Website Tailored To Paramilitary Groups Experiences Explosive Growth

Jun 2, 2021
Originally published on June 2, 2021 6:33 am
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After a mob stormed the United States Capitol in January, many of the digital spaces where the far right gather, places like the social media site Parler, went dark. Certain Facebook pages were deleted. But one website tailored to far-right paramilitary groups has remained active. Odette Yousef of our member station WBEZ reports.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: To some observers, January's insurrection at the Capitol may have looked like a failure. The mob did not stop the certification of votes, and now hundreds are facing criminal charges. But if you went online to see what people were saying on a site called MyMilitia, you might have concluded the opposite. There, it was all gloating and further calls to violence.

ALEX FRIEDFELD: Within that bubble, they haven't really gotten that message.

YOUSEF: That's Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher who monitors extremism for the Anti-Defamation League. And one of the primary spaces he monitors is MyMilitia. MyMilitia has been compared to the dating app Tinder because it helps users browse and join or form unlawful militia groups. The website has about 30,000 users, and Friedfeld says it marks a new phase in America's tradition of anti-government paramilitary organizing.

FRIEDFELD: It used to be that if you wanted to join a militia, it was a difficult process. Right? You had to actually really work for it. And now with the matter of a few clicks, you can be linked up with people in your area who share the same mentality. And MyMilitia's really led that explosion.

YOUSEF: While some of these groups call themselves militia, constitutional experts say that's a misnomer, that the only legal militia in the U.S. is the National Guard. Most of the people who attacked the Capitol were not part of any self-styled militia. Still, these groups are growing and spreading, and the interest has been reflected in MyMilitia's explosion this past year. That's how long it's been run by Joshua Ellis.

JOSHUA ELLIS: I own a water damage and mold remediation company. We do remodeling, handyman work, all kinds of stuff.

YOUSEF: Ellis is 41 and lives in suburban Chicago. He has a long history of not paying taxes and has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at least three times. He also calls himself an Army veteran. In fact, he was an Iowa National Guardsman for six months and left before he finished advanced training.

Ellis didn't create MyMilitia. A website developer in Ohio did and gave it to Ellis last year. At the time, Ellis was getting some attention for organizing anti-lockdown protests in several states. He claims he used to be with a private paramilitary group in Illinois, but left. And he actually said he doesn't see any point to joining a group now.

ELLIS: Militias have been regulated into being nothing more than prepper groups. They practice camping and starting fires and stuff like that.

YOUSEF: But online it's different. He urges everybody to join a group.

Ellis characterizes his site as simply a forum for free speech and says its moderators keep it clean of calls to violence. And he rejects the claim that it further radicalizes people. He notes that so far, nobody charged in relation to the insurrection has a known connection to MyMilitia. Nonetheless, the insurrection did have consequences for him.

Is this site generating money?

ELLIS: It used to (laughter). It used to until cancel culture got a hold of it.

YOUSEF: Google stopped placing ads on MyMilitia after January 6. A spokesperson says the site violated Google's, quote, "policy against inciting hatred and violence." For activists on the left who've been organizing to disrupt MyMilitia's operations, that news was both encouraging and frustrating.

TALIA LAVIN: Well, it would have been nice if that would have happened before the attempted putsch. But, you know, bygones are bygones, I suppose.

YOUSEF: Talia Lavin has organized social media campaigns to try to take MyMilitia offline. She also writes about right-wing militant groups. For her, the urgency behind taking down MyMilitia comes from seeing how the rhetoric on the site around a, quote, "stolen election" has not cooled.

LAVIN: The genie, once out of the bottle, is very difficult to put back in. And it would be really great if the several tech companies with the power to take MyMilitia offline today actually acted and exercised their power to do so.

YOUSEF: Ellis says he has been dropped by other services like PayPal, Zelle and Venmo. And so he claims he's now building a competitor, a fundraising site where extremist causes can pull in donations.

For NPR News, I'm Odette Yousef.

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