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A Small Group of Sleuths Had Been Identifying Right-Wing Extremists Long before the Attack on the Capitol

January 10, 2021
Washington Post

By Robert Klemko

Before a mob of Trump supporters staged a riot in the U.S. Capitol and thousands of Americans became amateur detectives working to identify the culprits, a loosely connected group of seasoned online sleuths were ringing alarm bells and picking off extremists online, one by one.

For a nationwide network of left-wing activists who seek out and publish the identities of those they believe to be violent “fascists,” some investigations can take months, years even.

Or it can take 10 minutes.

That’s how much time Molly Conger spent on her laptop last month searching for the man who used the right-wing social media site Parler to share that he was a police officer and pledge support to a member of the Proud Boys extremist group, advocating violence against Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Turns out the man was a Prince William County sheriff’s deputy. Fifteen-year law enforcement veteran Aaron Hoffman acknowledged he was behind the profile picture of a sheep holding a machine gun, though he maintained in an interview with The Washington Post that his account had been hacked. Alerted to Hoffman’s online presence by Conger’s tweets, the Northern Virginia county’s sheriff fired Hoffman the next day.

Prince William County sheriff fires deputy for ‘disturbing comments’ on social media

Conger, 30, a freelance journalist in Charlottesville who live-tweets local government meetings and posts pictures of her miniature Daschunds under the handle @socialistdogmom, has made doxing “Nazis” her day job — and she is part of a small coterie of left-wing activists who monitored far-right violence long before it arrived at the forefront of the American conscience. They follow online clues to learn the hidden identity of perpetrators. Some go so far as to infiltrate the messaging groups of their targets by impersonating new members.

The majority of people who do this work are anonymous, like their targets, though a handful have been outed and continue to dox others. They often describe themselves as antifascists and are eager to present a faction of the movement that works behind the scenes to prevent violence. They’re tech-savvy, meticulous and incensed by the rise of the far right. They reject the idea that antifa’s methods are steeped in violence — a narrative advanced by President Trump and his supporters.

Conger lives off donations from a growing audience of social media users who want to see consequences for anonymous members of far-right groups who plot violence online and carry it out at demonstrations across the country.

“I’ve just always been very nosy,” said Conger, a former project manager at an education software company. “If you’ve ever stayed up way too late trying to find your ex’s wedding pictures on Instagram, you can dox a Nazi. It’s the same skill set.”

For many, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist demonstrator, was a tipping point.

“I was not super politically active prior to that,” Conger said. “I was very invested in my job and had my head down and things just got progressively worse until someone got murdered by a Nazi in my neighborhood. This is not a couple of guys on 4chan. These are people who were willing to come together in real life and do real violence. That sort of changes your perspective.

“So now my life is about making it a little bit harder to be a Nazi online.”