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Examining the Physical Manifestation of Alt-Right Gangs: From Online Trolling to Street Fighting

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This chapter explores how social media have allowed Alt-Right gangs to advance not only their ideology and subculture online, but to facilitate organizing in the physical world. Understanding this online to real-world movement is a necessary step for both the Alt-Right and conventional street gang research so that we can better prevent, intervene, or suppress violent behaviors that begin online before manifesting in the material world. Firstly, this chapter describes the evolution of Alt-Right gangs from inhabiting online niche communities (e.g., Stormfront, The Daily Stormer) to utilizing mainstream digital platforms (e.g., Facebook, Gab, Reddit, 4chan, Twitter) to recruit and connect members, as well as manifesting into recurrent, violent masses at public demonstrations. Secondly, novel data collected from the social media site Gab are analyzed to explore the online activity of one particular Alt-Right gang, the Proud Boys. This analysis examines social media posts through word cloud visualization and social network analysis to provide a foundation for a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between online activity and the real-world presence of Alt-Right gangs.
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105© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020
C. Melde, F. Weerman (eds.), Gangs in the Era of Internet and Social Media,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47214-6_6
Chapter 6
Examining thePhysical Manifestation
ofAlt-Right Gangs: FromOnline Trolling
toStreet Fighting
ShannonE.Reid, MatthewValasik, andArunkumarBagavathi
6.1 Introduction
For many, the reemergence of America’s white power movement (WPM) can be
linked to Charlottesville, Virginia. The Unite the Right Rally in 2017, highlighted
by screaming white males with tiki torches, was the visual representation of the
WPM as it emerged back out from the digital spaces that it had been festering in for
the last 20 years (Lyons, 2018; McAuliffe, 2019). This rally, with the far-right mes-
saging, and the violent clashes between Alt-Right groups and counter-protestors,
shocked people across the globe (First Vigil, 2019; ProPublica, 2018a, b; VICE,
2017). The rally culminated with the death of Heather Heyer and marked the
moment the WPM blipped back onto the radar of mainstream America. Despite
Unite the Right Rally shocking many Americans, for those who actively monitor
and study the far right, this protest was simply a more visible face to a movement
that never disappeared in America (Belew, 2018; Crothers, 2019; Daniels, 2018;
Futrell & Simi, 2017; Neiwert, 2017; Lyons, 2018). The growing number of indi-
viduals who are in groups that espouse these new Alt-Right classications have left
policymakers, law enforcement, and the overall public confounded about why these
“white” youth would join these groups, but also how to deal with them (see Reitman,
2018). As we will explain later in this chapter, we regard these groups as Alt-Right
S. E. Reid ()
University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA
e-mail: sreid33@uncc.edu
M. Valasik
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, USA
A. Bagavathi
Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA
106
gangs with many similarities to the street gangs that have been studied in most gang
literature.
The Alt-Right is regarded as the most current iteration of the WPM (Futrell &
Simi, 2017; Mudde, 2018). The Internet has been vital for facilitating its evolution
and growth (Crothers, 2019; Daniels, 2009; Finn, 2019: Stern, 2019). The ubiquity
of digital communications and social media has been a catalyst allowing the WPM
to undergo a noticeable transformation in the last four decades (Belew, 2018;
Daniels, 2018; Futrell & Simi, 2017; Levin, 2002; Makuch & Lamoureux, 2018,
2019). Using the blueprint of “leaderless resistance” laid out by Louis Beam (1992),
digital communications (e.g., online message boards) have been used to spread
white power messages, maintain communication between individuals, and recruit
new members with minimal resources (see Belew, 2018; Gardell, 2018; Joosse,
2017; Kaplan, 1997; Levin, 2002; Michael, 2012; Morris, 2017; Simpson & Druxes,
2015). “Leaderless resistance” pushed for the abandonment of large white power
organizations (e.g., Aryan Nations, National Alliance, Hammerskins, etc.) in favor
of smaller groups that are better able to evade and weather law enforcement intru-
sion. Throughout this transformation, the WPM continues to reinvent their groups’
images and branding to offset the stigma associated with white supremacy’s racial
and anti-Semitic hate (Futrell & Simi, 2017; Hawley, 2019). Due to the role of the
Internet in the creation and maintenance of Alt-Right gangs, current studies of
street-level behavior need to consider the impact of online activity on real-world
behavior.
This chapter provides a necessary rst step to better understand the online activ-
ity patterns of Alt-Right gang members, and how this virtual behavior is converted
into real-world action, and vice versa. First, the chapter briey looks at the rise of
the Alt-Right as a social movement and moves to discussing the development and
emergence of Alt-Right gangs into the public realm, with particular attention paid to
their transition from the digital environment to the material world. This includes a
discussion of why these groups are classied as gangs, the denition of an Alt-Right
gang, and the characteristics such gangs generally have. Second, Proud Boys, an
Alt-Right gang, is presented as a case study to investigate how members utilize
mainstream digital platforms (i.e., Gab) by analyzing what is discussed online, their
online social networks, and their online behaviors before and after violent events in
the real world (e.g., Charlottesville). The chapter ends with discussing how the tri-
angulation of analyses at different levels (word clouds, persons, and events) pro-
vides a valuable lens to understand the relationship between the online activity of
Alt-Right gang members and real-world action.
6.2 The Alt-Right’s Ascendancy
The Alt-Right (an abbreviation for Alternative Right) was coined, arguably, in 2008
by Richard Spencer (Hawley, 2017, 2019; Main, 2018; Nagle, 2017; Neiwert, 2017,
Stern, 2019; Waring, 2018, 2019; Wendling, 2018). In the last decade, the
S. E. Reid et al.
107
constellation of the far-right individuals and groups that fall under the umbrella of
the Alt- Right has evolved. The Alt-Right today presents itself as a far-right social/
political movement of young millennials that are tech-savvy, leaderless, loosely
organized, and use facetious Internet jargon to mainstream and restyle white
supremacist beliefs through the veneer of western chauvinism or white identity
politics (Hawley, 2018, 2019; McVeigh & Estep, 2019; Reid & Valasik, 2020).
Overall, the Alt-Right is a confederated movement made up of an assortment of fac-
tions that nd common cause in opposing political correctness, multiculturalism,
globalism, immigration, feminism, and establishment politics, but also champion-
ing President Trump (Berger, 2018; Crothers, 2019; Hawley, 2019; Reid & Valasik,
2020; Stern, 2019; Waring, 2018; Wendling, 2018). As such, the Alt-Right remains
very “disjointed and more clearly focused on external enemies than its own internal
cohesion” (Berger, 2018: 53).
6.3 Emergence ofAlt-Right Groups fromDigital toPhysical
While the manifestation and initial evolution of the Alt-Right began on the Internet
and social media, primarily Twitter and Facebook, over the last few years these
groups, and their members, have been less anonymous and more public. No longer
are members of Alt-Right gangs invisible like some groups of racist skinheads in the
past who were characterized as being “inside ... working on their written materials”
(Klein, 1995; 22). This sudden increase of activity in the public sphere has been
documented by the ever-increasing number of “free speech” rallies (e.g., Berkeley,
Charlottesville, NewYork, Portland, etc.), which regularly conclude with violence
(see Neiwert, 2019; Stern, 2019; Vice, 2017). These public exhibitions of criminal-
ity and violence by Alt-Right gangs are one piece of a “cafeteria-style” pattern of
offending, analogous to conventional street gangs (see Klein, 1995; Klein &
Maxson, 2006). In fact, prior research has shown that Alt-Right gangs have been
involved in acts of violence (DeCook, 2018; Mills, Freilich, & Chermak, 2017;
Picciolini, 2017; Rogan, 2017; Simi, 2009; Valasik & Reid, 2018a), property crimes
(ADL, 1995; Baron, 1997), identity theft (Freilich, Chermak, & Caspi, 2009; Simi,
Smith, & Reeser, 2008), and drug selling. These crimes highlight how the stereo-
types portraying the Alt-Right as merely a bunch of “online trolls” or “shit posters”
is misaligned with the realities of the Alt-Right. Within the Alt-Right, there are a
variety of subgroups which also include members that associate themselves with
street-oriented delinquent groups (e.g., 211 Bootboys, B49, Proud Boys, Rise
Above Movement, etc.). Following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville there
was speculation that the Alt-Right would recede back to their online free spaces
(e.g., Gab, reddit, 4chan, 8chan, Twitter), yet this has not been the case. In fact, there
has been an even greater push for face-to-face communication between Alt-Right
gang members, as observed by members of Proud Boys routinely meeting to drink
and hang out. The Internet’s anonymity no longer benets these groups with increas-
ing surveillance by police, journalists, and watchdog organizations like the Southern
6 Examining the Physical Manifestation of Alt-Right Gangs: From Online Trolling…
108
Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Antifa (“anti-
fascist”) groups (Cosgrove, 2018; Feuer, 2018; Hall, 2018; VICE News, 2018).
Additionally, it is important to acknowledge the overlap that exists in the mem-
bership of these Alt-Right groups when categorizing them. Researchers and law
enforcement have also noted that youth can, and do, switch between racist and non-
racist skinhead groups marking a uidity to Alt-Right gang membership (Borgeson
& Valeri, 2018; Christensen, 1994). Similar patterns have been documented among
conventional street gangs, commonly referred to as “hybrid gangs,” where members
switch afliations or join multiple groups (see Bolden, 2012, 2014). For example,
several members of Proud Boys also have afliations with local, street-based racist
skinhead gangs such as, 211 Bootboys, and Battalion 49 (First Vigil, 2019). As with
street gangs, it is important to remember that Alt-Right gangs exist on a spectrum.
From loosely organized, neighborhood-based gangs, all the way to highly struc-
tured organizations focused on just a particular subset of crimes (e.g., drugs, fraud,
extortion). This pattern also holds true for Alt-Right gang’s political motivations,
as well.
6.4 What Is anAlt-Right Gang?
At the core of the disconnect in the research literature between street gangs and rac-
ist skinheads lies a denitional quandary. The denitional disconnect between racist
skinheads and street gangs is balanced on the role of ideology as being the key
characteristic that distinguishes these two groups (Reid & Valasik, 2018). Through
a review of the skinhead and gang literature, the “otherness” of skinhead youth as
compared to street gang youth is often focused on the mythology around skinheads
as “the foot soldiers” of the far right (Baysinger, 2006; Christensen, 1994; Moore,
1993) and bastions of the working class ideal (Pollard, 2016). When examining the
range of gang denitions (see Reid & Valasik, 2020), it is not a true denitional
distinction between street gangs and white power gangs that has researchers “remov-
ing” white power youth from larger gang studies, but rather a reliance on an out-
dated understanding of the youth and these groups.
For researchers, the Eurogang denition “has become widely adopted and
appears regularly in publications” and could be considered the most appropriated,
modern denition for determining what is a street gang (Maxson & Esbensen, 2016:
7). The Eurogang denition actually would capture Alt-Right gangs (i.e., racist
skinheads), but a minor adaption of the denition creates a focused denition to
capture these gangs specically.
Building from, and complementing, the Eurogang denition, Reid and Valasik
(2020) dene an Alt-Right gang as
A durable, public-oriented group (both digitally and physically) whose adoption of signs
and symbols of the white power movement and involvement in illegal activity is part of its
group identity.
S. E. Reid et al.
109
First, in order to be a durable group an Alt-Right gang must exist for several months,
despite a churning membership. Researchers have found that most gang members
desist from their gangs, leaving after just a couple years (Peterson, Taylor, &
Esbensen, 2004). The ceasing of group participation within short periods of time is
also true for group members within the broader WPM (Belew, 2018; Tenold, 2018).
Gang durability is marked not by the continuation of the same gang members, but
rather the endurance of the group despite the turnover of members.
Alt-Right gangs direct their activities toward public spaces, including both digi-
tal and physical space. In the digital realm, this would include public forums and
imageboards (e.g., reddit, 4chan, 8chan, etc.) and/or social networking sites (e.g.,
Facebook, Twitter, Gab) where Alt-Right gang members are able to interact with
fellow members but also harass and troll nonmembers (Nagle, 2017; Stern, 2019;
VICE News, 2019). Conventionally, public spaces would encompass any location
outside of any gang member’s residence (e.g., street corner, park, bar, club, etc.).
The argument that Reid and Valasik (2020) make is that Alt-Right gangs are only
able to intimidate others if their presence and activities are not obscured from the
general public, but rather are being publicly displayed, whether digitally or physi-
cally. Additionally, the public spaces where Alt-Right gangs manifest are ineffec-
tively supervised by social control agents.
The adoption of white power symbols/signs as a component of an Alt-Right
gang’s identity includes an array of ideological imagery (e.g., swastikas, SS bolts,
88, 14, Pepe the Frog, etc.), which could be presented on banners, clothing or tat-
toos (see ADL, 1995; Fielitz & Thurston, 2019; Miller-Idriss, 2018; Pollard, 2016;
Sarabia & Shriver, 2004; Simi & Futrell, 2015). Alt-Right gangs do not view the
imagery of the WPM as being unacceptable to display in public. Yet, there has also
been pressure in the larger WPM to mainstream and minimize the public display of
traditional far-right ideological imagery, including Alt-Right gangs, and to employ
novel signs/symbols (e.g., the “OK” hand sign) that are more easily disguised in
conventional society (ADL, 2017; Cooter, 2006; Miller-Idriss, 2018; Neiwert, 2018;
Simi & Futrell, 2015). Tied to this mainstreaming has also been the commercializa-
tion of clothing brands (e.g., Thor Steinar, Erik and Sons, Ansgar Aryan) that appeal
to far-right groups by intentionally embedding white power symbols/signs directly
into their merchandise (Miller-Idriss, 2018). Alt-Right gangs have also appropriated
mainstream brands (i.e., New Balance, Papa Johns) as white power symbols (Jan,
2017; Mettler, 2016). For these reasons, the denition focuses on the adoption of
these signs/symbols rather than an ideology (see below).
The nal element of Reid and Valasik’s (2020) denition is that a group’s
identity also emphasizes involvement in illegal activity. Such behaviors must
extend beyond annoying activities and actually be criminal. Just like conven-
tional street gangs, the participation in a range of criminality and violence is
what distinguishes Alt-Right gangs from other social groups (e.g., sports teams,
fraternal organizations, etc.) despite their attempts to portray themselves as such.
It should also be noted that while bias/hate-motivated crimes are included within
illegal activities, these acts are relatively infrequent compared to other types of
criminality.
6 Examining the Physical Manifestation of Alt-Right Gangs: From Online Trolling…
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6.4.1 Role ofIdeology/Cultural Identity
Ideology is often discussed when highlighting differences between conventional
street gangs and Alt-Right gangs, yet the ideological/political activities of these
groups exist on a spectrum and should be considered descriptors of these groups,
not deners. As a descriptor, researchers are able to move away from examining
each group unique to its own distinctive ideology and instead focus on risk factors
and behaviors of these groups rather than focusing on categorizing them (Reid &
Valasik, 2018, 2020; Valasik & Reid, 2019). There is no universal ideology uniting
all Alt-Right groups, with different gangs adopting whichever ideological elements
that suit them. Similarly, there is no one proscribed set of beliefs that conventional
street gangs adopt, and each group’s political activities can also vary. Furthermore,
the integration of ideology into a gang’s identity does not make it less of a gang as
scholars of conventional street gangs have revealed that political ideology and/or
ethnic/race- based pride is not limited to only members of Alt-Right gangs (see
Brotherton & Barrios, 2004; Cureton, 2011; Tapia, 2019). The marginalization of
Latinx/Chicano and Black youth has even prompted some conventional street gangs
to incorporate a political ideology (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004; Cureton, 2011;
Hughes & Short, 2006; Montejano, 2010; Short, 1974; Short & Moland, 1976).
Additionally, some conventional street gangs also integrate spiritual or religious
principles into the group. The Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation (ALKQN)
created a spirituality of liberation as a tool of resistance against American society’s
dominant culture objectifying, dehumanizing, and criminalizing their group’s mem-
bership (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004).
6.4.2 Use ofPhysical andDigital Space asTerritory
Research on conventional street gangs’ connections between local geography and
patterns of behavior reveals “the social relationships binding the members of a gang
to the broader community are complex and sometimes competing” (Valasik & Tita,
2018: 843). Alt-Right gangs are no exception. Traditional street gang research has
regarded Alt-Right gangs (i.e., racist skinheads) as being less territorial than con-
ventional street gangs (see Curry, Decker, & Pyrooz, 2014; Hamm, 1993; Klein,
1995). However, conventional street gangs exist on a spectrum of mobility and ter-
ritoriality patterns (see Klein, 1995; Valasik & Tita, 2018). A handful of studies
explicitly show the complex relationship between Alt-Right gangs and their use of
space (see Futrell & Simi, 2004; Simi, 2009; Simi & Futrell, 2015; Simi etal.,
2008). Alt-Right gangs’ very nature, their “whiteness,” imparts its members the
belief they have a “natural dominion” over any space they occupy (Simi & Futrell,
2015: 55). Based on this point of view, there may be less of a necessity for Alt-Right
gang members to demarcate and preserve a territory. As such, some Alt-Right gangs
do not defend a particular turf while others are extremely territorial. For example,
S. E. Reid et al.
111
Simi etal.’s (2008: 766) examination of Public Enemy Number One (PEN1), an
Alt-Right gang, focuses their street-oriented, antisocial behaviors within specic
neighborhoods, making their bias/racist activities “territorial and localized.”
Additionally, Alt-Right gangs, similar to conventional street gangs (see Valasik &
Tita, 2018), use space to reinforce their collective identity and maintain group soli-
darity by naming their groups after the communities they occupy, such as Huntington
Beach Skins, LaMirada Punk (LMP), and Norwalk Skins. Simi and Futrell (2015: 4)
reveal that Alt-Right gangs regularly congregate in Aryan free spaces “where white
power members meet with one another, openly express their extremist beliefs, and
coordinate their activities” (see also Futrell & Simi, 2004). Aryan free spaces typi-
cally exist in benign locations (e.g., bars, crash pads, residences, local hangouts)
that do not draw attention of nonmembers and allow the groups’ oppositional iden-
tity against mainstream society to be expressed and cultivated (Futrell & Simi,
2004; Simi & Futrell, 2015). Thus, Aryan free spaces are similar to the localized,
geographically distinct set spaces (e.g., street corners, parks, alleys, etc.) where
conventional street gangs gather (see Blasko, Roman, & Taylor, 2015; Brantingham,
Tita, Short, & Reid, 2012; Tita, Cohen, & Engberg, 2005; Valasik, 2018). Aryan free
spaces provide Alt-Right gangs a denitive space where members can feel safe and
their behavior can be unrestrained. Even though Alt-Right gangs may develop and
spawn from the virtual world, members’ actions do pervade into the material world
(Castle & Parsons, 2019; Stern, 2019). A well- documented example being the Unite
the Right rally and its violent results (Atkinson, 2018; Hawley, 2017, 2019; Lough,
2018; McAuliffe, 2019; Wendling, 2018).
It is not surprising given the Alt-Right’s online origins, along with the WPM’s
longstanding presence on the Internet (see Belew, 2018; Morris, 2017; Simpson &
Druxes, 2015; Winter, 2019), that members of Alt-Right gangs use “virtual Aryan
free spaces” equal to or greater than their use of Aryan free spaces in the material
world (Reid & Valasik, 2020). It is within these online spaces that Alt-Right gang
members are able to post social media (i.e., photos, videos, memes, documents),
chat/direct message, play racist games, listen to white power music, plan meetups/
activities, and even educate children (see; Burris, Smith, & Strahm, 2000; Castle &
Parsons, 2019; Daniels, 2009; Fielitz & Thurston, 2019; Lewis, 2018; Morris, 2017;
Saslow, 2018; Simi & Futrell, 2015; Tynes, Rose, & Markoe, 2013). Until recently,
members’ activities have been generally relegated to online niche communities like
Stormfront or The Daily Stormer (O’Brien, 2017; Perry & Scrivens, 2019; Winter,
2019). What makes Alt-Right gangs more unique is their use and prociency of
utilizing mainstream digital platforms to connect members, propagandize, harass
rivals, and enlist new members (DeCook, 2018; Fielitz & Thurston, 2019; Klein,
2019; Nagle, 2017; Phillips, Bagavathi, Reid, Valasik, & Krishnan, 2018; Pollard,
2018; Simi & Futrell, 2015; Stern, 2019; Zannettou etal., 2018; Zannettou etal.,
2018). Alt-Right gangs, however, are not just a bunch of online trolls, as the serious-
ness of the criminal offenses in the material world attests (see First Vigil, 2019). In
the wake of their digital footprint they are causing a stream of violence in the mate-
rial world.
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112
6.5 Case Study: TheProud Boys
Self-described as a “western chauvinist” men’s club, reminiscent to an exclusive,
fraternal organization (e.g., Elks Lodge), Proud Boys was established by Gavin
McInnes in 2016 (DeCook, 2018; Proud Boys, 2019; Reid & Valasik, 2020; Rogan,
2017; Valasik & Reid, 2018b). Yet, Proud Boys “very much function like a fraternity
or more accurately, a gang; their gatherings often involve heavy amounts of drink-
ing and violence, there are rituals involved in gaining status in the group, and there
is a uniform and agreed upon logo (including colors) to signify their group identity”
(DeCook, 2018: 7). While non-gang scholars explicitly indicate that Proud Boys are
a gang, it is still necessary to evaluate their characteristics, comparing them to the
components in Reid and Valasik’s (2020) Alt-Right gang denition to discern if they
qualify.
The rst element to assess is durability. Proud Boys have existed since 2016 with
local and regional groups forming under the Proud Boys umbrella, similar to other
gang nations (i.e., Bloods, Crips, Peoples, Folks, etc.) (see Descormiers & Morselli,
2011; Hagedorn, 1988; Roks, 2018; Van Hellemont & Densley, 2019) and cropping
up around the United States (McCabe, 2018; Proud Boys, 2019; Rogan, 2017).
Another feature of an Alt-Right gang is having both a digital footprint and mani-
festing in the material world. Proud Boys, like conventional street gangs (see Klein,
1995), spend the majority of their time bonding through “hanging out and drinking
beer” (Stern, 2019: 71). It is at these local pubs where members are well known and
feel secure from outsiders/rivals (see Antoine, 2018; Disser, 2016; Wicentowski,
2018). Unlike conventional street gangs, however, Proud Boys also utilize a variety
of digital media (e.g., social media, Web videos, online magazines, etc.) to not only
maintain group solidarity and identity, but also to strategically spread their rhetoric
and propaganda to potential recruits through a variety of platforms (DeCook, 2018;
Hatmaker, 2018; Klein, 2019; Stern, 2019).
In terms of being involved in illegal activities, Proud Boys focus much of their
activities around public intimidation, harassment, disorderly conduct, and actively
call for, and participate in, violence (i.e., assault, battery, rioting, and murder)
(Coaston, 2018b; DeCook, 2018; First Vigil, 2019; SPLC, 2019; Vitolo-Haddad,
2019). DeCook (2018: 12) highlights Proud Boys’ calls for violence against Antifa
who view them “as the true enemy of the Christian, white ethnonationalist west
because of their embrace of socialism and multiculturalism. By positioning them as
the enemy, the solidication of an ‘out-group’ strengthens the in-group’ identity”
(see also, Rogan, 2017; Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
While not a dening quality, but rather a descriptor, Proud Boys publicly adorn
themselves with a particular set of colors, black and yellow, and a mascot, a cock-
erel, as a public display of membership, mirroring members of conventional gangs.
This logo and these colors are routinely displayed by Proud Boys’ members, who
wear a unique uniform of black Fred Perry polo shirts adorned with yellow piping
(Beery, 2017; Cauterucci, 2017; Sommer, 2017; SPLC, 2019; Swenson, 2017;
Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). Beyond Proud Boys’ aesthetic and cultural style, like many
S. E. Reid et al.
113
others in the larger Alt-Right movement, members routinely use the “OK” hand sign
as another mechanism to identify themselves and their group within the larger WPM
(see ADL, 2017; Neiwert, 2018; Reid & Valasik, 2020). While the symbols/signs
used by Proud Boys were not originally considered images of the WPM, their regu-
lar use has made them unmistakably associated with Alt-Right gangs.
Overall, based upon Proud Boys’ characteristics, it is clear the group meets Reid
and Valasik’s (2020) criteria to be considered an Alt-Right gang. Yet, there is another
important consideration. On February 23, 2017, during an interview on the Joe
Rogan Experience podcast Gavin McInnes publicly declared “I started this gang
called the Proud Boys” (Rogan, 2017). Even though self-nomination is not a require-
ment for Reid and Valasik (2020), prior studies on conventional gangs have seen
self-nomination as one of the most robust indicators of gang involvement and
embeddedness (Esbensen, Osgood, Taylor, Peterson, & Freng, 2001; Esbensen,
Winfree, He, & Taylor, 2001; Webb, Katz, & Decker, 2006).
6.6 Data andMethodology oftheCase Study
6.6.1 Data
Gab.com/Gab.ai (Gab) is a social media forum founded in August 2016. Even
though the description and posting format of the forum are similar to popular coun-
terparts like Twitter and Facebook, Gab is unique. Gab is framed as a site that sup-
ports individual liberty and free speech in the social media community (Gab, 2019).
Similar to Twitter, users generate posts, limited to 300 characters, and can include
links, images, polls, and gifs (Gab, 2019). The only limitations are vague assurances
about restrictive policies over posts from users promoting terrorism, violence, and
pornography. Gab attracts a very particular set of users which are not as diverse as
other social media platforms, ranging from standard far-right posts through extreme-
right rhetoric and conspiracy theories (see Phillips etal., 2018). Users of Gab can
share information via posts (referred to as “gabs”), post replies, and quotes/reshares.
This analysis uses Gab data collected from both an internal web crawler and
Baumgartner’s publicly available Gab dataset (see Fair & Wesslen, 2019; Pushshift.
io, 2019). Figure6.1 gives an overview of the dataset as a time series plot with the
number of posts, replies, and quotes appearing on Gab between August 2016 and
October 2018. The dataset is a comprehensive collection with 34 million posts,
replies, quotes, approximately 15,000 user groups and about 300,000 public users.
It is evidential from Fig.6.1 that our dataset is composed of 55% posts, 30% replies,
and 15% quotes. This data also contains a complete set of metadata like time, attach-
ments, likes, dislikes, replies, and quotes, along with the original post and the details
of the user. Due to the unique OpenAPI format of Gab, compared to other social
media sites (i.e., Twitter), this dataset is the complete universe of public Gab posts
during this time period.
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6.6.2 Analysis
The current analysis is a qualitative examination of the online activity of Proud
Boys’ members on Gab. Since the mechanisms that move or help manifest online
activity into the real world remain a black box to scholars, this study explores the
online conversations of Proud Boys, their connectedness to each other, and how
online activity shifts around real-world events to better understand these obscure
processes. We analyze all self-nominated Proud Boys in the Gab sample, and com-
pare them to the larger Gab population. First, we make a comparison at the group-
level, next focus on several Proud Boys individually, and then do a temporal review
around two key events (e.g., Charlottesville). To do this, we rst present word cloud
visualizations. At the group level, we utilize word cloud visualizations to examine
variation in online dialogue. By comparing Proud Boys users to both the overall
community of Gab users, and to a known far-right extremist user, the Tree of Life
Synagogue shooter, we can better explore how the themes and words posted by
members of Proud Boys compare. These comparisons allow for the examination of
Proud Boys’ language to discern if they are more reective of the broader Gab audi-
ence, align more with extreme-right users, or reect a more gang-oriented language
specic to Alt-Right gangs.
Word cloud visualizations use the size and color of words to highlight their
repeated usage in an individual’s or group of individual’s posts (Wattenberg &
Viégas, 2008). These word cloud visualizations allow for a visual comparison of
Fig. 6.1 Time series of the frequency of posts, replies, and reshares from August 2016, the origin
of Gab, until the last week of October 2018 when the forum was temporarily suspended
S. E. Reid et al.
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what types of words or phrases are seen within and across people and groups. We
also compare and contrast the 25 most commonly used terms posted by each on
Gab, focusing particularly on their top ve words, to look for patterns across groups.
The second set of analyses is focused on a subset of Proud Boys who are active on
Gab throughout the data collection period. Since Proud Boys portray themselves as
a fraternity of brothers, rather than an Alt-Right gang, we also examine their indi-
vidual word clouds, and perform a network analysis of their conversations to better
understand their level of connectedness to each other. We conclude with a temporal
analysis of Gab posts comparing the 2 months prior to an event with the 2 months
following. The two events examined are a far-right “Free Speech” rally in Berkeley,
California, and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The goal of
this series of analyses is to lay a foundation to better understand the relationship
between online and ofine behaviors of Alt-Right gangs and their members.
6.7 Results andDiscussion
6.7.1 Group-Level Analysis
The rst set of results are the group-level word clouds that examine variation in the
themes and words used by Proud Boys, the broader Gab population, and the Tree of
Life Synagogue shooter. Comparing these word clouds allows us to better under-
stand the differences and similarities across groups of people, from your average
Gab user, to an ideologically driven lone shooter to discern where on the ideological
spectrum Proud Boys fall. By better understanding how members of Proud Boys
compare to these others we can qualitatively consider how to differentiate Alt-Right
gangs online when self-nomination is less discernable.
Looking at the word cloud visualization for the sample of self-nominated Proud
Boys’ members active on Gab, there are several terms frequently used (see Fig.6.2).
Descending in sequential order, the top ve words are Twitter, Gab, Deus Vult,
Trump, and Patriots. Unpacking the context related to these terms provides a broader
understanding of the online behaviors and focus of Proud Boys’ gangs and their
members. Given that Gab is praised particularly by those in the far right as a “free-
speech” Twitter alternative, it is unsurprising these two terms (Gab and Twitter) are
regularly posted as individuals involved in the Alt-Right (e.g., Proud Boys) are con-
tinually getting suspended, banned or de-platformed from more mainstream social
media platforms (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and they reconvene on Gab (see
Fielitz & Thurston, 2019; Klein, 2019; Livni, 2019; Owen, 2018; Wilson, 2016).
Proud Boys’ members are espousing their affection for Gab and their animosity
toward Twitter for preventing their use of mainstream social media platforms as
tools to spread their far-right rhetoric, recruit new members, maintain ties, intimi-
date and attack rivals (e.g., Antifa groups), and organize real-world activities.
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The term Deus Vult, Latin for “God wills it,” was a battle cry used during the
First Crusade and has long been associated with Islamophobia (Hagen, 2018; Kim,
2018). Recently, it has become an online meme used by the Alt-Right (Hagen, 2018;
Kim, 2018). Similar to other memes used by Proud Boys (see DeCook, 2018), a
meme like Deus Vult is a nostalgic attempt to create a revisionist history, selectively
pulling rhetoric aligning with and endorsing their “western chauvinist” mantra.
Such a meme is aimed at promoting the idea that “West Is Best”, invoking a need
for a warlike, racially motivated defense of Christian values against the delusion of
a Muslim invasion or the ongoing “white genocide,” a far-right conspiracy theory
(see Klein, 2019; Saslow, 2018). Additionally, the appropriation of a group of cru-
sader knights banding together reinforces the fraternal ethos espoused by Proud
Boys, who even established a Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK), a paramili-
tary stylized clique in the gang (DeCook, 2018; Finn, 2019; SPLC, 2019; Vitolo-
Haddad, 2019). The Deus Vult theme also connects with the corrupt use of the term
“Patriot,” instead of the less endearing term of nationalist (see Crothers, 2019;
Kemmelmeier & Winter, 2008; Klein, 2019; Vitolo-Haddad, 2019), as a xenophobic
call justifying the use of force and violence to protect western society from outsid-
ers (i.e., nonwhites). Last is Proud Boys’ repetitive use of the term “Trump.” Proud
Boys are supportive of President Trump and based upon the President’s tweets feel
that he supports them (see Aleem, 2019; DeCook, 2018; Finn, 2019; Kaplan, 2019;
Klein, 2019; Reid & Valasik, 2020; Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
Figure 6.3 highlights the word cloud visualization for the overall population of
Gab users. The results of this analysis show a slightly different pattern of word
usage. The top ve words, descending in sequential order, are MAGA, gabfam,
Trump, news, and speakfreely. As observed with Proud Boys, the Gab community
has not only become a haven for the more austere Alt-Right, but also the more main-
stream right wing, conservative personalities, sometimes referred to as the Alt-lite”
Fig. 6.2 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares involving a sample of Proud Boys
users, from August 2016 to October 2018. (Source: WordClouds.com)
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(e.g., Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Milo Yiannopoulos, etc.). Overall, the broader
Gab community also has an afnity toward President Trump, observed with the
frequent use of the terms MAGA and Trump (Berger, 2018; Crothers, 2019; Hawley,
2019; Stern, 2019). Relatedly, the recurrent use of “news” in gabs, replies, or
reshares is likely to be associated with President Trump’s sustained labeling of news
media that resists his viewpoint as “fake news,” a common tactic among the WPM
(Barkun, 2017; Berger, 2018; Crothers, 2019; Daniels, 2018; Hawley, 2019;
McVeigh & Estep, 2019; Neiwert, 2017; Stern, 2019). Finally, there is also resound-
ing support for the Gab community, as depicted in the term gabfam, and its pretense
of being a social media platform advocating free speech, as seen with the term
speakfreely.
The nal word cloud visualization is the shooter responsible for the attack on the
Tree of Life Synagogue. This visualization provides a divergent portrait of the more
ideologically driven far-right users on Gab (see Fig.6.4). Descending in sequential
order, the top ve words are Kike, Jew, Thanks, Vile, and Gab. There is some com-
monality in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter supporting the general Gab plat-
form and community, also observed by the Gab community and Proud Boys’
members; however, anti-Semitism is the string that connects the majority of his
words. For the synagogue shooter, the ideologically driven nature of his posts is
reected in the most commonly used terms “kike” and “Jew”; with “vile” routinely
being used as an adjective to describe two former terms. His gabs are almost exclu-
sively focused on anti-Semitic ideations mixed in with references to various other
conspiracy theories ranging from QAnon (see Coaston, 2018a) to Releasethememo,
about a mysterious GOP (the Republican Party, also referred to as the GOP or Grand
Old Party) document discrediting Robert Mueller’s investigation into President
Trump (see Moser, 2018). It is clear that the character of the synagogue shooter’s
Fig. 6.3 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares from all users on Gab, from August
2016 to October 2018. (Source: WordClouds.com)
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gabs are substantively different from both the overall Gab community and Proud
Boys’ members (see Phillips etal., 2018).
Investigating more broadly, overlap exists between the 25 most commonly used
words propagated by Proud Boys, the overall general Gab community, and the syna-
gogue shooter. That being said, only three words are professed in any frequency
across all three types of users: Gab, Trump, and MAGA (see Fig.6.5). It is not
remarkable that across these three a general level of support and advocacy for Gab
is documented, since Gab is providing a safe and unregulated digital Aryan free
Fig. 6.4 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares published by the Tree of Life
Synagogue shooter, from August 2016 to October 2018. (Source: WordClouds.com)
Fig. 6.5 Comparison of the four commonly used words frequency between Proud Boys users, all
users on Gab, and the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter, from August 2016 to October 2018
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space for the Alt-Right and larger WPM to utilize for their own purposes. These
analyses also highlight how widespread the championing of President Trump is
throughout Gab, with the routinized use of terms like “MAGA” and “Trump.” The
fact that President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric of coded language and dog whistles
(e.g., globalist, invader, nationalist) not only permeates but also resonates with Gab
users, Alt-Right gang members, and far-right extremists is concerning. McVeigh
and Estep (2019: 225) advise that “[w]hite nationalism is most consequential when
it enters the mainstream so mainstream, in this case, that it captured the White
House.” “Dubbed the ‘Trump Effect,’ this resurgent white supremacy is real and
violent: in the weeks following Trump’s win, hate crimes in the US surged to a level
not seen since the days immediately after 9/11” (Perry & Scrivens, 2018: 184).
Despite the existence of a relationship between President Trump and the Alt-Right,
it remains unclear how it exactly operates, except that it has been mutually bene-
cial for both, bestowing a propagandist platform that can be exploited by the Alt-
Right for their own advantage (see Crothers, 2019; Finn, 2019; Hawley, 2019;
Lyons, 2018; Main, 2018; McVeigh & Estep, 2019; Mudde, 2018; Neiwert, 2017;
Paxton, 2018; Saslow, 2018; Stern, 2019; Tenold, 2018). Supporting President
Trump becomes the lynchpin holding these three types of users together, even
potentially facilitating the process transforming a general Gab user into an Alt-
Right gang or radicalizing into a far-right extremist.
Another word linking Proud Boys to the overall Gab community is Islam. Proud
Boys’ self-expressed Islamophobia, as observed with terms such as Deus Vult, cor-
responds with the group’s “western chauvinism,” and the rhetoric that they are ght-
ing a Muslim invasion (DeCook, 2018; Hagen, 2018; Kim, 2018; Klein, 2019). As
Fig.6.5 shows, the fact that the larger Gab community appears even more sympa-
thetic to this corrupt point of view is concerning, and provides another bridge link-
ing Alt-Right gangs, like Proud Boys, to less extreme Gab users. It is these more
mainstream voices (e.g., Alt-Lite) that may actually act as conduits that could
seduce unafliated individuals to increasingly align with Alt-Right gangs or even
eventually radicalize to the extreme right (Stern, 2019; Wendling, 2018).
6.7.2 Individual-Level Analysis
The next series of analyses examines specically a subset of self-nominated Proud
Boys’ members on Gab at the individual and group levels. By focusing on this
group of Proud Boys the aim is to better understand how the group structure contrib-
utes to not only the rhetoric and online subculture but also organizing in the physical
world. The rst set of analyses begins with looking at three different categories of
Proud Boys members using Gab: the ofcial Gab account of the Proud Boys gang
(@theproudboysusa), an active Proud Boys’ member (@proudboy1), and a Proud
Boys’ member that is an inuencer on social media (@1776realnews). Subsequently,
the reach and connectivity of Proud Boys’ members in the larger Gab community
are examined along with the degree to which members are tied to other Proud Boys.
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Starting with the ofcial Gab account of the Proud Boys, @theproudboysusa, the
word cloud visualization depicted in Fig.6.6, the top ve words, in descending
order are Twitter, POYB,1 Join, Gab, and Gavin. There is a clear emphasis placed on
publicizing the Proud Boys’ brand along with the group’s founder and former
leader, Gavin McInnes. Additionally, the perverted point of view that Twitter is dia-
metrically opposed to “free speech” offered by Gab is also expressed. Given that
Twitter suspended many Proud Boys members for violating Twitter’s terms of ser-
vice, specically the prohibition of violent extremist groups, the animosity toward
Twitter is anticipated (see Klein, 2019). The number of users following @theproud-
boysusa is substantial with 380 followers, over ve times greater than the average
Gab user, which is around 72, yet signicantly less than the average Twitter account,
around 707 (see Lima etal., 2018). While not having the reach they would on
Twitter, it is clear that @theproudboysusa does have a considerable capacity to
inuence the overall Gab community. That being said, @theproudboysusa has a
limited number of gabs (30) over the study period. This could suggest several things.
Given that Gab is less well known and used, compared to more mainstream social
media platforms, it may not be the most desirable platform to recruit, maintain, and
communicate with fellow Proud Boys (see Fielitz & Thurston, 2019). Also, it seems
that Proud Boys as a gang family (e.g., Bloods, Crips, Folks, etc.) is not as well
organized as they or the news media depict (see ABC, 2018; Proud Boys, 2019;
SBS, 2019). It appears that Proud Boys are consistent with what Felson (2006) calls
“Big Gang Theory,in which an exaggerated view exists about a gang being more
1 PYOB is an acronym for “Proud of Your Boy,” a song from the Disney Broadway musical Aladdin,
modied by Gavin McInnes to become the name of the Alt-Right gang, Proud Boys, and has
become appropriated and used as a hashtag to appear alongside content from the group (see
Coaston, 2018b).
Fig. 6.6 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares published @theproudboysusa,
from August 2016 to October 2018. (Source: WordClouds.com)
S. E. Reid et al.
121
consequential than they are in reality. This elaboration includes being more highly
organized, controlling lots of territory or having lots of cliques/chapters, having
hierarchical leadership, and driving crime patterns (Felson, 2006). Such myth-
making has not only been a feature among conventional street gangs but also Alt-
Right gangs. For instance, the Hammerskins, thought to be the most exhaustive
racist skinhead gang in the United States, had only around 500 members, even
though there were upwards of more than 5000 racist skinheads nationwide
(Picciolini, 2017). The myth that Proud Boys are a highly organized, hierarchical
group is also supported by @theproudboysusa’s overall lack of importance in the
Proud Boys social network on Gab, with the Proud Boys’ ofcial account having
only a handful of ties with other Proud Boys’ users (see Fig.6.7).
Next, the online behavior of a garden-variety Proud Boys’ member, @proud-
boy1, is examined. Similar to the ofcial Gab account of the Proud Boys, @proud-
boy1 has a limited number of gabs (22). Again this suggests that Gab is less desirable
to use than more mainstream social media platforms. Table6.1 also indicates that @
proudboy1 also has less than a third of the followers (104) than @theproudboysusa.
This is not surprising, since it is expected the Proud Boys ofcial account would
have a greater number of followers, ties, and inuence than any nondescript mem-
ber. There seems to be somewhat of a similar pattern in the most commonly used
words by @proudboy1 with his top ve words, in descending order, Proud, Boys,
Portland, Facebook, and Gab (see Fig.6.8). Again, the publicizing of Proud Boys is
Fig. 6.7 Sociogram of friendship ties between self-nominated Proud Boys members on Gab
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Table 6.1 Describes each Proud Boys user’s number of gabs, number of followers, and their
degree centrality in their social network
Proud boys member Number of gabs Number of followers Degree centrality
@theproudboysusa 30 380 0.00092
@proudboy1 22 104 0.00025
@1776realnews 999 1255 0.00305
@303deplorablea37 120 0.00029
@whiskybreath 2 155 0.00038
@proudboynicka9 17 0.000041
@theothersal 1 36 0.000088
@luigi 879 213 0.00052
@yosefozia 10 38 0.000092
@timkcomic 431 114 0.00028
@gavin_mcinnesa6 16 0.00016
@proudboya8 101 0.00025
@proudboyslosangeles 37 96 0.00023
@proudboysofwa 2 55 0.00013
@proudboysc59 102 0.00025
@texaspoyb 3 26 0.000063
@proudboyscanada 8 151 0.00037
@proudboyssacramento 277 200 0.00049
@moticiana9 120 0.00029
aProud Boys users are connected to any other fellow user in the sample (i.e., isolates) and are not
included in the sociogram in Fig.6.7
Fig. 6.8 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares published @proudboy1, from
August 2016 to October 2018. (Source: WordClouds.com)
S. E. Reid et al.
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illustrated along with the intentional singling out of Gab. Instead of being juxta-
posed to Twitter, however, it seems that @proudboy1 is attempting to denigrate
Facebook, which also banned individuals involved in Alt-Right gangs (see Livni,
2019; Statt, 2018). Another interesting difference is the frequent reference to
Portland, which more recently has become an epicenter of real-world activity for
not only Proud Boys, but other Alt-Right gangs and far-right groups (Wilson, 2019).
The connectivity of @proudboy1 in the Proud Boys’ social network (see Fig.6.7)
shows even fewer ties among other Proud Boys users, so much so that @proudboy1
is part of a smaller clique of Proud Boys who are not directly tied to @theproudboy-
susa or even the clique @theproudboysusa. The fact that not every member of Proud
Boys is connected to @theproudboysusa further reinforces the argument that Proud
Boys overall composition is much more loosely structured, driven more by mem-
bers than a centralized leadership (Fig.6.9).
The nal type of Proud Boys user examined is a social media inuencer,
@1776realnews, known more broadly as General Deplorable across a variety of
social media platforms (see Dinkelspiel & Orenstein, 2017). What rst stands out
about @1776realnews is the number of gabs (999) that were posted by him over the
study period, over a 3000% difference than @theproudboysusa. Additionally,
@1776realnews has 1255 followers, over a 200% difference than @theproudboy-
susa. It is clear that @1776realnews has much greater connectivity and reach to the
overall Gab community than either @theproudboysusa or @proudboy1. Also,
@1776realnews has the largest degree centrality of any Proud Boys user in the
social network (see Fig.6.7). Thus, @1776realnews is able to act as a bridge,
attracting, guiding, and potentially enlisting recruits into Proud Boys. This process
mirrors an analogous process that has been going on for decades in the white power
music scene of subtly educating potential members about the WPM’s behavioral
expectations, social norms, and group dynamics (see Dyck, 2017; Love, 2017; Simi
Fig. 6.9 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares published @1776realnews, from
August 2016 to October 2018. (Source: WordClouds.com)
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& Futrell, 2015). This process of indoctrinating members is critical for Alt-Right
gangs, building a community with a similar viewpoint and clearly dening an in-
group (e.g., Proud Boys) and out-groups/rivals (e.g., Antifa) (see Reid & Valasik,
2020). Given the greater online stature and clout of @1776realnews on Gab and
other social media platforms, it interesting to see the variety of words that are fre-
quently used. @1776realnew’s top ve words are, in descending order, Twitter,
Deus Vult, Gab, Patriots, and Trump. Again, the pattern of frequently mentioning
both Twitter and Gab is most likely the admonishment of the former and praising
the latter, given that Twitter has banned @1776realnews several times. The diver-
gence @1776realnews makes from both @theproudboysusa and @proudboy1 is the
use of the terms Deus Vult and Patriots. The purposeful use of this coded language
is to incite xenophobia and suggest that violence and force are required to dispel an
invasion of nonwhites from entering or attempt to make nonwhites “go back” to
their “country of origin” (see ADL, 2019; Simon & Sidner, 2019). The reach and
inuence of social media inuencers like @1776realnews provide Proud Boys and
other Alt-Right gangs with a mouthpiece that is able to push incendiary and abhor-
rent rhetoric into the mainstream and make it seem less so given their perceived
authenticity and virtue.
6.7.3 Event Analysis
The nal set of analyses are focused on trying to better understand if online dia-
logue prior to and after a real-world event can help identify future events requiring
greater attention and possible intervention. These events, with the violence and
incendiary rhetoric that comes with them, often shock local communities where
these events take place, even when a city has experienced a prior event. The rst
event examined is a far-right “Free Speech” rally that took place in Berkeley,
California, on April 18, 2017. The rally was unauthorized but heavily publicized by
individuals angry that Ann Coulter’s UC Berkeley appearance was cancelled. This
event was attended by a variety of Alt-Right groups and gangs, including Proud
Boys, Identity Evropa, and Oathkeepers, and concluded with 20 arrests after violent
incidents broke out with counter-protesters (Bauer, 2017; Montgomery, 2017).
Figure6.10 displays the word cloud visualizations for self-identied Proud Boys’
members 2 months before and after this rally.
For the pre-event word cloud, the most commonly used terms of the top 25 words
are Trump, Obama, white, President, Twitter, Left, media, America, and Gab. After
the event, the top words shift order slightly to Trump, white, Obama, President,
Gab, love, rst, great, left, and America. As noted above, the appearance of the
terms Trump, Gab, and Twitter have been seen repeatedly within the word clouds of
Proud Boys and the larger Gab community. The increased use of the terms white and
free speech after the event are interesting since they highlight some of the rhetoric
around Proud Boys and other Alt-Right gangs using the guise of free speech to pro-
mote their anti-multicultural, xenophobic, and pro-white beliefs. The words shown
S. E. Reid et al.
125
are generally neutral and reect the general leanings of the broader Gab user com-
munity. Missing from this event word cloud were the coded words (e.g., Deus Vult,
patriot) or derogatory descriptors (e.g., vile). The overall lack of organization-based
discussion may be due to the timing of the event happening before many of these
users were de-platformed from the other major social media sites. More of the orga-
nization may have taken place on mainstream sites (e.g., Twitter or Facebook). In
the post-event word cloud, Breitbart and media appear and may be partially due to
the differential framing of the events of this rally by both Breitbart and the larger
“fake” media. Much of the shift between the pre- and post-Berkeley rally reects
the “free speech” rhetoric that was used to frame this rally after reports of the vio-
lence and arrests came out.
The second event is the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on
August 11th and 12th, 2017, that ended in the death of Heather Heyer and multiple
other violent incidents and arrests (see McAuliffe, 2019). The Unite the Right rally
was a shocking visual specter of the Alt-Right with white males brandishing tiki
Fig. 6.10 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares on Gab 2 months prior to the April
18, 2017, Berkeley, CA, “Free Speech” rally and the 2 months following the event. (Source:
WordClouds.com)
Fig. 6.11 Aggregated word cloud of gabs, reposts, and reshares on Gab 2 months prior to the
August 11–12, 2017, Charlottesville, VA, Unite the Right rally and the 2 months following the
event. (Source: WordClouds.com)
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126
torches and screaming “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.” A common
question both law enforcement and the general public asked was, “Could this have
been prevented?” and the examination of the online Gab dialogue may provide us
with some insights. Figure6.11 highlights the 2 months before and after Unite the
Right rally for all Gab users. Again, as the Unite the Right rally drew crowds from
a range of Alt-Right gangs, far-right groups, and other fringe entities all Gab users
were included in this analysis.
For the pre-event word cloud, 52 percent of the top 25 words are German (i.e.
die, und, ist, nicht, auf, and ein) and the other words in descending order are Trump,
White, Gab, CNN, President, Left, America, love, Twitter, and media. While it is
unclear why there is such a heavy presence of German articles and transition words,
it seems likely the words are used to troll other users with basic German (see Burack,
2017). A search of German events revealed that Germany’s general election took
place on September 24, 2017, and in the prelude to that event there was a rise of
far-right activity online, including on Gab, which could explain the presence of
German terms in the word cloud (Der Spiegel, 2017). That being said, the use of
these basic German conjunctions, prepositions, and articles along with the lack of
German nouns, makes it seem more likely that the use of these terms is “ironic”
trolling behavior of the Alt-Right rather than a real German discussion. Again, there
is not a lot of organizational discussions happening prior to the Unite the Right rally
but the appearance of German words is interesting since it highlights what may be
a very particular type of trolling that should be explored across social media plat-
forms. The post-event word cloud is much more reective of what we expected to
see in the aftermath of this type of event. The high-volume words include White,
Trump, Gab, free, Left, speech, America, Jews, media, Black, Antifa, and hate. There
are still some German conjunctions, prepositions, and articles included in this list
(i.e., die, und, and war) as well. The post-event word cloud highlights much of the
rhetoric seen during the Unite the Right rally, with the dialogue now including Jew,
Black, Antifa, and hate most likely in a negative connotation. White, Trump, and
Gab are more central to the overall online discussion which makes sense consider-
ing the pro-white and pro-Trump responses in the aftermath of this event. It is the
post-event word cloud that helps us better frame how events, and which elements of
an event, spread online. The volume shift of dialogue toward Alt-Right and far-right
rhetoric on Gab after Unite the Right is an important indication of how these types
of events impact online activity.
6.8 Conclusion
In this chapter, we described the phenomenon of Alt-right gangs and their back-
ground, and argued that they meet the criteria of a denition of such groups based
on the Eurogang denition of street gangs. A case study of one Alt-Right gang, the
Proud Boys, was aimed at exploring the role of social media in helping Alt-Right
gangs to advance their rhetoric, viewpoints, and subculture online and to understand
S. E. Reid et al.
127
how this online rhetoric connects to real-world violence. We qualitatively examined
the online presence of both the Proud Boys and the larger Gab community to better
understand differences and similarities across people and groups. User-driven word
cloud visualizations helped identify and compare how ideology is expressed and
where it falls on the hierarchy of online discussions for these different groups. Much
of the online discussions by the majority of members in Proud Boys, and even from
their ofcial account on Gab, does not resemble the more austere points-of-view of
far-right extremists (e.g., the shooter responsible for the attack on the Tree of Life
Synagogue). Instead Proud Boys are more in-line with the overall tone of the Gab
community, pushing the generalized talking points of the broader Alt-Right move-
ment (i.e., anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism, xenophobia, etc.). In fact, Proud
Boys discussion looks like what we would expect from other conventional gang
members online trash-talking rivals and calling attention to their group’s particu-
lar brand.
Our word cloud visualizations around events did not show any high-volume dis-
cussions of organization for these events. Some of this may be due to many of the
members still being active on more mainstream social media sites and organizing on
those platforms. It may also be partially due to these events just not being well orga-
nized in general, with some events drawing large crowds and others very small
crowds but no real understanding as to why there is such variation. The post-event
visualizations did help us understand how dialogue online can shift after a major
event. The post-Unite the Right rally online word cloud was lled with more overtly
incident-driven rhetoric than the pre-rally word cloud. This is valuable as this work
moves forward since the immediate aftermath of a violent event (both for traditional
gangs and Alt-Right gangs) can be critical in the myth-making around these groups.
Early intervention into how this information is spread may help limit some of this.
While this study is one of the rst to examine Proud Boys’ online to real-world
activity using the unique Gab dataset, it is not without limitations. This study
focuses on both a small subset of self-nominated Proud Boys and real-world events.
Future research should examine a wider range of individuals and events to better
understand how generalizable the current ndings are and to supplement the dataset
for future analyses. It would also be extremely benecial for future research to
examine how individuals and events are discussed across different social media
platforms, from more relegated platforms (e.g., 4chan, Gab) to more mainstream
ones (e.g., Twitter). This study also targets publicly known Proud Boys, while more
reserved members of Proud Boys may have greater levels of online activity but are
not known to researchers. Future research should attempt to locate a broader range
of individuals involved in Alt-Right gangs to increase the range of understanding
about their patterns of online and ofine activity.
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S. E. Reid et al.
... Despite white power youth groups, particularly long-standing racist skinheads, being treated as the "Schrödinger's cat" of street gangs (i.e., simultaneously being regarded as a street gang and not being regarded as a street gang), they easily qualify as a street gang based on the Eurogang definition (Klein 1996(Klein , 2001(Klein , 2009Klein & Maxson 2006;Reid, Valasik & Bagavathi 2020;Simi 2006;Valasik & Reid 2018b. This definitional tension between whether or not white power youth groups are considered a street gang is discussed in much more depth in chapter 1, where the features required for a group to be defined as an alt-right gang are described. ...
... Under this definition, racist skinhead groups would clearly be considered a street gang, as indicated by Pyrooz and colleagues' (2018) recent study. Furthermore, over the last two decades many edited volumes of street gang scholarship include research that discusses or focuses on such white power gang groups (see Dekleva 2001;De Waele & Pauwels 2016;Kersten 2001;Lien 2001;Reid et al. 2020;Salagaev, Shashkin, Sherbakova & Touriyanskiy 2005;Sela-Shayovitz 2012;Shashkin 2008;Simi 2006). For example, Klein (2001: 17) stated in The Eurogang Paradox, "Skinheads-more prominent in Europe than in the U.S.-stretch the meaning of street gangs; they are less street-oriented, and more focused on a particular crime pattern, for example. ...
... Even though white supremacists have utilized the internet for decades (see Back 2002;Borgeson & Valeri 2005Daniels 2009aDaniels , 2009bDaniels , 2018Donovan et al. 2019;T. Morris 2017), the larger alt-right movement readily employs digital communications (e.g., social media, imageboards, forums) to downplay the extreme rhetoric of white supremacist ideology through irony and humor, typically by using memes (see DeCook 2018;Frielitz & Thurston 2019;Froio & Ganesh 2019;Hawley 2018Hawley , 2019Nagle 2017;Neiwert 2017;Reid et al. 2020;Tuters 2019;Wendling 2018). The intersection of conventional street gangs and white power groups corresponds to traditional white supremacist gangs (e.g., Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Lowriders, Peckerwoods). ...
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... Gattinara and Pirro (2019) argues that extreme right parties are best characterised as a social movement rather than as party political, due to a surge in "extra-parliamentary grassroots activism". The emergence of hybrid organisations-active online and in street politics, yet not contesting elections (Reid, Valasik, and Bagavathi, 2020)-has accelerated this shift. Organisation levels vary across the European radical right. ...
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Full-text available
Alt-Right Gangs provides a timely and necessary discussion of youth-oriented groups within the white power movement. Focusing on how these groups fit into the current research on street gangs, Shannon E. Reid and Matthew Valasik catalog the myths and realities around alt-right gangs and their members; illustrate how they use music, social media, space, and violence; and document the risk factors for joining an alt-right gang, as well as the mechanisms for leaving. By presenting a way to understand the growth, influence, and everyday operations of these groups, Alt-Right Gangs informs students, researchers, law enforcement members, and policy makers on this complex subject. Most significantly, the authors offer an extensively evaluated set of prevention and intervention strategies that can be incorporated into existing anti-gang initiatives. With a clear, coherent point of view, this book offers a contemporary synthesis that will appeal to students and scholars alike.
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