White supremacists behind the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, exhibited a greater level of planning and coordination than in any previous violent shows of strength by hate groups, a first-of-its-kind study found — an event that researchers say bears “startling” resemblances to the recent assault on the U.S. Capitol.
A two-year analysis of online chat logs and communications tied to the event reveals what the authors coined “immersive terrorism,” a series of violent or terroristic acts perpetrated across multiple “theatres” of conflict and over a prolonged period of time, according to the paper, published in early January in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.
The Charlottesville rally, which left three dead and dozens more injured, demonstrates how social media and dark web forums have empowered and emboldened an entirely new generation of white supremacists across the world, said Emily Blout, lead author of the paper and a professional lecturer at American University’s School of Communication.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a national terrorism bulletin warning of “heightened threat” of violence by hate groups in the weeks following U.S. President Joseph Biden’s inauguration a week earlier.
“The Unite the Right rally was really designed and conceptualized as the coming out of this new generation of the alt right and of the far right, who believe that white culture is under attack,” Blout told The Academic Times. “For many, many years, the same strain of white supremacy movement had operated in the dark recesses of the Internet … And this was just in real life, coming out of those people.”
The paper, co-authored by Professor Patrick Burkart of Texas A&M University, took a multi-method approach that examined thousands of archived in-group messages, memes, blog posts and other means of communication in the months before, during and after the rally, and how they helped organizers frame the event as a “military campaign.”
In doing so, Blout and Burkart frame the rally on an “historical timeline,” rather than a “one-off or sui generis conflict,” that reflects growing racial tensions in the U.S. amid activist calls to remove monuments dedicated to Confederate generals and soldiers. The paper is the first to take a multidisciplinary look at the mechanics driving the event.
The authors draw on the notion that people use language and symbols to make sense of the world, a sociological theory known as symbolic interactionism, to conclude that the rally was “centrally organized” months ahead of time and unfolded in three autonomous and interconnected ways: physical violence, information warfare and two cyberattacks against the city of Charlottesville.
“It wasn’t just a publicity campaign, it wasn’t just a martial campaign and it wasn’t just a cyberattack,” Blout said “It was all of those things in a way that is just much more complex and comprehensive than we’ve seen before.”
Blout, a resident of Charlottesville, observed that physical presence of these groups began months before in May 2017, when neo-Nazi speaker Richard Spencer led a group of white men in wielding torches while chanting “Jews will not replace us” in the center of town, foreshadowing the events to come on Aug. 11 and 12.
In the months to follow, groups like the KKK held smaller rallies centered on the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Just days before, flyers appeared on car windshields reading “DIVERSITY IS A CODE FOR WHITE GENICIDE (sic).”
Despite residents’ complaints to the Charlottesville City Council, no official action was taken in response to such events in the leadup to the rally, Blout said, adding to “frustration” among locals who felt powerless against such brazen displays of racism.
“A lot of those early warning signs were not only the kinds in the physical sense, but many were also symbolically mediated and going on openly on Reddit, Twitter as well as in encrypted chats,” Blout said.
Archived conversations on venues like Discord, a gaming chat platform, reveal that hate groups such as Vanguard America and League of the South participated in “highly vetted” channels where they planned various logistical elements of the rally in military terms.
In one message, a user named “Heinz -MI” detailed defensive positions to defend “VIPs” like Spencer around the Lee statue. It also calls for scouts in “plain clothes” on the outer perimeter to look out for antifa activists and counter-protesters.
On a channel dubbed “Op-Ord,” derived from the military term operation order, members used terms like “friendlies” and “hostiles” to distinguish between participants and members of antifa, who are known to brawl with neo-Nazi protesters. Members also exchanged logistical information on travel, weaponry and contingency plans.
Social media was used widely as a recruiting tool that helped draw in a younger audience, primarily made of “white and male gamers,” the authors wrote. The rally was live-streamed with the intention to “evoke fear and signal power” of the group.
Rally participants propagated conspiracy theories online that the mayor of Charlottesville had ordered the police to “stand down” to allow white supremacists and counter-protesters to fight one another, fomenting confusion and distrust toward the authorities.
Both physical and informational campaigns continued even days after the event, inflicting additional terror on residents for a prolonged period of time, the authors said.
Through forensic analysis and a Freedom of Information Act request, Blout also found that the city government was targeted in two cyberattacks that disrupted the city’s internal and external communication, including emails and emergency dispatch.
At least one group potentially linked to Unite the Right, New World Hackers, claimed responsibility for downing the city’s website on Aug. 12 in a hybrid denial of service attack. A second attack on Aug. 23 that denied the city access to its network logs was not claimed by any particular group, though evidence suggests that it was linked to a Unite the Right actor, the authors wrote.
Blout noted that there appeared to be a number of similarities in the tactics used during the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol in which thousands of insurrectionists sought to disrupt a congressional vote certifying the results of the 2020 election.
For example, media reports and video footage suggest that reconnaissance of the Capitol had taken place days before the attack. Blout also said there was “a psy-ops officer” on the ground marching with rioters who supported former U.S. President Donald Trump.
“This was planned very much as a martial campaign where they were going to breach the Capitol … and assault the lawmakers,” adding that the participants included key players in Unite the Right such as far-right personality Anthime Joseph Gionet, also known as “Baked Alaska,” and anti-government militia Three Percenters.
Blout, an historian whose research focuses on politics and media, said “holistic” studies of this kind are rare, particularly in terrorism studies, because scholars generally tend to be “siloed” within their discipline with little incentive to take on an expansive, challenging piece of research.
But for Blout, the subject is also a deeply personal one.
“I was both kind of a witness and an actor in what happened, and that gave me a really unique purview to what was happening,” Blout said, noting that her proximity also gave her easier access to public documents and resources that aided the research.
“It was also kind of a therapeutic process for me,” she added. “It was traumatic for every single person who went through this in Charlottesville, and we’re still dealing with that trauma. And so part of this was an exercise in acknowledging and understanding what happened, making sense in that way.”
While this study contained only one case study, future research may focus on racially motivated mass shootings such as the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand or the 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas.
“I’m really hopeful that through more publicizing of the research that we’ll get to that point where we can find similarities,” she said. “I doubt these tactics are specific to this one movement.”
The paper, “White Supremacist Terrorism in Charlottesville: Reconstructing ‘Unite the Right,’” was published online on Jan. 4 in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. It was authored by Emily Blout, a professional lecturer at the School of Communication at American University and adjunct professor of political communication at Georgetown University, and Patrick Burkart, a professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University. Blout is also program director for peace and security at ReThink Media, where she serves as senior liaison to groups working on issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and defense spending.