Two or three young white guys with assault rifles and handguns patrolled the perimeter of the rally, a silent, threatening presence in a peaceful park. It was a Saturday in Portland, Oregon in early 2013, two months after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and about 100 activists — mostly women and families — had gathered downtown to call for stronger federal gun laws.
The gun-toting men weren’t breaking the law, but while perfectly legal, it was certainly an effort to intimidate the new activists. The armed men were the physical manifestation of an online army that had begun conducting an extreme harassment campaign against the women of this new movement.
I was part of this movement. We weren’t professional activists; we were mothers who’d had enough violence and wanted change. But suddenly, many of us were also targets of harassment and hate. The gun extremists doxxed some of us, publicizing the home address of one prominent leader along with a slew of violent memes including one showing her bleeding from a knife to her skull (no, I won’t link to it). The extremists made and circulated videos of target practice with images of activists as the targets. They bombarded the comment section of any news article mentioning our movement. They particularly enjoyed playing games on Facebook, spamming the comments of our page and creating identities to harass activists, and when they got banned, they’d start over the next day. Their messaging was petulant, most was misogynistic, and all reflected a worldview that their life was under attack. Sound familiar?
As with the alt-right coalition, the gun extremists developed their own media echo chamber. They had right-wing radio staples like Alex Jones’ InfoWars, but niche online publications and innumerable Facebook pages and Twitter accounts also sprang up to spread the message and memes, and mobilize supporters.
Their bullying, coupled with a hard tack to the right by the National Rifle Association, may not have silenced our activists, but it did work on politicians. In April 2013, when the Senate was preparing to vote on a bill that included universal background checks for gun purchases, 91% of Americans and even 88% of gun owners supported that legislation. That’s unheard of political support. But even so, gun extremists were a more vocal constituency. Republican senators, along with a handful of Democrats from red states, buckled. Along with dozens of other activists, I watched the from the Senate gallery as the bill failed. The grandmother who’d grabbed the gun away from Gabby Giffords’ shooter shouted from the Senate gallery, “Shame on you!” and was promptly removed from the Capitol on the grounds that she was disruptive.
Gun extremists are now part of the alt-right coalition, embraced by none other than Milo Yiannopoulos. It makes sense: both use the same tactics and have the same outsized effect on politics. Their use of digital tools to amplify their message is consistent, as is their misogyny, racism and penchant for political destruction. Finding a way to counter their narrative is critical to progress on a slate of political issues and, generally, stabilizing our democracy.
The above is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics to fight back.