An anti-government website is using cloud servers located in Montreal to help organize a series of armed protests across the United States this weekend, contributing to fears the country could see more violence around the presidential inauguration.
The website, Tree of Liberty, claims to be the “press platform” for the Boogaloo movement, whose followers are radical pro-gun advocates who embrace the idea of a second American Civil War — which they call the boogaloo — and reject most forms of authority.
Although the movement has been active in the real world, as opposed to just online, for only a short time, a long list of followers have been charged with a litany of violent offences, including murder, attempted murder and opening fire on police officers.
Facebook sought to ban the movement over the summer, saying it supported “violence against civilians, law enforcement, and government officials and institutions.”
The Tree of Liberty website is hosted by the Montreal servers of OVH, a multinational cloud computing company headquartered in France. A spokesperson for the company said it was investigating the website.
“Unlike social media platforms, cloud providers have no control nor access to the data hosted and published by their customers: we provide users with the technical tools, but the content is not filtered nor reviewed by the infrastructure provider,” Estelle Azémard, vice-president for the Americas, said in a statement to CBC News.
Azémard said the company would act quickly if notified of illegal content or “undesirable customers.”
The Tree of Liberty has suggested to its users that they can evade law enforcement surveillance because the website is hosted outside of the U.S.
In one recent comment, a user said he had likely been identified as a “potential terrorist threat” because of his political beliefs and that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was monitoring his online activity.
The moderator sought to assure him, saying the site is “hosted outside of the DHS’s data jurisdiction,” adding, “This is a safe place.”
In an email to CBC News, an unidentified website moderator wrote that “rental of the server was simply more cost effective in Canada.”
FBI warns of armed protests at inauguration
Boogalooers are among several groups planning to hold demonstrations ahead of the inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, when Joe Biden will officially take over the presidency from Donald Trump.
Following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump extremists that took place as lawmakers were inside voting to certify Biden’s victory, there are widespread concerns in the U.S. about the prospect of further violence by groups who reject the results of the Nov. 3 election.
The FBI, according to several media outlets, has warned local law enforcement to prepare for armed protests that may be attended by far-right extremists.
A moderator’s account on the Tree of Liberty website has been encouraging supporters to bring firearms to protests scheduled to take place on Sunday in all 50 state capitals.
“This will be a chance for Americans young and old to physically demonstrate to the world the massive amount of armed citizens in this country,” reads one post promoting the protests.
In the comments section, one person wrote that peaceful protest was not enough and that executions were necessary to solve problems in the U.S.
WATCH: FBI warns violence is brewing ahead of Biden’s inauguration:
Since the siege in Washington, D.C., during which five people died, technology companies in the U.S. have once again been purging their platforms of content linked to radical groups.
Notably, Amazon barred Parler — a social media platform popular with Trump supporters and others on the far right — from using its cloud-based web-hosting service.
‘They are able to attract a wide range of extremists’
The Tree of Liberty website came online in the fall, after Facebook and other social media sites tried to scrub their platforms of Boogaloo-related content.
Experts who monitor hate groups in the U.S. speculated the site could be an attempt to stabilize the Boogaloo movement’s online presence while also trying to soften its image and provide a gateway for new followers.
“It seems to be trying to professionalize the movement’s communications,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who specializes in the online behaviour of extremist groups.
Squire said it’s unclear how representative the website is, given that Boogalooers prefer non-hierarchical and more individualistic modes of organizing.
The Boogaloo movement is difficult to characterize politically. Within the online world of the radical right, the term “boogaloo,” taken from the 1984 film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, generally refers to civil war.
Some white supremacists affiliate with the movement as a means of accelerating a race war. Yet some Boogalers made headlines over the summer for attending Black Lives Matter protests.
On the Tree of Liberty website, Boogalooers distanced themselves from Trump supporters, though many maintain — contrary to evidence — that the election was rigged and the riot in Washington was perpetrated by left-wing activists.
“Because they are so ideologically fluid, they are able to attract a wider range of extremists,” said Alex Friedfeld, a researcher of extremist groups with the New York-based Anti-Defamation League.
It is not ideas but the prospect of violence that appeals to its supporters, he said.
“Any company that is hosting this type of content should absolutely take a hard look at what they are allowing to spread,” Friedfeld said.