Here's Where The Threat Of Militia Activity Around The Elections Is The Highest

Oct 22, 2020
Originally published on October 22, 2020 12:01 pm

Five states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon — have the highest risk of seeing increased militia activity around the elections: everything from demonstrations to violence.

That's the conclusion of a new report by ACLED, a crisis-mapping project, and the research group MilitiaWatch. They worked together to map out potential hot spots for militia-style activities around the elections.

Their report looks at states where militias have had recruitment drives and training, where they have cultivated relationships with law enforcement and where there has been substantial engagement in anti-coronavirus-lockdown protests.

Those factors are local indicators of whether militia activity might occur. For example, cultivating relationships with police suggests that law enforcement might view the militia groups as helpful, rather than a threat. And anti-coronavirus-lockdown protests are linked to militia activity because many of those groups believe that the state doesn't have the authority to impose such restrictions.

The report comes out as the risk of political violence around Election Day by vigilantes or militia-style groups is increasing, researchers say. Far-right, militia-style groups have been busy this year: Their numbers are growing, their online chatter is increasing and their threats are becoming more specific.

"In the conversations that I observe, the heat is higher. The vitriol is greater," said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism and online spaces.

The range of real-world militia activities that could occur include everything from armed demonstrations to voter intimidation to violence. The rhetoric is heated, in part, because a mosaic of groups on the far right with different goals agree on one thing: that President Trump can lose the election only if it's rigged.

"There's circulation of rumors of left-wing intervention at the polls or in the election, which has led to individuals and militia groups discussing primarily showing up armed at the polls, like to see if there's anything suspicious or what they deem suspicious," said Hampton Stall, the founder of MilitiaWatch, which tracks the right-wing militia movement.

The commentary and planning are getting harder to track online. Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on militia-style groups, but such groups have moved the conversation to other places. Those places include social media networks that are more permissive with the groups' content and discussion boards where militia members can meet and organize.

"It becomes a lot harder for people like me and my colleagues to track them, because we watch them kind of splinter into other places," said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The threats by militia-style groups have been growing in number, vitriol and specificity — culminating in things like the alleged plot by six men in Michigan to kidnap that state's governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

"There's a lot more worst-case-scenario thinking that is leading to fantasizing about violence and very real militarized action that hasn't really been as widespread in the militia movement as it is now," said Stall.

A patchwork of federal and state laws against voter intimidation exists to protect the process.

And voting rights activists say they worry that the attention generated by the militias could depress voter turnout. They say that even if there is an increased risk of militia activity, it is important to keep it in perspective.

The risk, says Gerry Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, is that people may be afraid to go to the polls if there is too much hype around militia rhetoric.

"It is designed to maybe keep people from showing up because they fear that there might be some activity, when, in fact, it's just a chilling commentary," he told NPR.

All of this adds to the tensions in an already deeply contested and divisive election season.

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We got more news from the federal government tonight about cyberattacks on the U.S. election. Yesterday, the story was about efforts by Iran; tonight, we're learning more about attacks originating from Russia. NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and joins us now.

Hi, Miles.


SHAPIRO: What have you learned about the newest attacks?

PARKS: So these attacks came from one of Russia's most formidable hacking groups, sometimes known as Energetic Bear or Dragonfly. The U.S. government says that over the past month or so, they've been observed targeting a range of government networks across the country, including aviation systems and in some cases election systems. This isn't new for this group. A couple of years ago, there were reports about them hacking into nuclear power plants in this country.

So in the cases of two local election jurisdictions, local government systems were breached. And because of the simplicity of those networks, the attackers also got some access to a limited amount of voter data. But federal government officials are stressing that there's no indication that this was some sort of targeted attack on election infrastructure. Basically, what they say is that these sorts of attackers are probing for vulnerabilities anywhere. They were able to find them in the case of this county. And once they got in, they were able to access some voter data.

SHAPIRO: Well, we know that Russia's interference directed at the U.S. spiked in 2016 and has never really stopped since then. How does this latest revelation fit into the picture?

PARKS: Right. What election officials say is that - national security officials say, I should say, is that there's comparatively less activity from Russia on the election interference landscape right now than there was in 2016 in terms of active attempts of breaches. But there's been a lot of discussion since 2016 about what happened then and how to protect our elections now. What U.S. election officials tell us - and I cannot stress this for listeners enough - there is no indication that these sorts of attacks or the attacks in 2016 led to any changes of votes or any access to the tallies of those votes.

But what foreign adversaries are targeting are the systems basically one step or two steps removed from those vote-tallying systems. Maybe it's a website that reports results or gives voters information, for example, potentially with an effort to maybe try to affect those sorts of sources of information, make a hack seem like it was worse than it was and try to sow some doubt in those results, even if the actual underlying data wasn't actually touched.

SHAPIRO: Miles, just a couple days ago, federal officials indicted six Russian officers for hacking into other countries' elections. What are they doing in response to this activity?

PARKS: Right. We know that Russia has an interest in bringing down a number of democracies around the world, not just ours. One thing they're doing this time around that's really different than the last presidential election is talking about this sort of interference openly. The director of national intelligence and the FBI director convened this hastily convened press conference yesterday to talk about another foreign interference effort, this one from Iran, where this Iranian group was sending emails to voters, intimidating emails, basically trying to tell them to vote for President Trump - they were to registered Democrats - or else, basically, is what they said.

The Treasury Department said today it's imposing new sanctions on Iranian government agencies that American officials believe are behind that attack. And now they're looking basically to try and attribute this election interference today to basically give voters an eye out for what to look for in the future.

SHAPIRO: Iran yesterday, Russia today - is this just what life is going to be like at least until Election Day on November 3?

PARKS: I hate to say it, but it kind of looks that way. You know, we knew that these foreign adversaries still had an interest in our democracy. But what election officials say is that the two things voters can do to kind of fight back is, A, look for trusted information on all of this stuff. Misinformation is a huge part of this election interference puzzle. And then the other thing is, don't be discouraged to go out and vote. Don't have these doubts and these fears affect people who are, you know, thinking about going out and voting. That is what the adversaries' underlying goals are in a lot of these cases, is to try and get voters to not participate. Election officials say don't let them win.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Miles Parks. Thank you.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.