October 1, 2020

Proud Boys celebrate Trump’s ‘stand by’ remark about them at the debate


Trump’s debate comments give an online boost to a group social media companies have long struggled against

Proud Boys celebrate Trump’s ‘stand by’ remark about them at the debate

Far-right groups celebrated on social media after President Trump responded to a debate question about white supremacists by saying that the extremist Proud Boys, a male-only group known for its penchant for street violence, should “stand back and stand by.”

Starting Tuesday night and continuing Wednesday, the comments got enshrined in memes, including one depicting Trump in one of the Proud Boys’ signature polo shirts. Another meme showed Trump’s quote alongside an image of bearded men carrying American flags and appearing to prepare for a fight. A third incorporated “STAND BACK AND STAND BY” into the group’s logo.

These and other laudatory images spread with particular speed on the conservative social media site Parler and also channels on the encrypted chat app Telegram, according to researchers. One prominent Proud Boys supporter on Parler said Trump appeared to give permission for attacks on protesters, adding that “this makes me so happy.”

Apparel is being sold on with a Proud Boys logo and the “Stand back and stand by” quote. It’s unclear what affiliation, if any, the website has with the group.

Members of the Proud Boys called Trump’s message “historic” on private social media channels and one member said they have received a spike in new recruits, the New York Times reported.

“The Proud Boys were quick to react to the president’s remarks. They heard them as a call to action and rapidly created ‘standing by’ memes designed to help mobilization in the group,” Joseph Carter, program manager at network analysis firm Graphika, told The Washington Post.

Twitter also experienced a huge spike in references to Proud Boys, registering more than a million since Trump’s statement and about 75,000 an hour on Wednesday morning, according to Clemson social media researcher Darren Linvill. The group more commonly averages a couple thousand references on Twitter per day.

“They’ve been given a gift,” he said.

Trump’s comments came in response to a question from the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, about whether he would be willing to publicly denounce white supremacists. The president initially suggested he would, but when Democratic nominee Joe Biden asked specifically about the Proud Boys, Trump responded, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”

The Trump campaign tweeted afterward: “President Trump has repeatedly condemned white supremacists. What a ridiculous question from Chris Wallace.”

“The Proud Boys were quick to react to the president’s remarks. They heard them as a call to action and rapidly created ‘standing by’ memes designed to help mobilization in the group,” said Joseph Carter, program manager at Graphika, a network analysis firm.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have all banned the Proud Boys from their websites, The Guardian reported.

Two members of the group were sentenced to four years in prison last year after attacking protesters in Manhattan, ABC News reported. It led Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, Vice Media co-founder, to quit the group, according to ABC News. McInnes left Vice in 2008.

Their members have also organized protests against Black Lives Matter demonstrations, NBC News reported.

Following 2017 violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, which reportedly involved members of the Proud Boys, Trump said there “were very fine people on both sides.”

“As one Proud Boys user on Telegram wrote, ‘Nobody here has Facebook we all got band [sic] a long time ago.’ To that point, after Trump’s ‘stand back and stand by’ comment, their celebration was happening far more on less-moderated platforms like Telegram and Parler,” Katz said.

The hashtag #WhiteSupremacy trended on Twitter on Tuesday night in the United States, among accounts on both the left and the right. That included the Trump campaign and right-wing influencers such as Candace Owens, as well as left-leaning actress Kerry Washington, tweeting in response to Trump’s comments, according to disinformation researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public.

“Talking points about white supremacy developed among influencers on both sides of the Twitter spectrum,” said Kate Starbird, associate professor in the department of human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington.

The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, who has since distanced himself from the group. They say they are a “fraternal group spreading an ‘anti-political correctness’ and ‘anti-white guilt’ agenda,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group is suing the Southern Poverty Law Center over the characterization.

The group has been involved in a large neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017, in the reopen protests demonstrating against coronavirus lockdowns earlier this year and recent protests in Portland, Ore. Facebook has banned the group as a hate group.

“Acknowledgment from the top sets the pretense for increased white vigilantism,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “This is a group that has organized street brawls using social media, has targeted people in their homes, and now believes their crusade against protesters is legitimate.”


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