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US right-wing influencers stoke fears of left-wing mass violence after Supreme Court ruling on abortion

Contextualizing narratives about political violence surrounding the Dobbs v Jackson ruling

Abortion rights demonstrators protest outside the United States Supreme Court as the court rules in the Dobbs v Women’s Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision, in Washington, DC, US, June 24, 2022. (Source: REUTERS/Jim Bourg)

By Jared Holt

Conservative US political figures pre-empted and reacted to the United States Supreme Court’s rollback of abortion access conflating an ambiguous risk posed by a fringe group with the broader, peaceful pro-choice movement in the United States. To advance that willful misrepresentation against the majority of Americans that disapproves of the ruling, they deployed a familiar narrative playbook and information ecosystem.

Mainstream and increasingly extreme voices in the conservative information ecosystem amplified threatening messages posted online by an apparent radical pro-choice group and proceeded to cite those messages to stoke fears of imminent, coordinated, and widespread radical-left violence against abortion opponents. Democratic politicians who offered messages of support for pro-choice causes and encouraged protests were branded “insurrectionists” by prominent right-wing influencers — a cynical attempt to equate the violent January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol that led to multiple deaths with the ongoing popular, peaceful protest in response to the Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling. A common refrain in these narratives pointed back to a supposedly inevitable “night of rage” from pro-choice groups following the decision.

The term “night of rage” was lifted from the title of blog post published by Jane’s Revenge: an autonomous collective that emerged after the Dobbs decision was leaked in May. On its anonymous blog, one can find over-the-top manifestos calling for retaliation against those seeking to deny access to abortion. Jane’s Revenge has no evident organization, no apparent command and control structure, nor has it demonstrated an ability to coordinate — as opposed to an aspiration to inspire — widespread action to date; rather it claims to exist as loosely connected but ideologically aligned small groups.

A screenshot of the blog post that inspired right-wing narratives about a “night of rage” after the Supreme Court ruled on abortion access. (Source: Jane’s Revenge/archive)

Due to the amorphous nature of the group, it is difficult to gauge the size of the Jane’s Revenge network or what amount of action it realistically steers. Regardless of how the group may be comprised, actions taken in its name have been real. The group has claimed credit for vandalism and property destruction at locations associated with opposition to abortion: anti-abortion pregnancy centers, anti-abortion groups’ offices, and so on. Few, if any, national pro-choice movement groups have acknowledged Jane’s Revenge — let alone endorsed its actions. In contrast, anti-abortion groups have vandalized, harassed, and directed violence at abortion clinics for decades.

Jane’s Revenge entered mainstream consciousness following its mention in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published June 20. Two days later, a reporter from news outlet Al Jazeera asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about the “night of rage” promised by Jane’s Revenge; the White House said that US President Joe Biden condemned the group. But the most potent fuel for right-wing panic around Jane’s Revenge can be sourced back to an article published by Newsweek reporter Jake Thomas, who wrote an article published on June 23 that reported a secondhand account that a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agent had told the Catholic Diocese of Stockton, California, that DHS was aware of a manifesto calling for “attacks on churches” the evening the Court sent down its decision.

It was notable that Newsweek published this story. Newsweek has been declared a “zombie publication” by some media observers; its editorial page also hosts virulently anti-abortion commentators with a history of spreading misinformation, including “birtherism” claims targeting Vice President Kamala Harris.

New York Times reporter Stuart Thompson tweeted on June 24 that he spoke with the Diocese of Stockton, who said a widely circulated screenshot of an alleged memo from its office, which appears to be the entire basis of the Newsweek article, was inaccurate.

June 24 tweet from New York Times reporter Stuart Thompson detailing the Diocese of Stockton’s denial that the language in the publicly circulating memo was that of the memo that it internally circulated. (Source: @stuartathompson/archive)

Although Newsweek reported that the Catholic Church document it viewed did not explicitly name Jane’s Revenge, to whatever extent the story may have been accurate, enough parallels existed between the details it claimed and the manifestos of the Jane’s Revenge blog to seed fear among anti-abortion advocates. While the actions previously committed in the name of Jane’s Revenge have presented genuine security risks to anti-abortion organizations and advocates, there is little evidence to suggest the group represents a wider threat. A June 24 DHS bulletin reportedly obtained by Voice of America and separate from the Newsweek article contained acknowledgement of Jane’s Revenge and its post about a “night of rage.” The bulletin also reportedly noted that threats are present from domestic violent extremists on both sides of the abortion debate.

Right-wing influencers, media, and politicians have exaggerated and generalized the risk that Jane’s Revenge threatens against its perceived opponents, choosing to paint with the same broad brush it used in its goal of discrediting racial justice demonstrations in the summer of 2020. According to data accessed by the DFRLab using Meltwater Explore, the use of the phrase “night of rage” spiked online immediately surrounding the Court’s ruling on abortion access and correlating with the publication of Newsweek’s article. The phrase was used on the Jane’s Revenge blog on May 30, and the most recent post there is from June 15, but the fear campaign invoking the phrase did not achieve much traction until the day before the Court’s decision.

Line graph showing mentioned of the phrase “night of rage” shows a sharp spike on the day before and on the day of the Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the right to abortion access established by Roe v. Wade. (Source: DFRLab via Meltwater Explore)

After the Court’s decision, prominent right-wing figures presented pro-choice calls to protest and police responses to such protests as if they were proof that a massive, violent plot was underway.

The Gateway Pundit, a firehose of right-wing misinformation, reposted a Twitter video of US Representative Maxine Waters of California reacting to the Court’s decision and branded her an “Insurrectionist.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was filmed outside the Supreme Court by a Turning Point USA employee as she joined crowd chants of “illegitimate” and “into the streets,” footage that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia used to claim that Ocasio-Cortez “just launched an insurrection.”

Andy Ngo, a far-right media figure who routinely engages in lies and misrepresentations, shared video footage of police in Washington, DC, mobilizing in response to growing protests at the Supreme Court and claimed it was “in response to and anticipation of mass violence by the left over Roe v Wade.” The same speculative sentiment was echoed, nearly verbatim, by US Senator Marco Rubio. The Gateway Pundit shared the same video and warned readers with the headline: “Leftist Terrorists (Biggest Threat to America) Gear Up For ANOTHER Summer of Violence.” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who leads the Republican Party in the US House of Representatives, echoed the same ominous warnings, calling on President Biden to act to “deter and prevent violence … Now. Before it’s too late.” McCarthy’s tweet bearing the message was subsequently retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., son of former US President Donald Trump.

Screenshot of a tweet from House Minority Leader Representative Kevin McCarthy tweeted that President Joe Biden should act to prevent would-be violence against institutions that oppose abortion access. (Source: @GOPLeader/archive)

The narratives deployed by right-wing personalities and politicians have spawned virulent reactions across the far-right media ecosystem, including calls to take up arms against protesters.

White nationalist Nicholas Fuentes wrote to his followers on Telegram the night before the Court’s decision, “stand back and stand by” — echoing the words former President Trump gave to the Proud Boys extremist group during a 2020 presidential debate. On the morning of the decision, Fuentes activated that call, writing: “DEFEND YOUR CHURCHES TONIGHT!”

The same calls to action were echoed among groups of Proud Boys, from at least one open militia member, and within clusters of other far-right extremist communities the DFRLab monitors regularly. Erin Gallagher, a disinformation researcher, compiled some of the calls for anti-abortion advocates to show up armed against pro-choice protesters that appeared on Twitter.

Tweet from disinformation researcher Erin Gallagher that includes screencaps of other tweets from anti-abortion activists calling for counter-protesters to show up armed. (Source: @3r1nG/archive)

With the same playbook used to taint public perceptions of racial justice demonstrations in 2020, right-wing influencers seek to cast popular opposition to the Court’s ruling not just as wrong, but as potentially criminal. During the summer of 2020, disinformation campaigns aimed at racial justice protests used mischaracterized, decontextualized, and false claims to attempt to smear the breadth of protesters supporting racial justice as militant “antifa” radicals. As DFRLab’s Emerson Brooking explained at the time, disinformation had real consequences, “spark[ing] acts of targeted harassment, armed assaults, and general panic in American towns.” The attempt to associate all racial justice protesters with “terrorism” received buy-in from the highest levels of government power, including then-President Donald Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr.

The same pattern is evident in attempts to discredit pro-choice demonstrations in the wake of the Court’s ruling on Dobbs. One Republican official directly connected the two events’ talking points on a television appearance the night before the Court’s ruling. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Fox News host Sean Hannity the night before the ruling: “We’re going to see a reprise, I fear, of the Black Lives Matter and the Antifa riots where they’re going to try to use political violence to advance their ends, and the Department of Justice needs to step in and stop them.”

Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado paid homage to viral conspiracy theories spread during racial justice protests in 2020, asking on Twitter why bricks were found near the US Capitol building. In 2020, influencers spread baseless rumors that pallets of bricks were left in the city streets near construction sites — as allegedly supplied by billionaire George Soros or other supposedly “nefarious” liberals — to be used by protesters to inflict damage.

National flashpoint issues like abortion access can provoke strong emotions across the political spectrum — something that DHS acknowledged in a June 7 advisory. In its assessment, it rightly observed that “individuals who advocate both for and against abortion have, on public forums, encouraged violence, including against government, religious, and reproductive healthcare personnel and facilities, as well as those with opposing ideologies.”

Jared Holt is Resident Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Jacqueline Malaret, Assistant Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, provided research assistance for this piece.

Cite this case study:

Jared Holt, “US right-wing influencers stoke fears of left-wing mass violence after Supreme Court ruling on abortion,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), June 25, 2022, https://medium.com/DFRLab/us-right-wing-influencers-stoke-fears-of-left-wing-mass-violence-after-supreme-court-ruling-on-c1d6416efc2b.

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