHER: We never got ahead of the message. We never articulated why were out there.

SIEGLER: While the militants could comment online as the drama unfolded, Schumacher says the government was only responding to the traditional press - hours, sometimes days later.

SCHUMACHER: It just was too slow. Even if we did get it out there, there was already all this other stuff that was being said where, you know, our piece is going to be forgotten.

SIEGLER: Schumacher says in some corners, thanks to livestreaming, the government is continuing to lose the PR messaging battle with the Bundys today.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIX PARTS SEVEN'S "SAVING WORDS FOR MAKING SENSE")

MARTIN: One note - Facebook pays NPR and other news organizations to produce live video streams.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIX PARTS SEVEN'S "SAVING WORDS FOR MAKING SENSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.