Location data gleaned from thousands of videos posted on the social network Parler and archived days before Amazon restricted access to the app reveal its users included on-duty police officers across the U.S. and U.S. service members stationed at home and abroad.
The presence on Parler of active military and police raises concerns, experts said, about their potential exposure to far-right conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies enabled by the platform’s practically nonexistent moderation and its stated openness to hate speech. Military officials have long considered infiltration and recruitment by white supremacist groups a threat. Groups that endorsed a wide range of racist beliefs appear to have been operating openly on Parler, the experts said, with the de facto permission of its owners. The FBI has likewise raised concerns over law enforcement agents adopting radical views and being recruited—viewing their access to secured buildings, elected officials, and other VIPs as a singular threat.
On Monday, Amazon moved to expel Parler from its servers after finding the company in breach of contract for failing to identify and remove posts by users that called for the “rape, torture, and assassination” of elected officials, police officers, and public school teachers, according to a recent court filing. The suspension followed the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building instigated in part by President Trump during a speech laden with false accusations of electoral fraud, in which he directed thousands of his most die-hard supporters toward the building.
Parler is among the apps that attendees used to stage the event. While others, including Facebook, are viewed as responsible for not taking more aggressive action against extremist rhetoric on their platforms, Parler’s policies openly condoned the racist rhetoric espoused by many of the rioters—and the conspiracy theories that fueled their attack that ended in five deaths. Pulling Parler’s plug was a “last resort,” Amazon said, to prevent further access to such content, including what it called fresh plans for violence “to disrupt the impending Presidential transition.”
Since the suspension, Gizmodo has mapped out the locations of some 70,000 GPS coordinates linked to specific Parler videos thanks to the work of a computer hacker and what Wired cybersecurity reporter Andy Greenberg on Tuesday dubbed an “absurdly basic bug.” In short, Parler failed to implement routine safeguards against web scraping and, leaving many of its users exposed, neglected to strip location metadata from tens of thousands of videos. On Tuesday, Gizmodo managed to identify 618 Parler videos linked to the Capitol attack, which federal prosecutors now contend involved a plot “to capture and assassinate elected officials.”
On Thursday, Gizmodo compiled a database of tens of thousands of U.S.-based law enforcement buildings and immigration detention centers, as well as more than 1,000 domestic and overseas military bases. Their locations were mapped alongside the GPS coordinates pulled from dozens of Parler videos. When possible, the videos were reviewed to determine whether they were actually filmed in one of the buildings of interest.
In total, Gizmodo found that 16 Parler videos were filmed within 50 feet of 10 different local law enforcement buildings, according to GPS data tied to the footage; 39 videos were filmed within 1,000 feet of domestic military facilities; and another 64 were filmed within 500 feet of the entrance of an immigrant detention center. Five additional videos were filmed within 1,000 feet of overseas military bases.
Motherboard first reported on Parler users posting from military bases Friday morning.
One Parler video appears to have been filmed from inside a police cruiser in Portland, Oregon, and depicts a desolate city in the aftermath of a night of unrest. Metadata indicates that the officer behind the camera started his video while at the headquarters of the Portland Police Bureau. Another video was filmed at the Channel Islands Air Guard Station in Ventura County, California, and shows a man playing with a Donald Trump action figure. Another, recorded at Camp Schwab, a U.S. Marine Corps camp in Japan, depicts a person engaged in a graphic sexual act.
Several videos showed officers engaged in benign activities, like working out in what appears to be their precincts’ gym.
Some videos are geotagged near county jails and Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing centers. A video posted to Parler in June of 2020, for instance, was apparently filmed just outside the entrance of the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino, California. A harrowing 2018 report from the DHS’ Office of Inspector General discovered nooses hanging from detainees’ cells and inadequate medical care at the facility. The video appears to show a CBP employee whose car window was smashed. As he moves around the car you can see the ICE facility. It’s covered in graffiti, such as “Fuck ICE.”
Geospatial analysis of Parler data is limited by several factors: The subset of posts containing GPS coordinates is infinitesimal compared to the app’s more than 70 terabytes’ worth of content. Location data can only be gleaned from around 6% of the estimated 1.1 million videos posted to app. The videos are not paired with any text, so the context around how they were shared is unclear. It’s also impossible to know how many of the 1 million remaining Parler videos belong to police and military users, or how many posted videos while far from designated government facilities.
GPS data can be fickle. While the coordinates of some videos appear within the walls of a facility, many were filmed outside, but within the bounds of our search radius. The inverse is true as well. At the Capitol, for instance, Gizmodo observed videos whose coordinates appeared hundreds of feet away from the building but were actually filmed inside. Many military bases are sprawling, while police stations cover relatively small areas.
A spokesperson for the Bend Police Department in Oregon, where one officer filmed himself inside the precinct, said the department itself had created an account on Parler, but only to prevent imposters. It had not posted to the app, he said. The department ceased communicating before providing further comment. No other police agencies responded to requests for comment. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security also did not respond.
In June 2019, the Center for Investigative Reporting published an investigation that found at least hundreds of active duty and retired law enforcement officers had joined “Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups” on Facebook. A classified FBI counterterrorism guide dated April 2015, later leaked to the Intercept, noted that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”
Experts have been sounding the alarm about a “mass radicalization” of internet users more generally due to a deluge of far-right conspiracies spreading unchecked on social media, which mainstream apps like Facebook have historically allowed to flourish until an act of violence forces a crackdown. Social media played a key role in the radicalization of nearly 90% of extremists in 2016 alone, according to research gathered through PIRUS, a database of 2,200 violent and non-violent extremists.
In 2006, FBI counterterrorism experts described—in a heavily redacted intelligence assessment—the threat of white supremacist groups infiltrating and recruiting law enforcement. “White supremacist leaders and groups have historically shown an interest in infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel,” the document says. It warns that police access to “restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage and to elected officials or protected persons, whom they could see as potential targets for violence” is a cause of concern for the Bureau.
The Appeal reports that at least 29 police officers from 12 states attended the January 6 rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. A Texas sheriff’s office is investigating an officer that was among the rioters who breached police barriers. A Pennsylvania police department is investigating an officer in the crowd allegedly captured saying, “Trump MAGA 2020, fuck your feelings.” The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is investigating a deputy who admitted to joining the crowd; it has referred the matter to the FBI. At least two Seattle police officers were placed on administrative leave for having been among the violent mob. A Philadelphia police detective present at the riot and who recently posted QAnon content on Facebook is under investigation. The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat.
There is evidence that at least some right-wing extremist groups relied on Parler to help stage the events at the U.S. Capitol. On January 9, ProPublica and PBS’s Frontline reported that “members of several well-known hate groups” had been identified at the riot, among them the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for being violent at political rallies. Prominent members of the Proud Boys have publicly disavowed racism, while others have espoused “white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The group’s chairman, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, announced on Parler in late-December that the Proud Boys would “turn out in record numbers on Jan 6th,” while promising to “put 1000 boots on the ground.” Members of the group were instructed not to wear the group’s traditional uniform—black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts—but “be incognito” and “spread across downtown DC in smaller teams.” The post was upvoted nearly 3,000 times.
Tarrio, who identifies as Afro-Cuban, was arrested ahead of the event and charged with possessing high-capacity firearm magazines, illegal in the District, and for allegedly burning a Black Lives Matter that belonged to a Methodist church. The FBI said Tuesday that Tarrio’s arrest by Metropolitan Police was based on intelligence that Tarrio was among individuals “planning to travel to the D.C. area with intentions to cause violence.” Tarrio later denounced the attack to the Miami Herald.
In mid-December, the FBI raided the home of an El Paso man over remarks on Parler in which he allegedly called on the Proud Boys to seize control of the White House and execute Capitol lawmakers and Supreme Court justices in front of their homes. “Kill them all, God will sort them out proper,” he allegedly said in one post, according to a complaint.
In a court filing Wednesday, Amazon said that Parler was inundated with reports of abuse and had a backlog of 26,000 posts to examine. The homicidal rhetoric of its users, it argued, was only increasing by the day.
In addition to promoting the killing of Blacks and Jews, Parler’s extremist user base had called for the murders of Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai, chief executives of Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google, respectively; and of voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, among others. In a November email, Amazon officials pressed Parler’s chief product officer, Amy Peikoff, on whether a particular post by a Trump supporter calling Michelle Obama a “stupid [N-word] bitch,” which ended, “HATE YOUR UGLY [N-WORD] ASS, YOU STUPID FUCKING BITCH,” and included the hashtag #GetOut[N-word]Bitch, was allowed under its policies.
Peikoff said that it was. The best way to combat hate, she said, “is with more speech.”
“That’s kind of an old fashion idea,” said Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University who studies extremists online. “That’s the expected argument they give back, but what we find in the research is that radicalization does happen through the normalization of violence and the changing of norms around that kind of talk. These spaces tend to foster that.”
The consequences for users who succumb to extremist ideologies and fringe conspiracies can be devastating. “I think a lot of people can identify with that,” she said, pointing to the memes around Thanksgiving about going home and dealing with a hypothetical racist uncle. “But these folks are so far gone that some of them have really lost their family. Those people are not available to them anymore and it’s incredibly sad.”
“Some of them have lost their spouses, and their kids,” she said.
A screenshot shared by Squire showed advice that one user in a notorious neo-Nazi channel on Telegram shared with other users, advising them on how to indoctrinate the hordes of Trump supporters joining the app after Parler went down. The advice boils down to being less Nazi-like. Don’t mention Hitler, for instance; instead, push Trump’s claims about election fraud, the “Chinese communist takeover,” and that it was anti-fascists who “burned down DC and entire cities last year”
Dr. Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, said she’s concerned about how veterans are viewed in this moment. “These are people who were drawn into QAnon storylines because QAnon is ostensibly military fan-fiction,” she said, referring to the ever-evolving conspiracy that pits Trump against child-eating cannibal Democrats, smeared as members of a satanic cabal, in a secret war.
“You have people who have sworn an oath or a duty to the Constitution who take that seriously,” she said, “and at the same time have been completely immersed in a narrative about forces from the outside colluding with domestic forces to overturn an election.”
“The hard part is, the same technology that lets us share the mundane is the same technology that moves the fringe to the mainstream,” she said.
The U.S. military has long considered infiltration and recruitment by white supremacist groups a threat. In 2018, the Air Force Reserve booted a recruit who was filmed in a vehicle on a dark road with others saying they were out “hunting” Black people (they used the N-word instead). In 2019, a U.S. Coast Guard officer arrested on drug and firearms charges was discovered to be a self-proclaimed white supremacist who idolized Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who murdered 77 people in 2011. The Military Times, whose polls documented increases in incidents of racism in the military in recent years, says the results suggest “ongoing problems with infiltration of the military by extremist groups.” A 2017 poll found that nearly 42% of non-white service members have seen examples of white nationalism in the service (versus about 18% of white service members.)
Jeff McCausland, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former member of the National Security Council, wrote in 2019 that while historically, the U.S. military has not sought to actively recruit extremists, “it has failed to establish a comprehensive way to screen them out.” In President Trump’s first year in office, his administration froze grants and diverted funding away from groups fighting the spread of white supremacism and other forms of far-right extremism. Investment was increased instead in groups combating Islamic radicals, even though empirical research shows right-wing extremists pose a far greater terrorism threat domestically.
In 2018 alone, far-right terrorist attacks made up “17.2 percent of all terrorist incidents in the West, compared to Islamic groups which made up 6.28 percent of all attacks,” according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Between 2014 and 2019, far-right terrorist attacks increased by an astounding 320 percent, according to the Global Terrorism Index.