Investigations Media

New Analysis Shows Supporters of Family Research Council Embrace White Supremacy and Neo-Nazism

Sharona Coutts

A social media network analysis performed by Rewire shows the Family Research Council's messages are resonating with other factions of the far right that explicitly endorse and advocate white supremacist views.

Last December, Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council (FRC), was speaking to Breitbart News CEO Larry Solov on Washington Watch Live, a radio show produced by the council.

The two were discussing what they saw as recent attacks by “liberals” on people like them and their listeners—”God-fearing” Americans who maintained “conservative” and “traditional American values.” They were particularly upset at campaigns aimed at getting advertisers to pull spots from far-right sites, including Breitbart.

“Breitbart is, as you know, the most pro-family, pro-traditional American values news brand in the English language,” Solov said to Perkins. “Frankly, this is an attack not just on Breitbart, but this is an attack on your listeners, and our readers, many of whom are the same.”

“You’re right,” replied Perkins. “A lot of our material is published on Breitbart. Petitions that we do on religious liberty in the military get to Breitbart, I mean, they do extremely well, because you’re right, it’s God-fearing Americans who read Breitbart.”

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After the explosive report by BuzzFeed News into the deep and secretive ties between Breitbart’s top editors and writers and neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the self-proclaimed alt-right, and other anti-civil rights extremists, there can no longer be any doubt that Breitbart’s readers are also interested in, and receptive to, white supremacist messages.

That makes Perkins’ comments about the shared values of his supporters—people who donate to, and follow the work of the FRC—and Breitbart, all the more significant.

The FRC is among the most powerful and influential political organizations on the evangelical far right. Its website boasts of its role as a kingmaker in U.S. politics, and the group’s embrace of then-candidate Donald Trump at its annual Values Voter Summit conference last year solidified his support from evangelicals; their votes proved crucial to his victory in November. President Trump also spoke at this year’s Values Voter Summit, which took place over the weekend.

The FRC’s stated purpose is to advance and defend Christian “family values,” but its stance on LGBTQ people has earned it a designation as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which cites a long history of vilification including the false allegation that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles.

The FRC vehemently rejects the notion that it’s a hate group, as Rewire has previously reported. It is currently spearheading a campaign of around 50 far-right groups to discredit the SPLC, complaining that the label is defamatory and unfair.

A social media network analysis performed by Rewire, however, shows the FRC’s messages are resonating with other factions of the far right that explicitly endorse and advocate extremist views on white supremacy, women’s rights, and even espouse neo-Nazi views.

Our analysis examined more than half a million Twitter accounts that followed a selection of six leaders of the far right. Those leaders included Perkins, Gavin McInnes, Michael Cernovich, Richard Spencer, and Jared Taylor. We also included the account for Return of Kings, a site started by the notorious misogynist and rape apologist Daryush Valizadeh, who is also known as Roosh V.

McInnes and Cernovich belong to a faction of the far right known as the “alt-lite,” which claims to reject outright racism and anti-Semitism, but whose ideas are based on a notion of U.S. culture that experts in extremism have said is rooted in white supremacy.

Spencer and Taylor are unabashed white nationalists. Spencer is the poster child for the so-called alt-right, and was a key organizer of neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has also been filmed doing Nazi salutes on numerous occasions. Taylor established the nonprofit New Century Foundation, a white supremacist organization that publishes a site called American Renaissance. Taylor’s major claim is that there is scientific support for the relative superiority of the white race. His Twitter account and website are littered with explicit hate speech, mostly against Black people.

And Roosh V rose to prominence for his books about “game,” a philosophy meant to help men get women to sleep with them. In recent years, he has adopted increasingly racist and anti-Semitic views.

Rewire found that nearly a fifth of the accounts that follow Perkins also follow at least one of the other far-right accounts that we analyzed.

“What your research shows me is that these hate groups share more in common than I realized,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the SPLC, in an interview with Rewire. “It makes sense of how this weird Trump coalition, of social conservatives and white supremacists, holds together.”

To be sure, there are limitations to what a social network analysis can show about political beliefs. Following a particular person or organization on Twitter does not necessarily indicate endorsement of their views. But Rewire‘s assessment of the content shared by hundreds of Perkins’ followers’ accounts found that many actively spread discriminatory, racist, and highly partisan material with “likes” and comments that made their approval unmistakable.

Our numbers must also be viewed with regard to the anonymity of Twitter, and the presence of automated accounts known as “bots.” While there is no universally accepted or definitive way to identify bots, experts we consulted agreed that there are several patterns that suggest that an algorithm, not a human, is behind an account. For more on how we performed this analysis, please read our methodology.

Even with those limitations, experts in computational propaganda told us that while our sample was too small to perform statistical analysis, the results are significant because they show a substantial overlap between the “content, strategy, and intention” of people who are drawn to Perkins’ ostensibly “pro-family” ideals, and those who are championing unabashedly racist views and policies.

“Mixed quantitative and qualitative analysis of social media accounts, similar to what you are describing, can give us a lot of insight into the depth of connections of accounts,” said Sam Woolley, research director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley research organization, and a pioneer in the field of computational propaganda and online warfare.

Despite its claims to be putting forward “family values,” Woolley said that the FRC’s messages dovetail to a significant extent with the ideas and personalities of the white supremacist movement.

Opposition to Abortion Unites the Religious Right and White Supremacists

In some respects, it should not be surprising that people who find the messages of the FRC and Perkins appealing are also enthusiastic about white supremacist hate speech.

Prominent members of far-right and white supremacist groups vigorously oppose reproductive rights, especially for women.

Gavin McInnes, whose audience across social media and his new online video program numbers in the hundreds of thousands, calls abortion “murder,” and has repeated the false claim that third-trimester abortions are “all over the country.” (In reality, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches reproductive health, only a tiny fraction of abortions occur after the 20th week of pregnancy, which is still several weeks prior to the third trimester. Nonetheless, many states limit the circumstances in which later abortions can occur.)

Michael Cernovich, another leader of the alt-lite, has an even larger audience. He now has 354,000 Twitter followers, and his reach was dramatically expanded earlier this year when he became a host on Infowars, the radio and online video show made infamous by its creator, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones. There are no reliable figures on the size of Jones’ audience, but he has claimed that he has around 5 million daily listeners.

Jones’ most scandalous lie is that the murders of 20 6- and 7-year-old children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, was a hoax. Cernovich has also gained notoriety for generating or spreading myths, including the false claims about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health during the presidential election campaign, as well as the fabricated story known as “Pizzagate” that a pedophile ring was operating out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., which in 2016 resulted in a gunman visiting the premises while staff and patrons were present.

Cernovich entered public life as a men’s rights activist and rape apologist. For years he wrote a blog called Crime & Federalism, in which he repeatedly referred to abortion as “murder.”

In one post from June 2009, he pondered the following question: “If abortion is murder, what is wrong with killing an abortion doctor?”

The reason so many far-right leaders oppose abortion is tied to their beliefs about women’s roles as “traditional” homemakers, as well as the myth of “white genocide.” White women should produce as many white babies as possible, the argument goes, in order to ensure that whites are not outnumbered by non-white immigrants, and also to prevent “race mixing”—one of the movement’s obsessions.

The far-right’s fixation on the family could be one source of the overlap between their followers, and those who follow the Family Research Council, according to Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The imagery, and the vision of America that the FRC supports, is the same kind of vision that Gavin McInnes or Richard Spencer would want to seea white nuclear family,” she said. “The whole thing about the white family unit, white women, white childrenyou can see the mutual attraction.”

More than 18 percent of the roughly 30,000 accounts that follow Perkins also follow one of the far-right or white supremacist accounts that we analyzed. Fifteen percent of Perkins’ followers also follow Cernovich. More than 6.5 percent also followed McInnes, nearly 2.5 percent also follow Richard Spencer, and around 1.5 percent also follow Jared Taylor.

Rewire reviewed the content shared by hundreds of the accounts that followed Perkins and at least one of these other leaders of the far right. Rewire is choosing not to link to these accounts due to the nature of the material they contain. Rewire attempted to contact scores of these accounts, but we were unable to interview any of the individuals or groups behind them. In some cases, the frequency and nature of the posts heavily suggested that the accounts were generated by bots, according to criteria used by experts—for example, they tweeted hundreds of times per day, or only tweeted very simplistic memes about one subject. We also found accounts belonging to researchers or journalists, whose interest in the material shared by these far-right leaders could have been for professional reasons.

However, the majority of these accounts appeared to be run by human beings, who frequently tweeted, retweeted, commented, and otherwise reacted to the materials being shared, in ways that strongly suggested that they agreed with the messages they contained. These accounts were often very active, allowing us to observe hundreds or even thousands of tweets. In many cases, there was no ambiguity about their views.

Alongside prayer memes and anti-abortion posts, we found abundant images depicting Black people as beasts, and describing them as “street apes.” There were dozens of posts about killing Jews by putting them into ovens—a Holocaust reference. Anti-Muslim posts were common; a new variation on the notorious “Skittles” meme that Donald Trump Jr. retweeted during last year’s election campaign popped up, this time likening Syrian refugees to poisonous gumballs. Hundreds of posts called for building the wall at the border with Mexico, along with other anti-Mexican themes. Horrendous images depicting trans people as freakish predators dressed in leather chaps made the rounds, as did “jokes” about LGBTQ people. Those are among the less offensive of tweets within each of these categories.

Many posts also had political messages. Often, they echoed the themes of ads that were reportedly generated by Russian operatives as part of the campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. election. In particular, these ads mocked, demeaned, or suggested nefarious intentions behind people working in Congress, the judiciary, and the two-party system.

And there were hundreds of posts supporting President Trump, glorying in the physical appearance of the First Lady, and mocking the record and appearance of President and First Lady Obama.

Told of the nature of these posts, Beirich said it further supported the conclusion that white supremacy undergirds the Trump coalition.

“The Trump administration is asserting white supremacy in so many ways, whether in its anti-immigrant policies, its Muslim ban, its dismantling of sexual minority rights, or all minority rights through voting rights,” she said. “The Christian conservatives are probably the strongest bloc standing behind the Trump administration, and of course, Trump is the savior of the alt-right.”

She pointed out that while Tony Perkins and the FRC have tried to present themselves as focused on “family values,” they have also staked out many other positions that both implicitly and explicitly endorse white supremacist views.

“Our focus with the FRC has been on anti-LGBT demonization and propaganda,” she said. “Although we don’t characterize them this way, they would also fit under the anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant categories of hate group.”

Perkins has repeatedly said that Islam is not a religion, but an “evil” political movement, and that Muslims should therefore not enjoy the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment.

And he has a long personal history of associating with notorious white supremacists, including David Duke, a former leader of the KKK and prominent Holocaust denier.

“The overt positions that the FRC has taken are the same as white supremacist groups,” said Beirich. “Anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, and anti-woman. These are the bedrocks of white supremacy in the United States.”

Indeed, the lineup at this year’s Values Voter Summit went beyond the usual list of anti-choice heroes: It also included leaders of the far right.

Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who both worked at Breitbart News before joining Trump’s White House team, addressed the crowd. Gorka resigned from the administration amid reports that he had concealed ties to neo-Nazi organizations. Bannon has recently returned to run Breitbart, which he has called his “war machine.”

The lineup also featured prominent anti-Muslim activists Brigitte Gabriel of ACT! For America, and Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. And it included Al and Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, public racists who have been regular speakers at the Values Voter Summit for the past several years.

The main attraction, however, was none other than the president, who addressed a crowd that increasingly shows the coalescence of the evangelical anti-choice movement with ardent white supremacists.

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