“Right now, if everybody’s ready, we can have a real quick course on what they call the use of force contingency,” announced the moderator of a militia chatroom on Zello, a walkie-talkie app where far-right groups have been organizing, often anonymously, over the past several years. “Lethal force is where you shoot or use a weapon to kill somebody in self-defense.”
The moderator, who described himself as a combat vet, was readying the group for the upcoming presidential election. Although they had botched the correct term, “the use of force continuum,” they went on: “I’m gonna go over some stuff here because I just realized how close we are,” he said, addressing the chat room’s more than 30 members.
In the lead up to the 2020 election, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have begun cracking down on “militarized social movements,” removing thousands of associated pages and groups. The bans were part of a patchwork solution to platforms empowering right-wing violence, or at least becoming a tool for it. Federal investigators announced last week that members of the Boogaloo Bois, an anti-government extremist movement best known for online shitposting and wearing aloha shirts, had used Facebook Messenger to discuss plans for inciting violence across state lines earlier in the year.
Now, users booted from these websites are increasingly relying on an ecosystem of alternative apps and platforms like Zello, MeWe, Parler, Gab, and Rocket.Chat to connect and mobilize online. On Zello and MeWe, people claiming to be U.S. militia members are stoking fear about post-election unrest, encouraging their compatriots to prepare for uprisings in major cities. A few claim to be organizing in-person training exercises while others have expressed their willingness to show up at events, even across state lines. These comments take on new meaning against the backdrop of President Donald Trump urging his followers to rally a 50,000-person poll-watcher “army.”
Unlike Gab, which is routinely criticized for tolerating hate speech, and even Parler, which received a fair amount of attention this year for emerging as an unfettered Twitter alternative, Zello and MeWe have flown relatively under the radar despite hosting similarly alarming content. While lawmakers and watchdogs press Facebook and Twitter to cleanse themselves of militia groups, these lesser-known alternatives are providing them refuge.
To understand how communities are thriving in the vacuum of moderation on these platforms, OneZero joined and followed dozens of groups on Zello and MeWe, a website most similar to Facebook, and observed how people identifying as militia members used them to connect with local organizations, schedule training meetups, trade “intel,” and muster boots-on-the-ground support ahead of November’s contentious election.
“Lethal force is where you shoot or use a weapon to kill somebody in self defense.”
OneZero’s look inside Zello follows an extensive On the Media investigation by journalists Hampton Stall and Micah Loewinger that revealed how hundreds of far-right groups have coalesced on the platform. On the Media documented activity from the Proud Boys to the Boogaloo Bois movement to Three Percenter militias across the nation. They also found that Zello’s lack of moderation could be traced to the company’s CEO, Bill Moore, who reportedly expressed a personal unwillingness to deter militias from organizing on the app.
Zello launched in 2012 as a push-to-talk two-way communication app. It claims to have 130 million users and was described by the New York Times as “something like a party-line phone call among a handful — or hundreds — of friends or collaborators.” A quick search of the app’s public channels reveals that Zello is used by everyone from Uber drivers to truckers to police dispatchers. The company claims its platform was used during the 2010 rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners, though OneZero could not independently confirm this claim. Last year, Wired reported that Zello had become “a lifeline” for Venezuelans living under the Maduro regime, specifically for its privacy features that allow people to chat virtually anonymously.
But Zello has been used for sinister causes as well. In 2018, Wired reported that Zello permitted accounts with ISIS flag avatars and “jihadist descriptions” to linger on the platform despite Moore knowing of their existence. Additionally, three Kansas men convicted by a federal jury of conspiring to bomb an apartment complex that housed Somali refugees coordinated the planned attack on Zello, where they communicated daily.
While the channels OneZero listened to are too small a sample size to draw any broad conclusions about Zello’s use by militias, the app did harbor troubling conversations about pre- and post-election unrest and armed civilian groups.
In a patriot movement channel, one member spoke about the foiled plan by 13 Michigan militia members to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, calling it a move that was “absolutely in the right direction.” This person added: “We the people do have the right to exercise a citizen’s arrest on any people that are in the position of power that are abusing it.”
Other Zello channels were overwhelmed by talk about the presidential election.
“I have a feeling it’s gonna get a lot worse man,” a member of a Minutemen channel said. “Within the next week or so, you’re gonna see a lot more shit.”
“We’ve been prepping for it for four or five days now, getting everything set just in case,” replied another member.
In 2018, Wired reported that Zello permitted accounts with ISIS flag avatars and “jihadist descriptions” to linger on the platform.
OneZero joined 46 publicly listed Zello channels that labeled themselves as “patriot” or far-right groups — mostly state and local militias, Three Percenters, Minutemen, and Oath Keepers. (One called itself “Antifa Exterminators.”) Only a few of these channels were active on a regular basis, typically at night and on weekends. The majority of members were men, and many identified as veterans.
Some of the most active channels loosely affiliated themselves with the Three Percenters movement and Oath Keepers. “Threepers” or “III%” derive their name from the claim that 3% of American colonists took up arms against the British. Oath Keepers similarly view themselves as constitutional defenders willing to respond to any perceived governmental overreach. Both have been referred to as far-right militias; members from both were documented at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally and at Ferguson demonstrations and came heavily armed to this year’s uprisings against racial injustice and police brutality.
Amy Cooter, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied U.S. militias for more than a decade, prefers to call movements like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers “nostalgic groups” because they “seem to share the idea that the ideal version of U.S. was somewhere in the past, usually in a place where white men had more power,” Cooter told OneZero.
As On the Media noted, Zello is attractive to people interested in ham and shortwave radio. Hobbyists have documented the use of radio by militias for training exercises and on-site communications; Zello functions like a pared-down version with the added benefit of text and image capability, chat logs, and password-protected channels.
“One of the things I rely on for really understanding how committed people are is if you can find a spot where the groups are posting photos and videos of field training,” Hampton Stall, the Atlanta-based researcher and founder of MilitiaWatch who co-authored the On the Media report, told OneZero. “That sort of in-person organizing has been important for keeping networks active.”
“We are currently working on updating our terms of service to move beyond removing people for violations and to start denying use by groups who state that violence is a suitable tool for accomplishing their objectives,” Zello spokesperson Jeff Salzgeber told OneZero.
“Zello’s terms of service already forbid use by organizations identified by law enforcement as terrorist threats. We have and will continue to cooperate with law enforcement agencies in order to identify threats or support ongoing investigations.”
Salzgeber also challenged On the Media’s reporting that Zello’s CEO was averse to banning militias from the platform. “[Moore] said that Zello did not find evidence that far-right groups are organizing on the app and that we will enforce our terms of service,” Salzgeber told OneZero.
During our time in these Zello channels, OneZero observed users sharing tips for avoiding detection online while discussing militia activities. They referred to “bug out spots” (which one user characterized as, “let’s pack our gear and load our guns”) or safe zones. A user also suggested militias change the way they talk about training sessions by using the term “IP,” meaning “in-person,” instead of “FTX,” which is a commonly used abbreviation for “field training exercise.”
At one point, a channel moderator said he’d secured a location in Tennessee for field training, which he described as a guarded “outdoor training area … in the middle of the woods.”
Zello users also spent time sniffing out each other’s affiliations — which group they belonged to and who’d trusted them into the channel. (Zello does not require users to use real names or authenticate themselves in any way, though some choose to list their full names and locations.) Since OneZero did not engage in conversation, we were “bounced” from two groups for failing to respond to a vetting request by moderators. Still, that OneZero was able to join in the first place suggests these channels may serve as jumping-off points for more secure ones.
Cliff Lampe, a professor of information at the University of Michigan who studies the use of social media by militant groups, said this activity can be broken down into two categories: outreach and collaboration.
“The outreach side is often where you’re finding and recruiting new members and why the loss of big platforms can be a blow to militias being deplatformed,” Lampe told OneZero. “They’re going to Facebook groups and Twitter threads to find like-minded fellows who can join their particular organization. It’s not dissimilar to how extremists have operated online for years.”
This type of behavior was especially evident on MeWe, a platform most similar to Facebook that markets itself as a free-speech haven. (MeWe’s terms of service do prohibit “content that is hateful, threatening, harmful, [or] incites violence,” however.) In groups and pages labeled as Minutemen (described as an anti-immigration militia), Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters, members seemed most interested in networking and finding local factions.
Even though I didn’t participate in conversations, I was personally made the admin of a California Minutemen group after its creator saw that my location was listed as California.
“See if you can get any of your ol’ Facebook friends to join,” they told me in a private message. “Many coming over here were booted from Facebook … we lost almost 4,000 groups and pages … every admin I knew over there was ‘disabled’ on August 19, 2020 about 4:30 p.m. EST … they got thousands of us, not just the Minutemen.”
A spokesperson for MeWe said a team was looking into examples of militia content provided by OneZero.
There was evidence that some MeWe users hoped to coordinate in the physical world too.
“I agree with networking across state lines,” one MeWe user in Georgia wrote. “I’m in a spot where I can be in NC or TN in about 15 minutes.”
“We have to network and build connections not only in our state but across the U.S.,” wrote another claiming to be affiliated with an Alabama Three Percenter group. “BLM and ANTIFA aren’t quitting anytime soon!”
OneZero sent MeWe several examples of groups and pages that identified as militant civilian groups — Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Minutemen, and state militias — but a spokesperson for the company said only one of these, a page called the “Tennessee Light Foot Militia,” had violated its policies and was subsequently removed.
“MeWe has a strong terms of service designed to keep out lawbreakers, haters, bullies, harassment, violence inciters, etc.,” MeWe’s spokesperson told OneZero. “We have an outstanding trust and safety team that works hard every day to investigate, seek out, and remove TOS-violaters.” A spokesperson for MeWe said a team was looking into examples of militia content provided by OneZero.
When and how to moderate militia groups on social media is still being debated. Cooter worries that mass deplatforming can make it harder for researchers to study these groups and may even reinforce people’s beliefs of being silenced or targeted.
Carolyn Gallaher, a senior associate dean at American University who wrote a book on U.S. militias, On the Fault Line: Race, Class, and the American Patriot Movement, says platforms should step in to prevent the normalization of violent extremist ideologies.
“It’s easy to look online and go, ‘Oh wow, the number [of militia members online] are huge,’ but that doesn’t mean people with boots on the ground are anywhere near these numbers,” Gallaher told OneZero. Yet, at the same time, she said, “that doesn’t mean that activity isn’t dangerous if what we’re seeing is the spread of ideology.”
Both Zello and MeWe’s guidelines discourage threats of violence, so it’s unclear why they’ve become hotbeds for militia activity if the answer isn’t a lack of moderation. Zello’s terms of service prohibit the “celebration of violent extremist ideologies,” and its page on community moderation says, “No one in the Zello community may threaten to harm others or plan violent acts. Zello will remove any such content.” Neither publicly states what its moderation team looks like, however, or how these rules are applied.
The spectrum of ideology present in these groups ranged from anti-government to anti-immigration to QAnon, which has been characterized as a global umbrella movement for other types of conspiracy thinking. (In August, Facebook announced it had removed 1,700 pages, 5,600 groups, and roughly 18,700 Instagram accounts associated with QAnon.) However, all seemed to support Trump, the Second Amendment, and the notion that great societal upheaval was imminent. Trump has notably stoked these fears by suggesting there will not be a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election. The president has also legitimized hate groups like the Proud Boys by telling them to “stand back and stand by.”
“The internal consistency of these ideologies is not always clear,” Gallaher said. “And the boundaries between them are kind of fuzzy, so it’s much easier to bounce back and forth between groups online.”
Update: This story has been updated to include Zello’s comment.