The Sagebrush-Patriot standoffs would have been far less likely to occur without the anarchy that is social media and the internet. Maturing at the end of their first decade, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were all essential to the dissemination of information, to incite and recruit, to investigate and report, and to ultimately bring those involved to justice.
“It’s practically a truism that the Internet gives activists new tools to organize and gather, quickly, and challenge established institutions, such as the government. But it’s also a powerful tool for surveillance, which the FBI relied on extensively for gathering evidence that the militia conspired to impede officials from ‘discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats,’ according to the FBI affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court of Oregon.”
Historians and other academics are now writing in the aftermath of the Bundy standoffs. Most will center on what motivated them, who joined them, and why. Others will write of how social media came of age.
“User generated content” is critical to the success of social media, and the tie that binds is the ability to interact with an audience. That audience depends on how both the propagator and the user arrange their own echo chambers.
Regardless of questions of wasting time, many freely reveal the most inner workings of their lives and thoughts. Some create alter egos as a way to shelter themselves, whether from their words or purposes. Others self-radicalize in the echo chambers they choose. The internet affords great anonymity and the ability to freely speak without immediate physical reprisal — perhaps both its greatest and worst asset.
Through a collection of essays, Levmore and Nussbaum argue in “The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation” that online anonymity encourages a “cyber mob” mentality among users that hang out in “cyber cesspools” containing a “culture of cruelty” of which almost no issue or user is immune. They maintain that the decision to remain anonymous is a strategic way to shield oneself from being held accountable while holding another to an accountable standard and that the government needs to enact policies that better ensure people self-regulate unethical behavior through laws mandating a verifiable online presence.
Social media as information
Many Facebook users only share information with friends they have physically met and know. Others use Facebook as an activist tool, accepting any and all “friends” who share varying degrees of themselves. In this way, Facebook use of the term, “friends,” connotes a familiarity that may not exist — of which some take advantage.
Facebook’s strength is in its ability to share almost any source and length of information and its capability for allowing for interaction with a moderate level of depth. Promoters of the Sagebrush and Patriot causes have been very effective using Facebook to carry out their various standoffs, one of their major victories.
Twitter uses the term “followers” that does not connote a sense of personal familiarity. Because of the current character constraints, it appears much better suited for print and broadcast media. Its strength is in time-sensitive gathering and dissemination of information rather than discussion or personal revelation. That said, 140 characters are still very conducive to flame wars.
YouTube’s primary function is the dissemination of user-generated content, users considered “subscribers.” Along with entertainment and primary source information associated with news events, the strength of YouTube is that it gives anyone the ability to upload media. A user’s ability to couple rhetoric with the power of image and sound is unparalleled with little room for other than general audience feedback.
With no room for debate, real-time “alternative media” produced by armies of Pete Santillis and staged, heart-felt “testimonials” uploaded by Ammon Bundy and LaVoy Finicum were extremely effective in promoting their causes and for inciting support. To their credit, they all chose to be themselves.
As a person can be many people, assessing who and what is “real” requires consumers to be extremely diligent in assessing the validity of the information. Misinformation is inherently a part of social media as, unlike “traditional” print and broadcast, there are no ethical controls nor adequate peer-review given that users manage their own echo chambers. Echo chambers can be manipulated by both organized and individual efforts, a bastard form of “alternative media” akin to propaganda, in many instances to serve an ego or cause.
Social media as an investigative tool
User generated content by “alternative media” was critical not only to inciting and pulling off the standoffs but for investigating journalists, academics, and law enforcement interested in explaining what happened and holding participants accountable. Of perhaps equal importance, the anti-Sagebrush-Patriot cyber mob that emerged has been very effective at using social media to share information and putting the pieces together, essentially acting as and army of “intelligence analysts.”
The FBI and Department of Justice used information generated and analyzed on social media by users – a great cost savings in personnel and where a significant portion of the legal case was built against those who have been charged. Protecting the identity of social media users from the possibility of threats is a reason DOJ asked that prosecution documents made available to the counsel of those charged as part of the discovery process are not to be released to the public at this time.
There are also academics, authors, and bloggers who have and are making careers lurking on the internet and social media, investigating what they believe are the stories and criminal activity and using the information developed and shared by the intelligence analyst cybermob. Some in the mob use their own name while others develop online personas to encourage self-disclosure, document that information, and protect themselves (for awhile). A smaller group’s express purpose is to expose their findings to law enforcement — providing for interesting ethical questions regarding what may constitute legal entrapment.
Beyond sharing, one must also consider the direct role law enforcement intelligence (and counterintelligence) programs play in the game. They lurk, document, and should be participating in social media as a way to gather evidence for possible crimes. Cyber crime surveillance is a high priority for governments around the world that have invested countless dollars developing networks to monitor social media and other internet traffic under the auspices of “terrorism” — of which the Sagebrush-Patriot standoffs fit as domestic. For one, I will not be surprised if someday we find formal electronic surveillance programs were, indeed, employed at Malheur regardless of current official statements.
It almost goes without saying that privacy and the ability for anyone but the most disciplined to remain anonymous is a myth. Information about you is everywhere, whether you freely put it out there or not. If you are an activist of any kind and participate in social media, you should expect to be exposed for who you are and what you stand for. With that also comes an inherent, perhaps physical, security risk of speaking out for what you stand.
Social media as drama
Everyone wants to be a star, and bona fide celebrities were born from the social media dramas of the Sagebrush-Patriot standoffs. The crush of media at Malheur, the arrest of the entire leadership and death of Finicum on a cold January evening, and the final days of the standoff filled with suicidal tendencies were as compelling a drama as anything on any media format. At times, tens of thousands watched and listened, emotionally riveted to the content as events unfolded, largely without commercial break.
All along, the cyber cesspools and inhabited mobs have been at work. At times, I have been appalled by the behavior of both sides of the Bundy-Patriot issue — from some politicians, bloggers, journalists, academics, and (mostly) average social media users with an interest who were sucked into the culture of cruelty. There is little doubt that there are inciteful echo chambers. Name-calling, flaming, stalking, and doxing are commonplace, discrediting those involved and the goals they are working toward. Naturally, this circle of behavior has resulted in threats of violence.
I, too, have at times been captured by the drama.
Covering LaVoy Finicum and the Sagebrush Rebels, using social media sources to keep me informed of issues, events, and actors, has been one of the most emotionally draining experiences in my life. I have conscientiously refrained from name-calling and have done my level best to treat those involved, on either side, with a bit of respectful wit. This is especially true regarding Finicum, who I believe was a misguided but honorable man.
Unfortunately, I have developed deep conviction in many of the theses I have presented, pressing experts in the field of the sovereignty movement in unprofessional ways to accept them that have discredited both myself and my ideas. I’ve been thinking about these interactions that occurred on social media, the result being this piece.
Anarchy keeps us free
An open and free internet populated with user-generated content that retains users’ ability to remain anonymous, (mis)inform, generate support, lurk, and report is a necessity for a future democratic planet. Access must remain unfettered.
None of the various social media requires positive verification of personal identity, and I like it. It keeps us free to be who we want to be and to associate with friends, followers, or subscribers without fear of immediate or direct physical disapproval should our endeavors cross the state or another crazy person’s viewpoint. That said, with this comes great responsibility as most people will eventually be held socially and legally accountable in spite of perceived anonymity.
Regardless of the militancy, social media echo chambers can reinforce already entrenched hearts and minds that are difficult to change, the inherent weakness being self-filtering and the resultant lack of adequate peer review that can incite one to action. There are no professional organizations to dictate ethics, and even if there were, the anarchistic nature of social media and internet users is not conducive for such control.
Along with the Golden Rule, the salient points for social media consumers are the truisms of being vigilantly skeptical of any information provided online, to critique and continually expand self-created echo chambers, and to be fiercely protective of our “real” selves — a lesson many of those involved in the Sagebrush-Patriot standoffs, pro and con, have yet to learn.