mark reinstein, Lyonstock, Doug Brown Media/Shutterstock.
mark reinstein, Lyonstock, Doug Brown Media/Shutterstock.
How Disinformation Powers Vigilantism
Citizen militias at the U.S.-Mexico border rely on social media to spread lies about immigrants and validate their belief—and desire—that violent policing equates justice.
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It was a normal, quiet night in 2009 in the tiny town of Arivaca, an unincorporated community in Pima County, Arizona, nestled among the mountains just 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The Flores family—father Raul Flores, Jr., mother Gina Gonzalez, and their daughter, Brisenia Flores—were all asleep. The two parents were in bed, and Brisenia was on the couch in the front room to be near her new dog.
Just before 1 a.m., Flores woke his wife. There appeared to be law enforcement hammering at the door, claiming they were looking for a fugitive. Immigration raids are a constant threat in border communities, as so many live in a legal gray zone of documentation in which they can work but are not permitted to be American citizens. Millions of people are at risk of deportation without notice while waiting for citizenship hearings and green cards. While the Flores family were American citizens, in 2009 in Arizona, many people of Latino descent, documented or not, lived in fear of these surprise raids and the state’s cutthroat immigration policies.
The two parents, alarmed, opened the door where they were confronted by Shawna Forde, Jason Bush, and Albert Gaxiola, armed and dressed in camouflage fatigues. “Don’t take this personal, but this bullet has your name on it,” Bush, a suspected serial killer with white supremacist ties who that night was in blackface, told Flores.
Forde was an involved and enthusiastic member of the national Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a civilian “border watch” group already rife with extremists and nativists. But after a series of grifts, she was thrown out of the organization, only to create her own splinter group, the Minutemen American Defense, or MAD for short. Bush and Gaxiola were some of her recent recruits, and when she heard of a “drug house” in Arivaca, the vigilantes headed there ready to execute justice by any means necessary.
As Gonzalez later testified when her husband questioned whether they were actually law enforcement, the trio burst into the house and started shooting, killing Raul and badly wounding her. As she played dead, she heard them reloading and their daughter Brisenia pleading for her life. “Why did you shoot my dad?” she sobbed. “Why did you shoot my mom?”
Then Gonzalez heard the shots. Then she heard nothing at all.
Gonzalez managed to find her husband’s gun and make it to her daughter and hold her as she called 911, after she thought the vigilantes were gone. When Bush returned to check the scene, she fired, hitting him. The trail of blood he left when he fled helped convict him, Forde, and Gaxiola of murder in 2011.
Vigilantism is the act of enforcing laws without legal authority—taking the law into one’s own hands—meaning that vigilantes enforce laws at their own behest and without much, if any, accountability. It often flares up during times of dramatic and unstoppable social change, and in many cases, is encouraged by authorities to maintain the status quo and enforce a specific social order. San Diego-based human rights advocate Pedro Rios, who is a member of the Southern Border Communities Coalition and runs the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico border program, explains that vigilantism has always been part of the border landscape. “Its legacy is the attempt to violently regulate and control who belongs and who doesn’t, based on white supremacist ideals,” he says.
And how vigilantes arrive at violence, how they reach the point where they are so empowered by their beliefs that they murder, is inexorably rooted in disinformation. The actions of Forde, Gaxiola, and Bush were created, directed, and even offered cover by extreme, weaponized narratives about the border. Narratives that have been leveled at border communities for decades and leveraged to change and twist policy into state-sponsored inhumanity, shored up and bolstered by stochastic right-wing terrorism, their hatred and fear fed by racist lies from those in positions of influence and power.
And although that attack took place more than 10 years ago, the disinformation that motivated the vigilantes is still very much in play, unabated and largely unmoderated, and thanks to social media.
Shawna Forde was originally from Everett, Washington, a place that, just like most of the United States in the first decade of the 2000s, was awash with right-wing disinformation brought directly to viewers and listeners by national talk radio and cable television and, increasingly, email chains and what was coming to be known as social media.
Before former President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, a favorite topic of discussion among all these shows and online forums was immigration. Pundits within those right-wing disinformation channels spoke of invading hordes and repeatedly questioned the citizenship status of the United States’ first Black president, with each narrative reinforcing others.
Those paranoid fantasies found fertile ground with Forde in the mid-aughts, her troubled past and diffuse rage were given a narrative, a target, and a goal. They told her what they have told so many other people just like her: That her legal troubles and interpersonal difficulties weren’t her fault but that of illegal immigrants destroying the culture of the United States day by day with the help of Democrats in power, and they needed to be stopped.
In 2007, she ran for Everett City Council on a platform demonizing immigrants, but her push for power ended after local reporters discovered her long history of grift and false claims of violence by “members of MS-13.” After that, she left the state and formed MAD in Arizona. Only a small part of “Shawna’s Corner”, Forde’s blog on her organization’s website, remains archived, but the paranoid ranting about the “thugs” and “illegals” at the border, human trafficking, and threats of violence clearly align with today’s far-right disinformation campaigns.
Now knowing her actions to follow, the radicalization of Forde serves as a small case study for how disinformation can, and is intended to be, directly linked to vigilantism: It shows violent people who to target, and it gives them permission to act.
While vigilantism is perhaps most strongly associated with the shameful lynching campaigns of Black Americans, vigilantes have been used as a reliable method of social control throughout most of the United States’s history. It was the norm from the late colonial period until at least the 1940s, the extralegal and decentralized existing cheek by jowl with the legal and relatively organized authorities, who have had little problem using them for their own questionable purposes, such as union busting or border enforcement.
“It doesn’t go away,” said Jared Yates Sexton, an author and academic who focuses on fascism and conspiracy theories. He added that authoritarian and white supremacist forces are always around, but never present more of a threat than during times of economic strain and austerity, which far right groups are keen to leverage.“What we do see in history… is that these polarized moments, this radicalization, it [vigilante violence] grows and grows when material conditions get worse,” he says. “This shit started falling apart as capitalism started to falter.”
The conditions that people all over the world have lived under for decades—the dot-com bust, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global economic crisis and increasing economic disparity, the climate crisis, the rise of global fascism, and a years-long global pandemic, just to name a few events—have set the stage for exactly the austerity, nihilism, and despair that disinformation campaigns and weaponized narratives used to recruit far right vigilante groups are built to exploit.
But even before the United States began to teeter, these groups were using the U.S.-Mexico border as a staging area.
One of the first groups to focus on the border was the Ku Klux Klan, when in 1978, David Duke held a press conference in San Diego announcing a new Klan Border Watch, explains Reece Jones, an academic and author of White Borders.
“It isn’t clear whether they did much patrolling, but it was covered in the national press,” Jones told me via email. “The 1970s were an era in which overt white supremacy was in retreat and white nationalists were looking for different, softer ways to promote their message. Anti-immigrant language turned out to be a key avenue.”
Talk radio laundered that language, softened it, polished it up a bit, and the early internet kept it alive on forums and message boards. Then that messaging got emailed and forwarded, reblogged and reposted on social media. By the time platforms like Facebook and Twitter were in the mix, the lies stretched back years. It provides the appearance of an alternate history and a “hidden” media ecosystem whose repetition and recursive stories are no deterrent to true believers, like Shawna Forde, who use them as validation to act on their violent desires.
Today, would-be vigilantes are now being recruited at scale, casting nets that are much wider and more effective, thanks to Facebook’s widespread theft and aggregation of individuals’ personality data and the social platform’s unparalleled ability to match up white supremacists with like-minded individuals, uniting the global far right. That, in addition to public figures’ signaling that violence is acceptable, even needed, and vigilante groups have become even more dangerous in recent years.
“There is a tendency for vigilantes to be emboldened by people in power who share their misguided viewpoints, and this creates a sense of comfort in them to espouse their racist and violent rhetoric,” Rios says. “Sometimes there are those in vigilante groups that become more prominent, but what I consider more dangerous is society’s tolerance of vigilantes and the normalization that their beliefs should have a platform to influence and develop public policy.”
Currently, disinformation campaigns and violent narratives are stirring vigilante threats in key strategic regions. North America is currently aflame with threats from anti-vaccine truck drivers in Ottawa to the murders of Mexican border reporters, and Americans have one unwelcome realization after another about Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and other militias and vigilante groups that appear to have had so much to do with the attempted coup of January 6, 2021.
That escalation is to be expected, explains historian Carly Goodman, who researches contemporary immigration restrictionist movements and the people behind them. “Reinforcing this concept of the border as the site of race war, which I think the United States has done through its policies, has exacerbated the problem and emboldened the groups that would take advantage of these moments,” she says. “The constant way that the federal government has responded to these nativist cries— by institutionalizing nativism—doesn’t make those cries go away. It makes them grow louder. And so these spectacles at the border have been effective in bringing greater shows of federal force to the border.”
The spectacle-to-policy pipeline has been so successful that the extreme right has effectively been dictating border policy for years. With a powerful combination of decades of weaponized disinformation campaigns, shows of force, and pressuring elected officials, the United States has effectively accepted an immigration framework developed by open white supremacists.
Take, for example, South Texas’s National Butterfly Center, which has been forced to close indefinitely after right-wing operatives, emboldened by disinformation and corrosive lies, threatened the center for years before operatives showed up there and physically attacked Executive Director Marianna Triño-Wright.
The story of the attack on the National Butterfly Center follows a familiar path to vigilante action. “They declared that we were a cartel front, that we were involved in human trafficking, that I was selling women and children into sex slavery, that they saw dead bodies on the property swarmed by butterflies, that they had put snipers in the bushes around our property to protect their construction workers from us,” Wright told the Sierra Club. “There were hundreds of these kinds of lies, and not just on Twitter or YouTube, but on Steve Bannon’s ‘War Room’ broadcast and on their other media partners, including the fake news websites that they threw up, like therundownnews.com, which doesn’t exist anymore because it fulfilled its purpose in maligning us and garnering millions of dollars for We Build The Wall, which is a dark money fundraising operation.”
These pervasive lies are exactly the same stories that are used in order to motivate violent white supremacist groups like QAnon and various “patriot” organizations. Similarly, they are the same claims that motivated Jason Bush, Shawna Forde, and Albert Gaxiola. And those rumors targeting the National Butterfly Center began immediately after the preserve filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in late 2017.
Once you have identified the spread of disinformation via corrupt public figures and its ability to bend would-be vigilantes toward stochastic terror against marginalized groups for political purposes, the pattern can feel impossible to escape.
And indeed Sexton explains, the various forces that end up in vigilantism and other extralegal activities both are spawned by and contribute to society-wide and economic disarray. “Competition over who gets what little there is ends up falling along tribalized lines,” he says. “You also have a problem with white supremacy in which young white men who feel powerless, they are prime pickings for things like vigilante groups, extremism, et cetera.”
“So you can address material conditions but austerity kind of intentionally prevents you from feeling that. Austerity also makes you feel alone.”
That sense of being alone, abandoned, and adrift also works very well as a recruitment tool. When there is little sense of belonging or community, some desperately lonely people will seize onto any narrative that will make them feel as though they are a little less alone, and they can be easily funneled into supporting hatred and violence.
But supremacist extremism, disinformation, and their violent consequences can be fought by building resilient societies. Social resilience means having the ability to withstand the sorts of weaponized fear and hate campaigns that are intended to destabilize democratic norms in favor of authoritarianism. It means supporting egalitarianism and fighting racism, misogyny, nihilism, and the conditions that can be used to exploit them.
And fighting vigilantism and the chaos that “taking the law into your own hands” involves talking to people who are directly affected by nativist violence and threats, listening to what they have to say, and emphasizing shared humanity to society at large in order to deter the harmful false narratives that take root in socioeconomic inequality.
“When violent vigilantes have attempted to disrupt peaceful activity, or try to create disorder, community organization has effectively pushed it back,” says Rios. He says that journalism and activism help to direct much-needed public scrutiny to regions and factors that contribute to violence as well. “It is equally important to expose the vigilantism that state actors also engage in, because often their egregious behavior is excused as being that of a rotten apple,” he says, “when it’s really the entire enforcement paradigm that is out of order with how we would want to ensure authentic safety and security for our communities.”
Escaping the cycle requires entirely new ways of looking at issues. Escalation in kind, experts say, will never end the violence no matter what.
“It doesn’t satisfy the bloodlust, because there’s no doing that,” Goodman says. “So the long-term plan has to be to imagine a world that’s very different than the one we live in.”
Completely reimagining societies, their laws, and the ways they need to be enforced can be daunting to even consider, and many people don’t know where to begin. But it doesn’t have to all be done in one fell swoop. In fact, building resilience to disinformation campaigns is best done from the bottom up. What that means, Sexton says, is that fighting authoritarianism and vigilantism begins at home.
“The best we can do is to start to rebuild some of these communities and disempower the conspiracy theories that power these movements and start talking about the actual reasons things are the way they are,” Sexton says. “Fascism falls apart whenever the community rises up and says, ‘we don’t want this.’”
This is the second installment in our 3-part series on vigilantism. You can read part one here.
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