Far-right group Oath Keepers could soon face particularly severe repercussions for their actions in addition to a series of internet bans. A federal grand jury in DC has unsealed seditious conspiracy charges against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 others for their alleged roles in violating the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Rhodes and his supporters are accused of planning to use force to oppose the certification of the electoral college vote, including the direct attempt to seize the Capitol as well as through several teams of “rapid reaction forces” which planned to deliver firearms and other weapons to extremists inside the building.
The digital know-how of the Oath Keepers played a significant role in the charges. The paramilitary group discussed plans with co-conspirators via encrypted messaging apps, social media, text messages and websites, according to the Justice Department. Federal investigators revealed they had used Signal messages in connection with the case, although it was not clear how they got the talks – CNBC speculated that a focus group participant leaked the content to federal agents.
Rhodes and Edward Vallejo, who are said to have helped coordinate the rapid reaction teams, are the only ones facing charges for the first time. The others, including prominent members like Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins, were already facing indictments. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The lawsuit could effectively bring down a group long accused of promoting evil both online and offline. The Oath Keepers had threatened online violence, prompting a Twitter ban in September 2020, and disseminated COVID-19 conspiracy theories that sometimes included hashtags related to QAnon. The group’s foray into the Capitol, meanwhile, was in part fueled by online election disinformation promoting unsubstantiated allegations of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential vote.
The Oath Keepers have already lost much of their online presence in the months before and after the Capitol incident, but the new accusations could make it even more difficult for the group or its members to maintain that representation on the internet. It also highlights social media’s flawed attempts to tackle violent organizations and the misinformation that feeds them. While more aggressive crackdowns would not necessarily have stopped the 2021 violation, outlets like Facebook have acknowledged that they could have done more to curb the groups that spread and act on this disinformation.
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