Earlier this month an outfit called “Wisconsin Poll Watcher Militia” claimed on its Facebook page that it planned to show up at polling places this November — while armed — and intimidate Democratic voters who had signed the petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker back in 2012. Media outlets, including TPM, picked up on the claims, and a local prosecutor reportedly began looking into the matter. But there are now claims that the whole thing was a hoax, leaving a murky picture of cautious election officials, skeptical observers, and weird Internet subcultures.
A Sept. 18 post on Politicus USA captured screenshots of a Facebook page titled “Wisconsin Poll Watcher Militia.” The group said that members planned to show up at polling locations armed and ready to target Democrats in the “worst areas” of a few cities in southeastern Wisconsin who had signed Walker’s recall petition or had outstanding warrants. They would follow those people from the polls and report them to the police. TPM picked up local newspaper reports on the Facebook group on Monday.
Reid Magney, the public information officer for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, told TPM that he was aware of the Facebook group and the new page that formed, but knew nothing beyond that.
“We’re aware of the website, and we understand that law enforcement is looking into it,” Magney told TPM. “At this point, the reaction to it I think has been bigger than the thing itself.”
Magney said that he spoke to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office about the Facebook page, but the district attorney’s office would not comment.
Neil Albrecht, Milwaukee’s election commissioner, told Milwaukee Public Radio on Thursday that he had requested they look into the Facebook page.
“We need to be cautious about any kind of voter intimidation given how politically charged this election is going to be and so just as a precaution, I forwarded the link to the site to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office and asked them to take a look at it, to make a determination as to whether there might be any validity to some of the statements,” he said.
But since the initial reports, a new Facebook page for the group has apparently popped up, as the Southern Poverty Law Center noted on Thursday.
The supposed group’s latest page, titled “You’ve Been Trolled by Journalists with Zero Credibility” claims that the “militia” was a hoax. The page mocks people for taking them seriously, but still includes messages about helping police arrest people with outstanding warrants.
Though state officials are aware of the Facebook page and are investigating it, many in Wisconsin quickly dismissed the “militia” as entirely fake.
Scot Ross, the executive director of at One Wisconsin Now, a group that has done work supporting the Walker recall and opposing the voter ID law told TPM he didn’t think the creators of the Facebook group pose any real threat to Wisconsin voters.
“This, I would assume, is one or two morons who apparently have access to the Internet,” he told TPM. “I know that people are monitoring in southeastern Wisconsin to see if anything pops up, but so far they haven’t seen anything. And all indications are it’s just garbage.”
The Wisconsin Daily Independent essentially rolled its eyes at the reporting on the group, and said the “page is obviously only meant to dig under the skin of Wisconsin liberals.”
If the Facebook page intended to rile up liberals, it has clearly succeeded. As the Independent pointed out, a “Watching the ‘Wisconsin Poll Watcher Militia'” Facebook page has formed.
They have been tracking the alleged militia group as it makes new Facebook pages.
One liberal blogger, Bill Schmalfeldt, tied the new militia group to a prank from a couple years ago called “Operation Burn Notice,” during which conservatives said they were going to burn recall petition signatures.
Schmalfeldt, who has his own reputation as something of an adversarial figure online, tied Matt Lepperd, who participated in “Operation Burn Notice,” to the new militia since he liked and commented on the group’s Facebook page.
But Lepperd, the owner of an auto repair shop in Wisconsin, told TPM that he has nothing to do with it and didn’t know who was behind it. A friend alerted him to the page, and at first he thought it was funny. Lepperd said “Operation Burn Notice” was “funny as hell” and clearly a parody, while this page seemed less clear.
At first, he said he thought the “Militia” page “was done as a parody,” he said. “The liberals in Wisconsin are just rabid and easy to excite, and it is funny sometimes to watch this.”
He then thought the page got out of hand and he un-liked the page and removed his comment a couple days later.
“I think it’s over the top. I do not approve of it. I think in some respects it does oppress [sic] votes,” he said. “What may have started off as a joke — it doesn’t look like a joke anymore.”
He’s still not convinced that there’s actually a militia forming, however.
“If there was such a thing, people on both sides would be talking about it. … It’s stupid. It’s in bad taste. But I don’t believe it’s real,” he continued.
Lepperd said he has asked around about who may have started the page, but he hasn’t found anything so far. He said he had nothing to do with it and did not find anyone from “Operation Burn Notice” who was involved.
Lepperd said he’s upset that he was tied to the page and that he wishes it would be taken down.
“I’m clearly an outspoken Republican in the state of Wisconsin, and I get tied to a lot of crap that doesn’t happen,” he said. “I don’t like that I got pinned with it.”