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Boogaloo Boys: Meme warfare spilling onto the streets of America

In the wake of the protests across the US following the death of George Floyd, a far-right extremist group called Boogaloo Boys (sometimes spelt Boogaloo Bois) has gotten into the media spotlight. Identifying themselves as citizen militia, Boogaloos appear at protests, wearing Hawaiian shirts decorated with themed patches and brandishing assault rifles, and use rallies as diversions for acts of violence directed at both protesters and the police.

Moving from the fringes of internet hate forums advocating a violent uprising against authorities and law enforcement, the group – or rather a mash-up of aggressive ideologies upheld by heavily-armed extremists – has become a household name. Nationwide anti-lockdown and #BLM protests have provided an opportunity for right-wing anarchists to rally, armed, and in public. 

What began as gun rights activists threatening violence if the government were to "come for their guns" has evolved into a movement preparing and looking forward to what they call "the second civil war" – or, "the Boogaloo". The word "Boogaloo" comes from the 1984 break-dancing movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo that gave rise to numerous jokes and memes, but the notions it stands for these days are far from humorous. Some claim that BOOG is an acronym for "Bring Out Our Guns" that later morphed into Boogaloo.

Since 2019 the name has popped online here and there, used quite loosely for everything from the calls to war against government agencies to neo-Nazi endorsements and white supremacy tag lines. However, recent research by the Tech Transparency Project shows that by April 22, 2020, there were suddenly at least 125 Facebook groups devoted to the Boogaloo with over 60% established in the few months previous.

COVID-19 induced quarantine attracted tens of thousands of new members to the groups that campaigned for boycotting federal lockdown orders and attending rallies.

Boogaloo boys across the US seem to have taken the anti-lockdown protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd as an opportunity not to be missed.

The movement's name started making some serious headlines after a series of violent attacks associated with it. On May 29 Air Force Sergeant Steven Carrillo shot and killed two guards from a speeding van outside the Federal Courthouse in Oakland, California. It happened yards from an area looted and burned by the anarchists, which was precisely the plan. Carrillo and the van's driver met on a Boogaloo group on Facebook and had schemed to carry out the attack using protests as a cover. A few days later when Santa Cruz County sheriffs showed up at Carrillo's doorstep to arrest him, the latter open fire killing an officer.

Last month three other Boogaloo disciples were arrested on terrorism-related charges for planning to firebomb a Black Lives Matter protest in Nevada. Earlier in April, a Texan Boogaloo supporter was arrested for what was allegedly a hunt for a police officer to kill – the perpetrator live-streamed his quest on Facebook.

Following these events, Facebook shut down some of the Boogaloo groups and banned the use of the term "Boogaloo" and 50 derivatives. Bellingcat website reporters, however, claim "this policy has done virtually nothing to curb either the growth of this movement or reduce the violence of its rhetoric. Every new Boogaloo page and group we found led us to new related pages and "liked" pages, each either organising people for direct armed action or agitating them to anticipate violence."

A report by the Network Contagion Research Institute says the phenomenon of Boogaloo is an example of the emerging "memetic warfare" waged against society on mainstream internet platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit, as well as fringe websites including 4chan.

The use of cryptic language and memes with hateful messages and instructions for insurgency makes it quite challenging to analyse.

The report also says "Like a virus hiding from the immune system, the use of comical-meme language permits the network to organise violence secretly behind a mirage of inside jokes and plausible deniability".

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Another challenging factor in figuring out the Boogaloo extremists is that they seem to defy easy categorisation. A report published last week by Blackbird.ai shows Boogaloo used its online presence to make waves regarding the "government's unusual and overbearing reach into private lives in the form of closing down cities and businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic." It also encourages white nationalist rebellions, manipulation of anti-police sentiment and white supremacy.

The movement's ultimate goal is to destabilise the USA at all costs through drafting supporters with various agendas and political sympathies.

Blackbird.ai suggests the tactics resemble that employed by ISIS in bringing different Islamic groups together. The comparison is especially striking, given that both Boogaloo and ISIS have used online media to evangelise its ideologies that eventually spilt over into real-life violence.