As Samantha watched photos and live broadcasts of the Jan.6 Capitol attack on her smartphone, she realized something: She knew these people.
She knew their faces at parties and conversations where they had shared personal details about their lives. Some, she thought, have been more integrated with their extreme beliefs because of the work she did as a recruiter for Identity Europa, an organization the Anti-Defamation League calls a “white supremacist group” and which is responsible for almost half of whites. Supremacist propaganda broadcast on college and university campuses in 2017 and part of 2016.
“He [was] like a mini existential crisis at the same time, of a sort of: “Who am I? Who was I? Who are these people? Do I play a role in their life? Said Samantha, who requested that her last name not be disclosed in order to protect her and her family from possible violence.
As the day unfolded, she started texting and calling two other people, both of whom had also been taken to the far right. All three were horrified by what they saw, and all three decided that day to do something about it.
From this discussion, they started a project called Future Freedom. Both a media company and a virtual support group, the group’s goal is to provide a way out for far-right extremists who have been radicalized online in the same way they once were.
“Unless you go through this, you won’t understand it,” Samantha said. “And like even older generations of this stuff, no one is approached in the alleys anymore.”
Co-founders Caolan Robertson and Caleb Cain know the path to radicalization better than anyone.
Robertson has spent years producing YouTube videos warning of “the nightmare of mass immigration” in Europe and “genocide against the white population” in South Africa – videos that have received millions of views and have helped propel far-right figures like Lauren Southern, Tommy Robinson and Infowars Welcomes Alex Jones into notoriety.
He now believes that work, which he said contained “racist tropes”, influenced many who were inside the Capitol on January 6.
“Much of it was genuinely false, and a lot of it was genuinely disinformation. Much of it was funded by infamous groups that don’t care about you, ”Robertson said. “And as the person who created this content, I’m telling you straight away that a lot of things were not right, were lies.”
Six years ago, Cain was one of the people watching these videos as part of what he now calls an “alt-right rabbit hole” – which he fell into after moving with his grandfather. and sought self-help advice.
“My life was spiritually empty. My life seemed very empty to me, ”Cain said. “And when I had that phone in my pocket and I could just instantly access this online world, which was engaging, and I turned on the Caolan videos, and it was like this whole world where we were saving the western civilization. “
Now all three hope to share their stories of radicalization and redemption – ones they believe are unique in the internet age and the political environment surrounding Donald Trump’s election as President in 2016 – to help. people to escape.
The group is reluctant to share exact numbers, but said it has previously spoken with people across the United States and around the world who were previously “out of touch” through online echo chambers.
The three co-founders also stress that they are not a formal deradicalization organization. Groups like Life After Hate, which helps people quit right-wing extremist groups and reintegrate into society, have received government funding as part of a larger effort to disrupt domestic terrorism.
Instead, Future Freedom hopes to provide a middle ground, by sharing their stories through their website and allowing people to message or email them for help, and then refer them to groups. deradicalization if necessary. They hope that by being present in more spaces online – platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – they can catch people in the same online world where they were radicalized in the first place.
“When you’re in this movement, because so much of it is happening online, it’s completely accessible to you,” Samantha said. “Whether you’re at the post office, at work, wherever you are, just turn your phone on, and there are hundreds of notifications, all of this media. You still live in this world. “
National organizations and federal leaders are also focusing on the problem. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, found that “right-wing extremists carried out two-thirds of attacks and plots in the United States in 2019” and more than 90% of them in during the first five months of 2020.
And last month, the Biden administration ordered the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to work with the FBI and the Justice Department to conduct a new threat assessment of domestic violent extremism.
But the founders of Future Freedom don’t see the problem going away anytime soon.
The extreme right-wing extremist movement, Samantha said, “gives people something that they couldn’t give themselves or that they couldn’t find in their own community. And especially when you are, right now, in the middle of a global pandemic and the world is on lockdown, all you have is the internet.
Cain said he thought, “We’re just going to keep seeing more things like the Capitol storming endlessly.” It will happen more frequently. ”
“It’s really terrifying,” he added.
Now rebuilding her life away from the hate group she was once immersed in, Samantha says no facts or phrases will convince anyone inside the movement to leave. She, Cain, and Robertson have all been drawn into the movement through different paths, and they all had their own reasons for leaving.
But they all still believe that redemption is possible for anyone who is willing to find it.
“All I can say is it’s worth it,” Samantha said. “It’s tough and it’s devastating. And you lose everything, then you lose more. But once you’re completely empty, you can rebuild life to be whatever you want. And it’s so hard, but it’s totally worth it.