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Radio Shows, Film Screenings, and Ghost Accounts: An analysis of online outreach by the Watchmen

Note, dated 30/Oct/2018: two images in this piece were claimed as copyright infringement by the head of the Watchmen militia, Mike Tejeda. The first image (above) is an image collage I created in the typical MilitiaWatch style. The second image (the shoulder patch, below) was intended to be used as documentation under free and fair use. A third and final image (movie selection at end of article) was also a screenshot of Watchmen media, showing the movies they were streaming on their site, intended as documentation for analysis under free and fair use. The Medium legal team, after months of delay, indicated no interest in helping amend this situation.

Online outreach has undoubtedly been a key factor for recruiting individuals to join militia groups. From Facebook fan pages to Periscope broadcasts to YouTube montages, American militias have levied online outreach as a central avenue for gaining both new recruits and media attention.

There are a number of ways to measure engagement, from analysing content and volume of videos on a militia leader’s instagram account to charting group membership growth on a militia recruitment Facebook pages. For this case, though, we will examine the multi-pronged media approach of a single militia organization: the Watchmen of America.

Watchmen special shoulder patch

The Watchmen of America

The Watchmen, like many current patriot militias, formed in 2008 in response to the American electoral campaigns and eventual election result of the year. The group was formed in Missouri by 14 individuals if different professional backgrounds, including their leader, a man who calls himself “Freebyrd”.

Ideologically, the Watchmen of America can be understood as a “big tent” organization, incorporating Constitutionalists, survivalists, Patriot groups, and even some community service organizations. However, the origins of the group are firmly within the stream of mainstream Patriot movement politics, identifying the course of America towards “self-destruction” and stating that the government now “ignores [their] needs and concerns”.

The set-up of the Watchmen identifies two cohorts of those who are or might be involved in the organization. These are official Watchmen Groups (WGs) and Individual Patriot Citizens (IPCs). Any individual that joins a WG or joins the national organizationas an IPC pays yearly dues to the Watchmen organization, gaining them additional access to resources and the permission to wear a Watchmen patch.

ASP patch (green variant)

Watchmen Groups are organizations that fall within the Watchmen structure, including both state-level WG programs as well as spin-off organizations. One such organization is the American Sentinel Project (ASP), a community organization started by a member of the Watchmen, Hans. Hans’ organization has gained a few new members each week the past few weeks and some of their activities have so far involved time at the shooting range and the sharing of information about ‘potential threats’. ASP is based in Colorado, though aspires to cover a national mandate.

Individual Patriot Citizens are unaffiliated folks who are sympathetic to the cause of organizations such as the Watchmen. The Watchmen have a unique approach in this regard by mentioning IPCs specifically. Given the way that the organization approaches media and membership dues, this is unsurprising, though.

The Watchmen not only describe the states in which they have chapters and chapters-in-training, but those in which they wish to establish chapters.

Areas of Watchmen chapters: current, future, and aspirational. Map dated by early December 2017.

Movie Nights

One thing that sets the Watchmen apart from many militias that have been written about on MilitiaWatch is a weekly public e-meeting held by the Watchmen. This e-meeting is not a typical organizational meeting with PowerPoint and a speaker, but is instead a movie-viewing with members.

The movie selection includes works of political intrigue, documents on social issues in the States, and outright conspiracy theory films. The movies for movie night are those from YouTube, embedded in their site and with a chat feature included for movie viewers to chat while watching.

A selection of past films for movie night

The movie nights, along with other programming like the radio show hosted by Freebyrd, help keep members engaged, especially those thatmay not be able to meet in person. However, during most weeks’ screenings, only a few individuals talk in chat while they watch the films so the engagement side of the films may not be as significant as intended.

“Ghost” Accounts

Even though membership in a militia is legal, many members often fear that their membership in a militia organization could be perceived negatively in a public light. For those who might work for the government, or as prestigious doctors, or for more left-leaning organizations, being able to disguise oneself publicly is important. The Watchmen offer a more anonymous version of membership, called a “Ghost” account.

Technically, all online interactions on the Watchmen site are anonymised, as all members who use the chat function use nickname, like “MrsBulldog” or “NDRanger”. A “Ghost” account is one that uses a “callsign” or nickname rather than a full name at sign-up. It’s very similar to the way most standard memberships

The use of films to keep a smaller membership roll active on a national level and the obvious use of anonymized accounts has likely been helpful to growing the Watchmen. Though they’ve been largely excluded from discussions on major militia networks for organizations like the III% and the Oathkeepers, their membership has been growing steadily through both official Watchmen channels and sister organizations like the ASP.

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