Social Media Helped Build, And Tear Down, A Standoff Against The Government

Facebook and other social platforms helped distribute the message of an armed militia standoff against the feds. Now it's being used by prosecutors to build a criminal case against them.

It was a protest of only about 100 people, but a crowd of any size gathered outdoors in the freezing January temperatures in Burns, Oregon, was sure to draw attention.

In the center, Ammon Bundy stood over the crowd hoping everyone would hear him.

"Those who are actually ready to do something about it, I'm asking you to follow me and go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and we're going to make a hard stand," he said as cameras recorded him. "There are already agents on the road who have blocked the road and they don't want us to go out there, and we're going to go out there anyway."

Bundy's call to make a stand against the government was heard beyond the Safeway parking lot in the small Oregon town, traveling across the country through social media and an electronic network of like-minded groups that heeded and repeated the call on Facebook, on YouTube, and in email newsletters.

It was a network Bundy and his supporters were familiar with and used throughout their subsequent monthlong armed standoff with authorities to call out for supporters to join them and others to send supplies.

Now federal prosecutors are using the same videos to show how the group coordinated, planned, and executed the armed takeover of the wildlife refuge. Using their own words against them, prosecutors have collected online videos and Facebook posts as evidence of what they claim was an armed takeover and conspiracy to impede employees at the refuge.

That includes video of Bundy in the Safeway parking lot in Burns, urging people to follow him to the refuge and take a "hard stand" against the government.

View this video on YouTube

The video was widely distributed among militia organizations, anti-government fringe groups, and opponents of the federal government's oversight of Western lands during the early days of the occupation.

In another video, cited in court documents, Bundy says he and his supporters have "taken over" the refuge, which was to become "a base place for patriots all over the country to be housed here, and live here, and we're planning on being here for several years."

Another defendant, Blaine Cooper, is seen in the video urging people to come to the refuge and "bring your arms." Of the 26 people charged in the standoff, 11 have pleaded guilty as of this week.

Bundy and his Nevada family had already captured national headlines during a tense standoff with federal authorities in 2014 when his father, rancher Cliven Bundy, refused to pay grazing fees.

Armed militia members aimed their weapons at federal agents during the Nevada standoff and when the agents stood down, it was seen as a successful confrontation by militia and anti-government groups.

In the world of militia groups and Western land rights, the standoffs gained the family notoriety. The Bundys have since spread their message against federal control of Western land through an active Facebook page for the Bundy Ranch, and a blog with posts about their fight with the government.

View this video on YouTube

While the family's social media use has created a network of supporters, the Department of Justice has also tapped into their effort to win their case against the occupiers of the refuge.

In court documents, prosecutors cite the Bundy Ranch Facebook page and the family's blog to highlight their fight in Oregon. Officials have also tapped into public Facebook pictures and videos to build their case against the occupiers.

According to court documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, officials obtained a search warrant to search 23 Facebook profiles of people involved in the takeover.

Prosecutors obtained 10.7 gigabytes of data from Facebook, including pictures, videos, posts, and messages that the state intends to present as evidence, according to filings.

Defendants in the case have objected to the use of social media posts and publicly available videos as evidence. Particularly, the defendants have argued in court documents that the warrant used to obtain the content was "overbroad" and obtained without probably cause, but federal Judge Anna Brown has allowed most of the content into the trial.

One of the videos includes LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who was shot and killed in the last days of the Oregon standoff as officials tried to take leaders into custody at a roadblock. Authorities said Finicum appeared to be reaching for a gun several times before officials fatally shot him.

In the video, taken four days before his death, Finicum addresses supporters directly, saying the occupiers did not intend to negotiate with the FBI.

"We are not going anywhere," Finicum says. "We will not leave these buildings, we will not turn them over to the federal government."

View this video on YouTube

Court documents also indicate that prosecutors will use social media posts to show the takeover of the refuge was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one that was organized by Bundy and his supporters weeks, perhaps months, before it took place.

In a video posted more than two weeks before the takeover, for example, one of the defendants offering tips about camping in the cold.

"Make sure you got thermal socks, and waterproof boots, and enough to keep yourself warm," Jason Patrick, who was also charged in the federal case, says in the video.

Patrick doesn't directly encourage viewers to descend upon Burns in the video, but in another Facebook video posted on Dec. 26, 2015, and cited by prosecutors in court documents, he urges people to head to Oregon for the protest.

"You guys are always talking about getting off the couch and doing something," Blaine Cooper, another defendant, says in the video. "Well, now's the time to stand up and make that stand and make your voices heard."

The documents show that prosecutors are expected to present a long list of evidence in their case against those who participated in the occupation, including notebooks of the group organizing defensive positions around the compound, setting up shifts, and delegating responsibilities for the armed men.

It also includes a long list of handguns, rifles, magazines, and ammunition that were seized inside the compound, showing the group was heavily armed.

Prosecutors are expected to present their list of witnesses later this week.

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