President Trump told reporters today, after a disastrous debate performance last night, that he doesn’t know who the Proud Boys are, after saying at the presidential debate last night that the far-right group should “stand back and stand by” in response to a question asking him to condemn white supremacists.

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.

Trump 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.”

Far-right groups celebrated on social media today.

Trump’s comments were 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.” Others saw a retail opportunity, pushing $30 T-shirts and $40 hoodies bearing the group’s logo and the words, “PROUD BOYS STANDING BY.”

On the fringe social media site 4chan, an anonymous supporter wrote, “STAND BACK AND STAND BY … SOMEONE HAS TO STOP THESE FAR LEFT RIOTERS,” according to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks far-right groups.

Mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have cracked down on the Proud Boys for violations against hate speech and other policies. Twitter and Facebook both acted in 2018. YouTube has quickened the pace of enforcement action against violent right-wing extremist groups since updating its hate speech policy last year.

But the Proud Boys, like other extremist groups, have found new homes online, especially on Telegram, and new visibility, thanks to Tuesday night’s debate. One researcher said memberships to three Proud Boys channels on Telegram grew nearly 10 percent after the debate.

“He legitimized them in a way that nobody in the community expected. It’s unbelievable. The celebration is incredible,” said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group. “In my 20 years of tracking terrorism and extremism, I never thought I’d see anything like this from a U.S. president.”

SITE found that Telegram channels devoted to neo-Nazis and white supremacists portrayed Trump’s comments as signals of support. The Proud Boys dispute characterizations of them as white supremacists, but their actions often are touted by white supremacists and others on far-right political fringes.

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.

The prospect of Election Day violence has increasingly concerned those who monitor such groups.

The Michigan chapter of the Proud Boys, one of those that made memes featuring Trump’s quote Tuesday night, had recently urged people on Telegram to become “poll challengers” on Election Day.

Trump sounded similar themes in the debate, urging his supporters to monitor polling places for supposed acts of fraud.

Later, the Trump campaign ran advertising encouraging people to become poll workers.

“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.

The comments set off outrage and calls for clarification from a number of Republican senators.

After being asked several times today whether he will condemn white supremacy, Trump responded, “I have always denounced any form — any form of any of that, you have to denounce. But I also — Joe Biden has to say something about antifa.”

Trump’s comments were 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.

Joe Biden told reporters this morning that his message to all white supremacist groups is to “cease and desist. That’s not who we are. This is not who we are as Americans.”

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 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.

Trump tried to backtrack today telling reporters that he doesn’t know who the Proud Boys are, after telling the far-right group to “stand back and stand by” last night.

Biden offered a clearer message:

“My message to the Proud Boys and every other white supremacist organization is: Cease and desist. That’s not who we are. This is not who we are as Americans,” Biden said today.

“The American people will decide who the next president of the United States will be. Period. So, I’m urging the American people to go out and vote, show up. … If, in fact, we win this election this president will stand down. The American people will not stand for it.”

Biden said Trump’s performance at the debate was a “national embarrassment,” and that he understands why some undecided voters who watched would be “turned off” to politics.

 

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