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Digital Platforms and Extremism 2: Electric Boogaloo

Digital Platforms and Extremism 2: Electric Boogaloo
8th June 2020 Marc-André Argentino
In Insights

Increasingly the “boogaloo” movement has been making the news with its capacity to mobilise protestors and spread disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the Boogaloo Bois have gained increased attention. Their Hawaiian shirts and the meme culture they originate from may have led some to not take them seriously; however, the past few months have shown otherwise with one individual arrested for livestreaming his attempt at killing a police officer, and another arrested for building pipe bombs.

Most recently, on 31 May 2020, three men were arrested on a state criminal complaint alleging conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, material support for committing an act of terrorism and multiple explosives violations. The men sought to use the protests following the death of George Floyd to cause a riot between protesters and police by firebombing the protest.

Based on reporting and their social media profiles, the men appear to be part of the Boogaloo Bois. The word “boogaloo” has its roots in an Internet meme dating back to the early 2000s. It references the 1984 film “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”, which was indistinguishable from the first ‘Breakin” film. The meme “electric boogaloo” has been applied to sequels of anything on the Internet. Though it is at times still used as an Internet joke, increasingly in extremist circles it is used to reference a coming revolution in the form of a second civil war.

The “boogaloo” ideologies in extremist circles are as flexible as their use of social media platforms. This movement is a decentralised grouping which encompasses anti-government, militia, white supremacists and libertarian ideologies. It is important to highlight that within the boogaloo movement, gun ownership and libertarianism precedes white supremacist or neo-Nazi ideologies, forming the core of the anti-government and anti-law-enforcement “resistance”.

In mainstream social media posts the primacy of gun ownership and libertarianism for the movement is clear. Since the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, page administrators have attempted to disavow racism and Nazism promoting gun ownership in black communities as a means of defence from the police.

Anti-government accelerationists like the Boogaloo Bois view the government’s reaction to Black Lives Matter protests as an expression of government tyranny, echoing their own “reopen” protests weeks prior. Though Boogaloo communities on open social media have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from white supremacist or neo-Nazi messaging, it is difficult to distinguish their ideology from the explicitly neo-Nazi and white supremacist parts of the Internet.

So how did an Internet meme spill over from 4chan to become mainstreamed on social media? Boogaloo communities got their start on 4chan’s /k/ board. /k/ is the weapons board, where users call themselves “kommandos” and features discussions about the second amendment, women in the armed services, military history, knives, etc. The /k/ board is the libertarian sibling of the more neo-nazi /pol/ board.

However, the mainstreaming of the boogaloo movement has not occurred on 4chan. Rather, it has happened on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Discord, YouTube, Pinterest, Gab, and Telegram.

On Reddit, the boogaloo movement dates back to at least 2014. There are approximately 43,000 submissions with 270,000 comments (some of these are from communities that have been taken down by Reddit in February and May of 2020). The most prominent subreddit is r/weekendgunnit with 91,000 members. r/weekendgunnit is the Reddit equivalent of 4chan’s /k/, to this end the subreddit plays a role in mainstreaming and socialising a wider pool of individuals to boogaloo ideologies, similarly to how QAnon was mainstreamed from 8chan via Reddit. The boogaloo movement was given a space on Reddit to grow. Following the arrests in Vegas, the subreddit has been trying to distance itself from white supremacy due to the increased media attention.

Twitter is usually a playground for mainstreaming extremist content, though over the past two years, boogaloo related hashtags have only generated 48,000 tweets from 24,000 unique authors. Of note, half of all Twitter content around these hashtags were generated between January and June 2020. A closer analysis of the Twitter content in 2020 shows that news sites and journalists generated more content around “boogaloo” than actual individuals from the boogaloo movement. What the data indicates is that on Twitter, the recent mainstreaming of the movement has been from those reporting on the pandemic and protests.

Facebook-owned platforms appear to be the central places used by the movement to recruit, organise and spread its propaganda, as was recently highlighted by Bellingcat. Boogaloo Facebook pages carry the mark of 4chan subculture with many of the pages using /k/ in their name to avoid the use of “boogaloo”. At the time of writing, there are 87 public pages and 13 private groups actively promoting the boogaloo movement. All the public pages have a total of 486,000 likes and since the start of 2020 these pages have generated 4.43 million interactions. On Instagram, there are 108 accounts that I’ve identified linked to the boogaloo movement that have a total of 146,000 followers and have generated 2.32 million interactions.

The public pages are primarily used to spread boogaloo propaganda, sell merchandise and socialise individuals to their narratives. It is a hodgepodge of content. At the macro level, there are memes, apocalyptic narratives, martyr narratives, pro-2A content, weapon content, anti-government propaganda, and even the worshiping of David Koresh with pages using him as their profile picture, in their memes or even locating their page at the compound of the Branch Davidians. At the micro level, active users in the public pages are also found in the private pages on Facebook. In these groups, the focus is more organisational and tactical than in the public pages. Facebook events have also played a role in organising and coordinating during the “reopen” protests.

Telegram plays a different role in the boogaloo movement, where boogaloo groups are explicitly more aligned with neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies. Their accelerationist intentions are not hidden behind dog whistles, as they are on other social media platforms where explicit calls to violence will lead to actions by the platforms against accounts. A recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue highlighted boogaloo channels which are promoting explicit calls to violence. Their report on the boogaloo movements and the pandemic echoes my personal finding on the boogaloo movement and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Though done differently, calls to action are coming from both the accelerationist and white supremacist factions of the boogaloo movements on public Telegram channels.

My research on the use of social media by the boogaloo movement has shown that communication platforms have created hospitable environments, giving the movement a place to grow, recruit, and organise. Though some may have discredited the recent iteration of the boogaloo movement that has been sporting pepe patches and wearing Hawaiian shirts to rallies, the pandemic and BLM protests have shown that this flourishing movement needs to be taken seriously, not only by the platforms, but also by those reporting on them. Behind the memes and brightly-coloured shirts lies an ideology that threatens public safety and our democracy.