Facebook's fight club: how the Proud Boys use the social media platform to vet their fighters

Want to join the far-right group the Proud Boys? Simply apply to your nearest regional vetting page on the world’s largest social network, Facebook.

The fraternal order of “Western chauvinists” received one of its biggest promotional boosts since its founding when Ethan Nordean — who goes by the nickname “Rufio Panman” — delivered a knockout blow to an antifascist protester in the streets of Portland, Oregon, at a rally on June 30.

Six of the Proud Boys’ largest private “vetting pages” on Facebook — groups where administrators review applicants for approval into a private chatroom where local chapters are organized — have experienced an explosion in recruits in the last 30 days since the melee in Portland, jumping nearly 70 percent according to the metrics Facebook makes public. This represents 823 potential new members (including international members).

These private vetting pages serve as ideological echo chambers and as spaces for planning and putting out calls for action, helping place Proud Boys on the ground. The Proud Boys once attempted to set up their own private web forum called the “Proud Boards” but it failed.

“Seeing that soy boy antifa scum get knocked the fuck out has been the highlight of my year. Ive [sic] watched it over and over,” wrote one new member in a vetting page on Facebook. “[If] you want to find out about the Proud Boys, looks [sic] at the dozens of videos of the Portland Rally when antifa attached the March and got streamrolled and some of them put in the hospital," wrote another member. "Here's a slogan for you, fuck around and find out."

“Our vetting page has 100 plus guys being vetted atm,” wrote a page administrator last week.

Nordean’s now viral punch was not the only violence that occurred during the rally that descended into a riot. Multiple gang beatings were caught on video and one person reportedly suffered a cranial hemorrhage.

Nor was Nordean’s brawling the first time a member of the Proud Boys publicly engaged in violence or made serious threats of violence to political enemies.

  • In May, a Proud Boy appeared at the home of a video editor in an effort to intimidate him. The video editor had published videos lampooning the group and its founder, Gavin McInnes.
  • On June 3, Donovan Flippo, a Proud Boy, and Allen Puckett of the rabidly anti-LGBT Hells Shaking Street Preachers, were filmed attacking a man outside of a parking garage.
  • On June 8, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a Proud Boy and muscle for U.S. Senate candidate Joey Gibson of another far-right group Patriot Prayer, emerged from a group of men in a truck who were shouting “support Trump build the wall!” and punched a man in the face, according to the victim.
  • After the Portland riot on June 30, a freelance journalist was threatened on Twitter by a Proud Boys who wrote “We aren’t going to let you lie about us anymore and we are going to beat the ever living shit out of every single one of your douche-bag comrades who assaults us from now on.”

Fighting is part of the group’s DNA, which reserves the “fourth degree” of its membership to those who engage in street brawls with antifascists. McInnes, no stranger to physical altercations, uses his podcast to gin up rage about “antifa” and muse about violence.

“[O]ur adversaries want to not silence speech, [but] kill the person talking," McInnes said in a recent episode discussing the far-right free speech martyr Tommy Robinson. "And that will be a huge victory for them. So the reaction has been very good on our side of things. We’ve said ‘no you’re not going to kill Tommy - we’re going to kill you! We’re going to fight back!’"

Recruiting, planning on Facebook

This escalating rhetoric should be a concern for Facebook. While Twitter has received significant criticism for verifying Proud Boys accounts, it’s Facebook that appears to provide the recruitment machinery for the group. Nordean, for example, is a member of the “Northwest PB Vetting Page and Trans Positive Safe Space” private group on Facebook. In the past 30 days Nordean’s group has posted 603 times and added 190 new members.

In April, Facebook released its formerly internal Community Standards in an effort to reassure its users and the public that the company was committed to creating a safe social media platform.

In a section titled “Credible Violence” the company outlines its goal to “prevent potential real-world harm that may be related to content on Facebook.” There are subsections on “Promoting or Publicizing Crime,” and “Coordinating Harm,” which state that Facebook “prohibits people from facilitating or coordinating future criminal activity that is intended or likely to cause harm to people, businesses, or animals.”

In a recent interview with Recode, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated the company’s hard line on content and users that promote violence.

The principles that we have on what we remove from the service are: If it’s going to result in real harm, real physical harm, or if you’re attacking individuals, then that content shouldn’t be on the platform.

Asked for comment, Facebook responded that Nordean's private vetting group did not violate its community standards. "In evaluating content, we look closely at context. In deciding whether to remove or leave up references to violence, we look at numerous factors, such as the source, the specific speech in question, the target, and other considerations." The company added: 

We are always thinking about how we can improve our policies and be more nuanced with our enforcement. When it comes to enforcement of our Community Standards against Pages, for example, we hold both Pages and Page admins responsible for the content they post. Similarly, we recently introduced nuance into our Groups enforcement policies – now, in determining whether a Group violates, we don’t just look at the content posted to the Group; we take additional signals into account when determining if an entire Group violates. For example, if a group admin is involved in the violating behavior, that will serve as a strong signal that the group's motivation is hateful/incendiary.

More violence in Portland?

In the view of the Proud Boys, the violence they inflict is a defensive measure against violent counter protesters and without a doubt, counter protestors have also engaged in violence.

But reporters who’ve covered their rallies have documented how weak this argument is. It is clear that the Proud Boys show up to fight. As Hatewatch correspondent David Neiwert wrote recently for The Baffler:

Listening to them bait the counter-protesters with ugly speech, and talk among themselves about fighting tactics, it was clear the “free speech” they wanted to defend was bigoted and threatening. The lofty constitutional principles were little more than a pretext: they were there mostly to bash some “leftist” heads. That was plain enough in the Facebook posts promoting the latest Patriot Prayer rally, which warned in faux-biblical cadences that “the liberal-occupied streets of Portland will be CLEANSED. “Recourse will be swift,” it went on to intone, “for those who wish to oppress our freedoms . . . And the hands of Justice shall smite them with a vengeance heretofore to these ne’er-do-wells.” And if this were somehow less than clear, another post advertised a $25 T-shirt bearing the legend “Better Dead Than Red,” with a headstone reading “RIP Rose City Antifa,” above a #LetthePatriotGamesBegin hashtag.

The Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer are planning another rally for Saturday, August 4 in Portland and the groups are again ramping up their violent rhetoric on Facebook.  “WE’RE READY FOR COMBAT AND ANYBODY WHO CHALLENGES US IS GONNA GET IT,” reads a comment on Patriot Prayer’s private Facebook page. “Wear Kevlar and conceal carry for those licensed to do so,” reads another.

All the details for the rally can also be found on Facebook, the same company whose new mission it is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Photo Illustration by SPLC

Comments, suggestions or tips? Send them to HWeditor@splcenter.org and follow us on Twitter @Hatewatch.