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New report lists legislators linked to far-right Facebook groups

A U.S. House committee has been investigating what led up to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and how misinformation and right-wing extremism helped fueled the "big lie" about the 2020 election.

There is new research into how these far-right ideas are being consumed on Facebook by state lawmakers across the country. The research is led by Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm spoke with Burghart about what he hoped to learn by examining the Facebook activity of elected leaders at the state level.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Devin Burghart: In the wake of the January 6 insurrection, we wanted to find out how far the ideas of the far-right had moved from the margins into the mainstream. More specifically, we wanted to know how they were impacting state legislatures. What we found was striking. The fact that 875 state legislators had joined one or more far-right Facebook groups was astonishing to us.

Then when we looked at how far these ideas had moved in terms of impacting legislation — with over a thousand pieces of anti-human rights, anti-democracy legislation being introduced in the past year — we thought it was something we needed to bring to the public right away.

Kim Malcolm: What kinds of Facebook groups are you talking about here, and how active are they?

We're talking about a range of pretty explicit far-right Facebook groups, everything from militia and sovereign citizen groups, to election and Covid deniers, to far-right conspiracists, neo-Confederates, and others. They're extremely active, both online and in the real world, working to bring about some pretty dramatic changes in not only public policy but impacting the way people interact around everything from Covid, to the voting booth to a whole range of different things.

And what did you find after looking at the connection between the state legislators and the Facebook groups that they were joining?

One is that the number was astronomical — the fact that there were 875 state legislators, including 30 right here in Washington state, that were involved in these groups. When we started digging into the data and found state legislators involved in groups, for instance, that were involved in insurrectionist activity at the nation’s capitol, and in various different armed standoffs with the government, we knew that we had a much bigger problem on our hands.

Then when we started turning to the legislative side, we found a range of anti-human rights and anti-democracy legislation supported by these legislators. This includes everything from the kind of "don't say gay" bills, to bills that attempt to ban Black history under the guise of so-called anti-critical race theory, to bills that make it harder to get vaccines into folks, to bills that make it harder to go out and vote. What we saw is not only had the ideas moved pretty strikingly into the mainstream, but those ideas were now becoming public policy.

Can you give me an example of an idea that was circulating in one of these Facebook groups that made it into a bill?

The most common example of the bills in this report that were supported by state legislators and became law were bills around Covid denial. Those bills that became law made it harder for people to distribute vaccines, require masks, and prevent the spread of the pandemic. We also found them having an impact around things like voting rights, passing bills that made it harder for people to go to the polls, restricting when and where early voting took place, how mail-in ballots happen, etc. The range was as striking as the number of bills.

On the topic of Covid, how did you distinguish between groups that were perhaps attractive to those questioning or wanting to debate how extensive government mandates should be and groups that were more extreme?

The groups we included in this report were all ones that were inundated with various Covid denial, conspiracy theories, and the kind of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric that emerged during the pandemic. At the same time, many of them also included calls to action, including armed calls to action to do things like prevent access to vaccine sites, harass doctors and nurses, and blockade hospitals.

I can imagine folks listening to us thinking that joining a Facebook group doesn't necessarily mean that you believe this stuff, or that you endorse everything that you're seeing there. What would you say to those people?

First of all, that when a state legislator does it, it's a little bit different. It provides their legislator’s seal of approval to that group. It adds legitimacy and normalizes far-right groups that crave that kind of legitimacy. It helps make it easier to radicalize folks. Secondly, I think it also creates an echo chamber in which legislators are fed an unending diet of misinformation and conspiracies that misshape their understanding of their constituents, and what they want.

It also makes it harder to have a real robust debate around who and what we are as a society. Because so many of these groups are closed to the public I think the combination of those two things really undermines the democratic spirit and makes it far more challenging for us to have a conversation about the real issues that are facing our nation.

You've been tracking white nationalism and right-wing extremism in politics for decades. What would you say people need to know now, in this moment?

I think it's important for people to understand that right now we're dealing with a challenge that is orders of magnitude larger than when I started doing this work 30 years ago. The far right has moved significantly from the margins to the mainstream. The insurrection on January 6 was not the end of the problem of the far right in this country. It was a clarion call about the continuing problem that we're facing. In fact, in many ways, January 6 was the coming-out party for this new coalition of far-right groups, aimed at undermining and corroding our democracy.

An old adage goes that the states are the laboratories of democracy. However, the data in our new report warns that rising far-right activity at the state level really threatens to turn states into the crucibles of the corrosion of our democracy. We've got a lot of work we need to do to help restore our democratic ideals and make sure that we can continue to live up to those ideals.

Link to the Breaching the Mainstream report, which identified 30 Washington state lawmakers who were members of far-right Facebook groups.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.