A Far-Right Militant Group Has Recruited Thousands of Police, Soldiers, and Veterans – Story by Mike Giglio NOVEMBER 2020 ISSUE

An Atlantic investigation reveals who they are and what they might do on Election Day.

Stewart Rhodes

Photographs by Philip Montgomery

Image above: Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers

Stewart Rhodes was living his vision of the future. On television, American cities were burning, while on the internet, rumors warned that antifa bands were coming to terrorize the suburbs. Rhodes was driving around South Texas, getting ready for them. He answered his phone. “Let’s not fuck around,” he said. “We’ve descended into civil war.”

It was a Friday evening in June. Rhodes, 55, is a stocky man with a gray buzz cut, a wardrobe of tactical-casual attire, and a black eye patch. With him in his pickup were a pistol and a dusty black hat with the gold logo of the Oath Keepers, a militant group that has drawn in thousands of people from the military and law-enforcement communities.

Rhodes had been talking about civil war since he founded the Oath Keepers, in 2009. But now more people were listening. And whereas Rhodes had once cast himself as a revolutionary in waiting, he now saw his role as defending the president. He had put out a call for his followers to protect the country against what he was calling an “insurrection.” The unrest, he told me, was the latest attempt to undermine Donald Trump.

Over the summer, Rhodes’s warnings of conflict only grew louder. In August, when a teenager was charged with shooting and killing two people at protests over police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Rhodes called him “a Hero, a Patriot” on Twitter. And when a Trump supporter was killed later that week in Portland, Oregon, Rhodes declared that there was no going back. “Civil war is here, right now,” he wrote, before being banned from the platform for inciting violence.

By then, I’d spent months interviewing current and former Oath Keepers, attempting to determine whether they would really take part in violence. Many of their worst fears had been realized in quick succession: government lockdowns, riots, a movement to abolish police, and leftist groups arming themselves and seizing part of a city. They saw all of it as a precursor to the 2020 election.

As Trump spent the year warning about voter fraud, the Oath Keepers were listening. What would happen, I wondered, if Trump lost, said the election had been stolen, and refused to concede? Or the flip side: What if he won and his opponents poured into the streets in protest? The U.S. was already seeing a surge in political violence, and in August the FBI put out a bulletin that warned of a possible escalation heading into the election. How much worse would things get if trained professionals took up arms?

Read: Why can’t he just say it?

I’d been asking a version of these questions since 2017, when I met a researcher from the Southern Poverty Law Center who told me about Rhodes and the Oath Keepers. She’d received a leaked database with information about the group, and she said it might contain some answers.

Rhodes was a little-known libertarian blogger when he launched the Oath Keepers in early 2009. It was a moment of anxiety on the American right: As the Great Recession raged, protesters met the new president with accusations of socialism and tyranny. “The greatest threats to our liberty do not come from without,” Rhodes wrote online, “but from within.” Republicans had spent eight years amassing power in an executive branch now occupied by Barack Obama. The time for politics was ending. “Our would-be slave masters are greatly underestimating the resolve and military capability of the people,” Rhodes wrote.

Rhodes had joined the military just out of high school, hoping to become a Green Beret, but his career was cut short when he fractured his spine during a parachute training jump. After his discharge, he worked as a firearms instructor and parked cars as a valet. In 1993, he dropped a loaded handgun and it shot him in the face, blinding him in his left eye. The brush with death inspired him, at 28, to enroll in community college. He went on to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he graduated summa cum laude, and then to Yale Law School, where he won a prize for a paper arguing that the Bush administration’s enemy-combatant doctrine violated the Constitution.

He married a fellow libertarian, started a family, and hung out a shingle as a lawyer in Montana—“Ivy League quality … without Ivy League expense,” read a classified ad in 2008. He volunteered for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign that year. But after the election, he veered from politics toward something darker.

Graeme Wood: Only about 3.5 percent of Americans care about democracy

His blog post was both a manifesto and a recruiting pitch. He based it on the oath that soldiers take when they enlist—minimizing the vow to obey the president and focusing on the one that comes before it, to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Law-enforcement officers swear a similar oath, and Rhodes wrote that both groups could refuse orders, including those related to gun control, that would enable tyranny. And, if necessary, they could fight.

Responses poured in, and Rhodes published them on his blog:

“Your message is spreading and I will make sure it gets to more Marines.”

“Not only will I refuse any unlawful order that violates the Constitution I will fight the tyrants that give the orders. Rest assured that me and my brothers in Law Enforcement talk about this subject on a regular basis.”

“I fully support you and what you stand for and I do talk about these things with some of my subordinates,” an Air Force officer wrote. “Those who I trust that is.”

Rhodes kept the nature of the Oath Keepers ambiguous—the group was officially nonpartisan and was not, as a later post on the blog put it, a militia “per se.” Even so, he cautioned that its members would be painted as extremists and said they could remain anonymous. “We don’t ask current-serving law enforcement and military to sign up on any kind of membership list,” he said in a radio interview. “We think that’d be foolish.”

But eventually he did create such a list. It collected members’ names, home and email addresses, phone numbers, and service histories, along with answers to a question about how they could help the Oath Keepers. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center passed the entries for nearly 25,000 people along to me.

On April 19, 2009, Rhodes traveled to Lexington Green, in Massachusetts, for the anniversary of the first shots of the American Revolution. Standing before a crowd of new members, he led a reaffirmation of their oaths. With him were two heroes of the militant right: Richard Mack, who popularized the idea that county sheriffs are the highest law in the land, and Mike Vanderboegh, the founder of the Three Percenters, an umbrella militia based on the myth that it took just 3 percent of the population to fight and win the Revolutionary War.

With his Ivy League law degree, Rhodes’s background was unusual. One of the first cases he’d taken on after law school was helping with the pro bono defense of a militia leader jailed for making machine guns. His early writings on his blog, and on a web forum where he used the handle Stewart the Yalie, reveal a fixation on the rise of the hundreds of militia groups that, in the early 1990s, loosely coalesced under the banner of the Patriot movement.

Rhodes was deeply affected by the 1993 government siege outside Waco, Texas, which ended in the deaths of more than 70 members of an armed Christian sect, which to him showed the danger of government power. But the Patriot movement became notorious for its connections to white nationalists—and it fell apart after Timothy McVeigh, who’d attended militia meetings, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Rhodes wanted to avoid repeating these earlier groups’ mistakes, and he showed a talent for giving fringe ideas more mainstream appeal. His refusal to call the Oath Keepers a militia helped, as did the fact that he put a disavowal of racism on his blog and warned members not to make overt threats of violence. He insisted that the Oath Keepers would fight only as a last resort.

Rhodes believed that the militia groups of the past had been too secretive, which made the public suspicious and gave authorities more leeway to crack down. He established the Oath Keepers as a registered nonprofit with a board of directors; members did relief work after hurricanes and spoke at local Republican events. They could walk into police stations or stand outside military bases with leaflets; they could meet with sheriffs and petition lawmakers.

Rhodes wrote a creed listing 10 types of orders that members vow to resist. Gun-control laws are first among them. Then come libertarian concerns such as subjecting American citizens to military tribunals and warrantless search and seizure. After those come more conspiratorial fears—blockades of cities, foreign troops on U.S. soil, putting Americans in detention camps. Here Rhodes was drawing from the “New World Order” theory, a worldview that is central to the Patriot movement—and that can be traced back to what the historian Richard Hofstadter, writing in the 1960s, called the paranoid style in American politics. It linked fears of globalism, a deep distrust of elites, and the idea that a ballooning federal government could become tyrannical.

Rhodes appeared on Hardball and The O’Reilly Factor, where his ideas were called dangerous; on conservative talk radio, where they were met more favorably; and on The Alex Jones Show, where he was featured so often that he and Jones became friends. He kept the Oath Keepers at the vanguard of the Patriot movement, which was seeing a resurgence, and traded his blog for a website that sold branded body armor and a Facebook page that reached half a million followers before it was shut down in August.

From the December 2019 issue: How America ends

In 2014, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers joined an armed standoff between Patriot groups and federal authorities in Nevada on behalf of the cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. The next year, they led another standoff, at the Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County, Oregon. Both times, what started as a dispute over land-use issues became a rallying cry on the militant right. Both times, the authorities backed down. In 2014, Rhodes sent teams to Ferguson, Missouri, to protect businesses during the unrest over police brutality after Michael Brown’s killing. Images of Oath Keepers standing guard on rooftops with semiautomatic rifles became symbols of an America beginning to turn on itself.

January 2020 gun-rights rally in Richmond, VA
On Martin Luther King Day, an estimated 22,000 gun-rights advocates protested outside the Virginia state capitol, in Richmond.

In Trump, the Patriot movement believed it had an ally in the White House for the first time. In 2016, when Trump had warned of election fraud, Rhodes put out a call for members to quietly monitor polling stations. When Trump warned of an invasion by undocumented immigrants, Rhodes traveled to the southern border with an Oath Keepers patrol. He sent members to “protect” Trump supporters from the protesters at his rallies and appeared in the VIP section at one of them, standing in the front row in a black Oath Keepers shirt. When Trump warned of the potential for civil war at the start of the impeachment inquiry last fall, Rhodes voiced his assent on Twitter. “This is the truth,” he wrote. “This is where we are.”

Even while he courted publicity, Rhodes maintained secrecy around his rank and file. Monitoring groups couldn’t say for sure how many members the Oath Keepers had or what kind of people were joining.

But the leaked database laid everything out. It had been compiled by Rhodes’s deputies as new members signed up at recruiting events or on the Oath Keepers website. They hailed from every state. About two-thirds had a background in the military or law enforcement. About 10 percent of these members were active-duty. There was a sheriff in Colorado, a SWAT-team member in Indiana, a police patrolman in Miami, the chief of a small police department in Illinois. There were members of the Special Forces, private military contractors, an Army psyops sergeant major, a cavalry scout instructor in Texas, a grunt in Afghanistan. There were Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, a 20-year special agent in the Secret Service, and two people who said they were in the FBI.

“I will not go quietly into this dark night that is facing MY beloved America,” a Marine veteran from Wisconsin wrote; an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department said he’d enlist his colleagues “to fight the tyranny our country is facing.” Similar pledges came from a police captain in Texas, an Army recruiter in Oregon, and a Border Patrol agent in Arizona, among many others. “Funny story,” wrote a police sergeant in a St. Louis suburb. “I stopped a speeding truck driver, who had your decal on the side of his truck, I asked about it, he went on and on, I said, ‘Damn I’m all about this.’ ” He listed skills as a firearms and tactical instructor and said he would forward the membership application to his fellow officers. A special agent in the New York City Police Department’s intelligence bureau recalled that he’d been heading to work one day when he saw a window decal with the Oath Keepers logo and jotted down the name on his hand. He vowed to be ready “if the balloon ever goes up.”

Many answers to the question of how new members could help the Oath Keepers were innocuous: “I make videos!” and “Not much but my big mouth! Too old for much else!” People offered to show up at protests, hand out flyers, and post on Facebook. Others provided résumés with skills suited for conflict. A soldier with a U.S. Army email address detailed a background in battlefield intelligence, writing, “I am willing to use any skills you identify as helpful,” and an Iraq War veteran pledged “any talents available to a former infantry team leader.” Still others listed skills in marksmanship, SWAT tactics, interrogation. A Texas businessman offered his ranch “for training or defensive purposes,” and a Michigan cop, retired from the Special Forces, volunteered as a “tactical/political leader when occasion arrives in near future.”

As I pored through the entries, I began to see them as a window into something much larger than the Oath Keepers. Membership in the group was often fleeting—some people had signed up on a whim and forgotten about it. The Oath Keepers did not have 25,000 soldiers at the ready. But the files showed that Rhodes had tapped into a deep current of anxiety, one that could cause a surprisingly large contingent of people with real police and military experience to consider armed political violence. He was like a fisherman who sinks a beacon into the sea at night, drawing his catch toward the light.

The entries dated from 2009 until 2015, not long before the start of Trump’s presidential campaign. I used them as a starting point for conversations with dozens of current and former members. The dominant mood was foreboding. I found people far along in deliberations about the prospect of civil conflict, bracing for it and afflicted by the sense that they were being pushed toward it by forces outside their control. Many said they didn’t want to fight but feared they’d have no choice.

The first person I contacted, in January, was David Solomita, an Iraq War veteran in Florida whose entry said that a police officer had recruited him to the Oath Keepers while he was out to dinner with his wife. I didn’t mention civil war when I emailed, yet he replied, “I want to make this clear, I am a libertarian and was in Iraq when it became a civil war, I want no part of one.”

Later, Solomita said that he’d been an Oath Keeper for a year before leaving because Rhodes “wanted to be at the center of the circus when [civil war] kicked off.” America’s political breakdown, he added, reminded him too much of what he’d seen overseas.

On Martin Luther King Day, I walked into downtown Richmond, Virginia, behind a group of white men in jeans with rifles on their shoulders and pistols at their waists. A mother pulled her toddler away, whispering, “Those men have guns.” Semitrucks paraded down the street, flying Trump flags. They blared their horns, and the men cheered. Soon I was at the state capitol, surrounded by 22,000 people, many of them carrying AR-15s and political signs. oppose tyranny. guns save lives. trump 2020.

In Virginia, the holiday is the occasion for an annual event called Lobby Day, when citizens petition lawmakers about any issue they like. This year, the atmosphere was charged. The state legislature had just sworn in its first Democratic majority in two decades, and lawmakers had advanced a raft of gun-control measures. Rural counties were declaring themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” as sheriffs vowed not to enforce new gun laws. Virginia is an open-carry state, and armed protesters from across the country had turned the day into a rally for gun rights.

Rhodes was there, along with some other Oath Keepers. On a Facebook page called “The Militias March on Richmond,” an organizer of the event declared that he’d sworn an oath to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic when he joined the military and the police—and now a militia. He called Virginia the scene of “a great awakening.”

Virginia was a microcosm of the far right’s fears for the 2020 election: a swing to the left followed by an immediate push for gun control that would be the starting point for a wider assault on American freedoms. Many current and former Oath Keepers told me that gun rights were what had inspired them to join the group; some dismissed the more lurid parts of Rhodes’s list of 10 orders to defy.

David Hines, a conservative writer, has called guns the right’s most successful organizing platform. The issue demands local involvement, to closely track not just federal but state and municipal laws and politics. Guns are also social. To shoot them, you’ll likely head to a range, and to buy them, you’ll likely visit a store or a gun show where you’ll find people who share your mindset. “Guns,” Hines writes, “are onramps to activism.”

Gun-rights rally in Richmond, VA, on MLK Day
The MLK Day gun-rights rally in Virginia

I couldn’t find Rhodes or any other Oath Keepers as I squeezed through the crowd. Instead I met protesters like Daniel McClure, a 23-year-old working as a contractor for the Tennessee Valley Authority, who stood with his dad near the capitol lawn. He was pleased by the turnout, he told me, but also willing to abandon peaceful protest if democracy stopped working. His idea of responsible citizenship meant keeping the prospect of insurrection in reserve. He repeated a maxim I heard often: Gun rights are the rights that protect all the rest. “If speaking softly won’t work,” he said, lifting the butt of his rifle, “the stick will come.”

Before the rally, the FBI had arrested alleged white supremacists who planned to fire on the crowd to incite a wider conflict, according to prosecutors, and social media had been filled with not-so-veiled threats against Virginia’s Democratic lawmakers. I was struck by how commonplace talk of violence had become. Liberals had been invoking it, too. “Your little AR-15 isn’t going to do shit to protect you from the government—who has tanks and nuclear weapons. That is a pathetic fantasy,” the top aide to a Virginia lawmaker had written in a viral tweet a few months earlier.

In the crowd, I noticed men muttering into walkie-talkies, their eyes hidden behind wraparound shades. To me they had the aspect of children playing at war, only their guns were real. There was a loud bang, and I whirled around as hands moved toward triggers. But someone had only knocked a metal sign onto the pavement.

The rally ended peacefully. Protesters picked up trash as the men with walkie-talkies faded into the city.

“That’s a nice transition, ISIS to us,” Rhodes said when I first called him, in February, and told him what had led me to the Oath Keepers. It wasn’t just the membership files. In 2016, I’d been reporting on the fall of the Islamic State in Mosul when I noticed that Americans were threatening civil conflict at home and wondered if any of them were really serious.

I told him there’s nothing worse than civil war. “I beg to differ,” he replied. He ticked off dictators: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao. “I think what was done by them was far worse,” he said. “If you’re going to slide into a nightmare like that, you need to fight.” He referenced a passage from The Gulag Archipelago, by the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family?

People on the militant right often cite these lines or a similar passage from an acclaimed 1955 book about Germany’s descent into Nazism, They Thought They Were Free:

Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow … But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes.

For people like Rhodes, the message of both passages is the same. Americans are sleepwalking toward an abyss. Patriots need to wake up and resist.

“It’s not just about guns,” Rhodes said. But guns were at the heart of it. Trump was stoking the idea that conservatives are a minority threatened by a demographic tide that will let liberal cities dictate the terms for the rest of the country. When I asked Rhodes and other people on the militant right to name concerns beyond gun rights, they mentioned how history is taught in schools, or how the Green New Deal would threaten land use, agriculture, single-family homes. They stressed that America is a republic, not a democracy. Liberals, Rhodes told me, want to see “a narrow majority trampling on our rights. The only way to do that is to disarm us first.”

I asked whether the Oath Keepers were white nationalists. The group had participated in events with the Proud Boys, a group of self-described “Western chauvinists,” and provided security at a so-called free-speech rally headlined by the alt-right activist Kyle Chapman. “We’re not fucking white nationalists,” Rhodes said, pointing out that the Oath Keepers have disavowed the Proud Boys and that their vice president is Black. “That’s the new smear. Everybody on the right is a white nationalist. And when you have that drumbeat of demonization, then what are we supposed to think?”

Like Trump, Rhodes relentlessly demonizes Black Lives Matter activists as “Marxists”—a foreign enemy. And he dwells on imagined threats from undocumented immigrants and Muslims that fit his ideas about a globalist push to undermine Western values. His mother is from a family of Mexican migrant laborers; as a child, he spent summers picking fruit and vegetables alongside them. But he told me that his relatives were conservative Christians and that they—the key word—“assimilated.”

Rhodes said I should investigate militant groups on the left such as the John Brown Gun Club, and seemed obsessed with antifa, which he said the Oath Keepers had faced down while providing security at right-wing rallies. “If Trump wins, guess who’s going to show up,” he said. “The left will be in the streets rioting.”

He added that he’d been using liberals’ “drumbeat of anti-cop sentiment” in his outreach to police. “That’s what we tell them: ‘Come on, guys. They hate your guts.’ ”

The most famous Oath Keeper after Rhodes is John Karriman, a pastor and former police trainer from Missouri who participated in the Ferguson operation. Critics saw the Oath Keepers’ presence in Ferguson as inflammatory, an attempt to intimidate protesters. But to Karriman, the operation was a success: They’d helped protect the community, including a Black-owned business, and left without raising their weapons. It was an example of what he wanted the Oath Keepers to be—a group that could “keep our country free and keep our fellow travelers honest and not step a foot over the line,” he told me. “I had high hopes that the Oath Keepers could be the brand that other groups could rally around.”

But behind the scenes, Karriman and others who were close to Rhodes told me, the Oath Keepers were plagued by dysfunction. Rhodes would disappear for long stretches and stall on initiatives—such as a national program to offer community training in firearm safety, first aid, and disaster relief—that would have been a boon to recruiting. Wealthy donors offered money, Karriman said, but when they asked to see the group’s books, Rhodes declined. In 2017, a blogger published allegations of embezzlement by the group’s IT administrator and accused Rhodes of covering it up, citing documents and recordings. Karriman demanded reforms but was ultimately pushed out. Other board members resigned, chapters dissolved, and the membership files were leaked to the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Rhodes denies these accusations and attributes them to a “coup attempt” by people with whom he has ideological differences.)

Front Royal, VA, militia muster in August, 2020
A militia muster in Front Royal, Virginia, in August

Several former deputies to Rhodes told me his behavior had grown erratic. At the Bundy-ranch standoff in 2014, he’d claimed to have intelligence that the Obama administration was planning a drone strike on the Patriot encampment. The Oath Keepers pulled back as militiamen from other groups accused them of desertion. The next year, he said in a speech that John McCain should be tried and hanged for treason because he supported the indefinite detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism. Afterward, he told me, he began facing heightened scrutiny at airports. In 2015, he was disbarred. In 2018, his wife petitioned for an order of protection during divorce proceedings, alleging that Rhodes had once grabbed their daughter by the throat and had a habit, during marital arguments, of waving a pistol in the air before pointing it at his head. (Rhodes denies these allegations. The petition was not granted.)

He was also pushing the Oath Keepers in a direction that clashed with the quieter mode some of his members favored. In the files, I found a note appended to the entry of an Air Force officer asking that his name be stricken from the rolls. The officer “will still be with us,” the note read, but he wanted to protect his 15-year career in the military. The note was from Steve Homan, a Vietnam veteran from Nebraska and a former vice president of the Oath Keepers. When I called him, he recounted how he’d focused on recruiting people with military skills while trying not to draw too much attention. He weeded out the “wild hats.” He wanted people willing and able to “slug back” against the government if necessary but levelheaded enough not to start the fight. He referred to them as “quiet patriots,” his version of the militant right’s Gray Man trope, a silent majority that will come to his side in a conflict.

This description fit a Special Operations soldier I found in the files who told me he’d never appeared at an event but was ready to step in if needed. He has an Oath Keepers bumper sticker on his vehicle at the base, so that other soldiers will ask him about it. The question of violence, he said, “definitely comes up, and my response is that it absolutely could include armed conflict. I like to use the Revolutionary War as an example. The militias were there, well armed and organized, not looking to pick a fight but ready when it happened.”

Homan’s approach required subtlety, and gathering a band of gray men in the shadows was difficult when Oath Keepers were toting weapons on the national news. Appended to several entries, I found letters of resignation in which people complained that the group was becoming too militialike. But I also noted spikes in new members—each paying a $50 annual fee—when Rhodes made headlines. “The publicity and the money, it was feeding him,” Homan recalled. Eventually he resigned.

One Marine veteran told me that when he signed up in 2013, he’d recently retired after seven years as a military contractor, during which he’d trained indigenous forces in Afghanistan. Senior Oath Keepers asked him to provide members with paramilitary training. He warned Rhodes that training the wrong people could lead to trouble; they might even turn on him. But he agreed after Rhodes said he could do the vetting himself.

He kept a lookout for people who displayed red flags such as talking about making explosives or silencers. “There were guys who wanted to go full-blown militia. And there were people like myself who just wanted to support the community in case of a breakdown in order,” he said. Eventually he felt that Rhodes was adopting an “offensive mindset”—almost pushing for a fight, especially after the Bundy standoff. He resigned, became a sheriff’s deputy, and is now training as a priest.

In April, a group called the Michigan Liberty Militia appeared with semiautomatic rifles at a rally in the state capitol, where protesters were demanding an end to coronavirus lockdowns and calling the governor a Nazi. The militiamen looked down from a second-floor balcony as lawmakers wearing body armor pushed through the crowd below. Images of the scene went viral. Afterward, I called one of the militia’s leaders, Phil Robinson, at his home in a small town west of Lansing. “I’m not going to lie to you, man,” he told me. “I feel like a movie star.”

Firmin DeBrabander: The great irony of America’s armed anti-lockdown protesters

Rhodes, meanwhile, was struggling to find his place in the anti-lockdown movement. He initially worried about the pandemic, and wrote an early post urging shutdown measures before facing a backlash; one prominent Oath Keeper accused him of being “controlled opposition” and resigned. Soon Rhodes was in the unmasked crowds himself, echoing Trump’s claims that the hysteria about the virus was part of a plot against him.

But the ideas that Rhodes had helped popularize were spreading. Robinson told me he’d never been in the police or military—then noted that joining his group meant swearing an oath to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Other militias simply pasted Rhodes’s 10 orders on their websites without attribution. Videos circulated of uniformed police officers calling the lockdown measures tyrannical, emphasizing their oaths, and telling their fellow officers to wake up.

Then the Black Lives Matter protests erupted. Armed men surfaced amid the unrest, carrying out Ferguson-style operations. Rhodes tried to organize vigilante teams of his own on the social-networking site Discord, but he made little progress before the forum he created was shut down and the participants banned.

Newer groups were calling openly for civil war, saying they wanted to get on with it already. Members of the so-called boogaloo movement wore aloha shirts when they appeared in the crowds with semiautomatic weapons, suggesting that they saw the outbreak of violence as something like a party. Many in the new generation dismissed older leaders like Rhodes as too tame. On gun rights and other issues, they resented their forebears for giving up so much already.

The moment lacked the clarity of the era in which Rhodes had gained prominence, when Patriot groups positioned themselves against Obama and the federal government. Some “boog bois” were white supremacists. Yet when police tried to separate the protesters into opposing sides, some of the young men in aloha shirts insisted on standing with Black Lives Matter. There were alleged shootings by white supremacists and also by people who’d come out to protest against police brutality. Patriot groups became obsessed with a new Black militia called the Not Fucking Around Coalition; the two sides confronted each other at a march honoring Breonna Taylor, and police had to intervene. Sales of guns and ammo were surging.

One afternoon, I received an email from an Army veteran and former Oath Keeper named Adam Boyle, who said he’d been protecting a shopping center in Missouri with a former Marine special operator named Nick. Boyle’s story had the dreamlike logic of nonlinear conflict. “Myself and Nick established a defensive security position in front of Pepperoni Bill’s Pizza,” he wrote, and then protesters arrived. The duo braced themselves, detecting an agitator among the protesters, who appeared to have a knife, but the protesters drove him away. Boyle and his friend began talking with the protesters and realized that they shared some common ground.

Then a new enemy emerged: Two white men drove up, and Nick saw that they had a pistol in the car. When two Black women tried to leave, the men in the car chased after them. “Nick jumped into my truck, armed himself at a low-ready with his AR-15, and we aggressively pursued the men,” Boyle wrote. The men retreated, and the vigilantes embraced the rally’s organizer. “We had bridged a political gap and come together for a common cause of peace,” Boyle wrote. I noted the almost desperate attempt to reestablish goodwill—and the myriad ways the night could have turned into a catastrophe. While Rhodes was invoking the glory of Lexington Green, a grim reality could have played out in the confusion at Pepperoni Bill’s.

Armed militia member in stars and stripes dress
Militia musters have been quietly occurring across Virginia as the state legislature has advanced new gun-control laws.

One evening in July, I walked into a VFW hall outside Nashville, past a bar crowded with maskless patrons and into a windowless room with a dance floor. A couple dozen people sat at tables on one side. Next to the door was a sign-in sheet that asked for the same information that appeared in the leaked files: name and contact information, what skills people could offer.

Rhodes had called the meeting as part of a new organizing push. He’d been driving around the South—attending a militia rally in Virginia one day, visiting members in North Carolina another—and agreed to let me join him in Tennessee. He was late. Some Three Percenters sat in one corner, looking impatient. I sat with a pair of Oath Keepers in another.

One was an older man in an Australian-outback hat. The other was an Iraq War combat veteran who had recently joined the Oath Keepers. He began talking about his experience overseas, and how in the chaos of war, U.S. soldiers had faced the horrible prospect of killing children, who might charge at them strapped with IEDs. “I prefer that to the alternative,” the man in the hat said, “of being splattered against the wall.”

Finally Rhodes walked in and put his dusty Oath Keepers hat on a table. “Why are you all sitting so far apart?” he asked. “Let’s get everyone together.”

Rhodes spoke like an errant professor, intent on explaining an idea: that it’s the people themselves, not any one group, who are the real militia. This, he said, was what the Founders had had in mind. He suggested that the attendees organize locally. The Oath Keepers would act like the Special Forces do overseas, training people and serving as a force multiplier. “Don’t call yourselves Oath Keepers or Three Percenters,” he said. “Call yourselves the militia of Rutherford County.”

As Rhodes told the people in the crowd to be ready for war, I sized them up. Some looked hardened, but many more did not. One man rested a hand on a cane. When Rhodes asked what their concerns were, several said they feared that rioters would show up in their neighborhoods.

His comments became more inflammatory as he began to warn about antifa and protesters. “They are insurrectionists, and we have to suppress that insurrection,” he said. “Eventually they’re going to be using IEDs.”

“Us old vets and younger ones are going to end up having to kill these young kids,” he concluded. “And they’re going to die believing they were fighting Nazis.”

Afterward, Rhodes traveled through Kentucky, meeting Oath Keepers at their homes, where the conversations stretched for hours, always winding around the same question—what if?—and always coming back to the election. A man named James, a new member, told me people would accept the result—“as long as we believe the vote was fair. And if both sides can’t come to an agreement, then you’re going to have a conflict.”

It could start with a protest gone wrong, he said, or shots from a provocateur. Someone mentioned a young mother in Indiana who’d been shot and killed after reportedly shouting “All lives matter” during an argument with strangers.

“We talk about being attacked,” another man said. “Now, I have a question. What if you’re attacked in subtle and consistent ways over a period of time?”

I drove from Kentucky into the mountains of Carroll County, Virginia, and, in a field along a winding road, parked at the end of a long row of pickup trucks and SUVs. A hundred people, most of them armed, were looking up at a man giving a speech from the back of a flatbed truck that was painted in camouflage. Between the crowd and me were two young men with semiautomatic rifles. They stopped me in a manner—neither friendly nor unfriendly—that I’d encountered at checkpoints in other parts of the world.

So-called militia musters like this one had been quietly happening all over the state. The legislature was still pushing ahead with gun-control measures, and people were preparing for the possibility of more riots, and for the election. Rhodes was scheduled to give remarks but, as usual, he was late.

One of the young men said something into a walkie-talkie, and a muscular Iraq War veteran named Will joined me and explained the reason for the guards and the men posted in the woods on the far side of the field. They weren’t worried about law enforcement—a deputy from the sheriff’s department stood not far from me, leaning against his cruiser. It was leftists, antifa, who might record your license plate, dox you, show up at your home.

This was a different kind of crowd than Rhodes had drawn to the VFW hall. Many were in their 20s and 30s and had come in uniforms—some Three Percenters wore black T‑shirts and camouflage pants, and members of another group stood together in matching woodland fatigues. From the latter, a man climbed onto the flatbed and introduced himself as Joe Klemm, the leader of a new militia called the Ridge Runners.

He was a 29-year-old former marine and spoke with a boom that brought the crowd to attention. “I’ve seen this coming since I was in the military,” he said. “For far too long, we’ve given a little bit here and there in the interest of peace. But I will tell you that peace is not that sweet. Life is not that dear. I’d rather die than not live free.”

“Hoo-ah,” some people cheered.

“It’s going to change in November,” Klemm continued. “I follow the Constitution. We demand that the rest of you do the same. We demand that our police officers do the same. We’re going to make these people fear us again. We should have been shooting a long time ago instead of standing off to the side.”

“Are you willing to lose your lives?” he asked. “Are you willing to lose the lives of your loved ones—maybe see one of your loved ones ripped apart right next to you?”

After he finished, Rhodes rolled up in his rented Dodge Ram and parked in the grass beside me. He walked to the flatbed but didn’t climb it. Then he turned and faced the crowd. His speech meandered back to revolutionary times, evoking the traditions of a country founded in bloodshed. He urged them to build a militia for their community.

Rhodes stayed at the muster long after most people had left, meeting every last person, his history lessons stretching on and on. Eventually the conversation turned to the problems in the area—the drug overdoses and mental-health crises and the desperate state of the local economy. The people there seemed to believe that taking up arms would somehow stave off the country’s unraveling rather than speed it along.

When the protests erupted in Kenosha a month later, many of the demonstrators brought guns, and vigilante groups quickly formed on the other side. They called themselves the Kenosha Guard. There was a confrontation near a gas station like the one at Pepperoni Bill’s, and a teenager allegedly opened fire and killed two people. A man affiliated with antifa allegedly gunned down a Trump supporter in Portland later that week, and Rhodes declared that “the first shot has been fired.”

By then, some writers popular on the militant right had been warning that wars don’t always start with a clear, decisive event—an attack, a coup, an invasion—and that you might not realize you’re in one until it’s under way. Civil conflict is gradual. The path to it, I thought, might begin with brooding over it. It could start with opening your mind.

This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “‘Civil War Is Here, Right Now.’”


It’s true: 1 in 1,000 Black Americans have died in the Covid-19 pandemic – Dylan Scott Sep 29, 2020, 11:30pm EDT

Biden cited a horrific statistic to make his case against Trump. The worst part is it’s true.

Joe Biden speaks during the first of three planned presidential debates.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

During a discussion on race in America in the first presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden cited a horrific statistic to punctuate his case that President Donald Trump has not been good for Black Americans: 1 in 1,000 Black Americans have died in the Covid-19 pandemic.

“You talk about helping African Americans — 1 in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of the coronavirus,” the Democratic nominee said Tuesday. “And if he doesn’t do something quickly, by the end of the year, 1 in 500 will have been killed. 1 in 500 African Americans.”

“This man is the savior of African Americans? This man cares at all? This man’s done virtually nothing,” Biden continued. “Look, the fact is, you have to look at what he talks about. You have to look at what he did, and what he did has been disastrous for the African American community.”

The most remarkable thing about Biden’s statement? It was true.

According to the APM Research Lab, as of mid-September, “1 in 1,020 Black Americans has died (or 97.9 deaths per 100,000).” More than 200,000 Americans are confirmed dead from Covid-19, and a disproportionate number of them are Black. It’s that simple. (Biden’s statement that 1 in 500 could die by the end of the year without swift action would appear to reflect the estimates that the US death toll could grow to 400,000 by January 1.)

There are several reasons why. Black Americans have disproportionately higher rates of preexisting conditions, including heart disease and cancer, which are associated with more deaths and hospitalizations from Covid-19. Black Americans are also more likely to work in jobs that are considered “essential,” which requires them to go into work and risk exposure to the coronavirus.

Housing segregation has also led to Black Americans having less access to clean water and created many longstanding health disparities. Race, place, income, and health, as should be obvious by now, are inextricably linked. And the health consequences of these inequities have been especially evident during the pandemic, as David Williams, a professor of public health and sociology at Harvard, wrote in a May 2020 editorial for JAMA:

Economic status matters profoundly for reducing the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Lower-income and minority workers are overrepresented among essential service workers who must work outside the home when shelter-in-place directives are given. Many must travel to work on buses and subways.

But the bottom line is, due to both systemic racism and factors particular to Covid-19 and the accompanying economic crisis, Black Americans have died at disproportionately high rates during the pandemic. The Trump campaign has feinted during the 2020 campaign toward appealing to Black Americans, or at least assuaging their white supporters that the Republican Party is not racist. Trump’s support has grown slightly among predominantly Black men, but Biden is still expected to overwhelmingly carry Black voters.

But Biden, as he did throughout the debate, brought the issue back to Covid-19. America’s failures, in the past six months but also throughout its history, have led to that tragic outcome.


You Literally Can’t Believe The Facts Tucker Carlson Tells You. So Say Fox’s Lawyers – David FolkenflikSeptember 29, 20204:34 PM ET

Fox News host Tucker Carlson “is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary,’ ” U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil wrote.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tucker Carlson appears to be made of Teflon. Fox News’ top-rated host has been repeatedly accused of anti-immigrant and racist comments, which have cost his political opinion show many of its major advertisers. Yet Carlson endures in his prime-time slot.

Carlson even attacked his own network’s chief news anchor on the air, with no real consequences. That anchor, Shepard Smith, quit mid-contract shortly after Carlson went after him.

Now comes the claim that you can’t expect to literally believe the words that come out of Carlson’s mouth. And that assertion is not coming from Carlson’s critics. It’s being made by a federal judge in the Southern District of New York and by Fox News’s own lawyers in defending Carlson against accusations of slander. It worked, by the way.

Just read U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil’s opinion, leaning heavily on the arguments of Fox’s lawyers: The “‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’ ”

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She wrote: “Fox persuasively argues, that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statement he makes.”

Vyskocil, an appointee of President Trump’s, added, “Whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson’s statements as ‘exaggeration,’ ‘non-literal commentary,’ or simply bloviating for his audience, the conclusion remains the same — the statements are not actionable.”

Vyskocil’s ruling last week, dismissing a slander lawsuit filed against Carlson, was a win for Fox, First Amendment principles and the media more generally, as Fox News itself maintains. As a legal matter, the judge ruled that Karen McDougal, the woman suing Carlson, failed to surmount the challenge.

But in the process of saving the Fox star, the network’s attorneys raised the journalistic question: Just what level of fact-checking does Fox News expect, or subject its opinion shows to?

Media lawyers note this is not the first time this sort of defense has been offered. A $10 million libel lawsuit filed by the owners of One America News Network against MSNBC’s top star, Rachel Maddow, was dismissed in May when the judge ruled she had stretched the established facts allowably: “The context of Maddow’s statement shows reasonable viewers would consider the contested statement to be opinion.”

In the Fox case, Carlson was presenting his own narrative, not even one extrapolating from known facts.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, McDougal, a former Playboy model, had sought to tell her account of an earlier affair with Trump. The National Enquirer tabloid bought McDougal’s story for $150,000 during the 2016 campaign and then buried it to protect Trump from any fallout.

More than two years later, in December 2018, Carlson began presenting Trump as the victim of extortion. Seeking to discredit former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s tale of hush payments — and alleged campaign finance law violations — Carlson first told viewers, “Remember the facts of the story. These are undisputed.”

But they aren’t undisputed. They’re not even facts.

He then proceeded to say, “Two women approach Donald Trump and threaten to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion.”

Pictures of former adult film star Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, and McDougal flashed on screen. Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 on behalf of Trump, who denies that either affair occurred.

In reality, McDougal never approached Trump. She and her representative had spoken to ABC News and to the National Enquirer because, she said, she feared word of the affair would leak out during the campaign anyway and she preferred to be the one to tell the story. It wasn’t publicly known that David Pecker, then the CEO of the tabloid’s parent company, had promised Trump he would help keep stories about extramarital affairs from seeing the light of day.

Carlson and Fox never corrected that significant error, as The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple underscored.

Not to worry, Carlson’s lawyers said. In written briefs, they cited previous rulings to argue Carlson’s words were “loose, figurative or hyperbolic.” They took note of a nonjournalist’s use of the word “extort,” which proved nondefamatory because it was mere “rhetorical hyperbole, a vigorous epithet.”

Carlson has been accused of hyperbolic, vicious and unfounded claims about women, people of color and immigrants in the past. This year, his audiences have made his show the top-rated program in the history of cable news. He maintains the backing of Fox Corp. Executive Chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch.

The Daily Beast reported Tuesday that Fox recently slashed its research team, cutting it by about one-fourth during modest networkwide layoffs. Fox News said that is overstating the size of the cut to the unit. It said it eliminated duplication and those functions are conducted elsewhere throughout its newsroom and programs.

In Carlson’s defense, Fox’s attorneys, from Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, noted that meeting the standard of “actual malice” requires more than just showing someone should have researched or investigated a subject before popping off, thanks to U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The Fox team’s legal briefs compared Carlson’s show to radio talk-show programs hosted by ex-MSNBC and Fox Business star Don Imus, who won a case more than two decades ago because an appellate court ruled that “the complained of statements would not have been taken by reasonable listeners as factual pronouncements but simply as instances in which the defendant radio hosts had expressed their views over the air in the crude and hyperbolic manner that has, over the years, become their verbal stock in trade.”

In sum, the Fox News lawyers mocked the legal case made by McDougal’s legal team. She alleged “a reasonable viewer of ordinary intelligence listening or watching the show … would conclude that [she] is a criminal who extorted Trump for money” and that “the statements about [her] were fact.”

“Context makes plain,” Fox’s lawyers wrote, “that the reasonable viewer would do no such thing.”

The judge fully agreed.


The Cyber-Avengers Protecting Hospitals From Ransomware – Sonner Kehrt 09.29.2020

As medical facilities strain amid the pandemic, they’re especially vulnerable to cyberattacks. A global coalition of volunteer experts has stepped into the breach.

It was early February when Ohad Zaidenberg first started noticing malicious emails and files disguised as information about Covid. He’s a cyber intelligence researcher based in Israel, and they were the sort of schemes he encountered all the time—benign-looking messages that trick people into giving someone network access. But more and more of them seemed to be using fear of the new virus as leverage to get people to click a link or download a file. “This little measure can save you,” read one email he flagged, before prompting the reader to open a PDF called “Safety Measures.” Zaidenberg didn’t think too much of it at the time. Coronavirus cases were still mostly confined to China, and it wasn’t yet clear the virus would become a global pandemic.

Just over a month later, Zaidenberg went out to dinner. It was his last night out before Israel shut down. Infections were starting to climb, and as he drove back to his home in Tel Aviv, he was thinking about how dangerous everything suddenly seemed. A former intelligence officer with dark hair and a closely cropped beard, Zaidenberg had left the Israeli army with a deep belief in working for peace. Coronavirus is a war, he thought. Then he remembered the malicious documents he’d been seeing. For the most part, they’d seemed benign enough—someone trying to get into a system to spy, for instance. But now something new jolted his mind: What if the malware was instead used to compromise hospital security?

It had already happened three years earlier. In May 2017, computers at National Health Service hospitals all across the UK started displaying a pop-up message demanding users pay $300 in bitcoin to restore access to their files. The ransomware attack, called WannaCry, didn’t specifically target hospitals in the UK. In fact, it infected more than 200,000 computers worldwide. But many British hospitals had been running older, more vulnerable Windows operating systems, and once the worm got in, it quickly jumped from computer to computer, encrypting files as it went. Email systems went offline. Doctors couldn’t access patient records. Blood test analysis devices and MRI scanners became inoperable, and staff scrambled to cancel surgeries and other appointments—19,000 in all. The attack cost the National Health Service well over $100 million.

As Israel shut down during the pandemic, cyber intelligence researcher Ohad Zaidenberg decided to apply his skills to defending hospitals around the world.Photograph: Dudi Hasson

Zaidenberg could barely bring himself to think what an attack like that would do to hospitals around the world already buckling under a surge of Covid cases. Even a smaller attack could be devastating. Locking doctors out of patient records could easily have life-or-death consequences. If a hospital had to pay a ransom to unlock its systems, perhaps it couldn’t buy additional ventilators. People could die.

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The next day, Zaidenberg saw the news. The second-largest hospital in the Czech Republic had been attacked. In the early morning hours, an announcement blared over the hospital’s PA system, instructing workers to shut down their computers immediately. A few hours later, surgeries were canceled. Luckily, there were fewer than 300 coronaviruses cases in the country at the time, so the hospital wasn’t already overburdened. It was, however, one of the Czech Republic’s biggest Covid testing centers, and the attack delayed results for a few days.

The Czech incident made it clear to Zaidenberg that his fears were justified. Israel was in the process of locking down, and he knew he would soon have a lot of time on his hands. He also knew his cybersecurity skills could help prevent attacks like the one in the Czech Republic. After all, he was already monitoring virus-related threats for work. What if there were a way to scale that up globally, a way to alert hospitals—any hospital, anywhere—that they might be vulnerable, before an attack happened?

That same day Zaidenberg noticed that Nate Warfield, a Microsoft security manager he’d recently met, was tweeting about the exact same thing. “We as infosec professionals have skills and tools our colleagues supporting the medical field may not,” Warfield wrote. “I encourage all of you to do what you can in your communities and regions to help defend them.” Zaidenberg messaged him right away. He floated the idea of recruiting a group of cyber threat researchers to work, pro bono, assessing threats related to the virus.

Warfield wrote back less than a minute later: “I would absolutely participate.”

Warfield, who has thick, tattooed forearms and an enormous red beard, had traveled to Tel Aviv from his home in Seattle in February. There, he’d given a talk about a recently discovered vulnerability in a piece of hardware called a Netscaler, which helps distribute web traffic across multiple servers. The vulnerability left tens of thousands of companies exposed to remote attackers. After seeing the news from the Czech Republic, he wondered whether any unpatched Netscalers were running on hospital networks. He opened Shodan, a search engine for internet-connected devices, and ran a query for Netscalers, paired with the keyword “health.” Six different health care network names popped up.

“Oh no,” he thought.

That night, he did a more focused search, looking for additional unpatched Netscalers, working through every health-care-related keyword he could think of: “medical,” “doctor,” “hospital.” He also hunted for other vulnerabilities, including one discovered just days before that could travel from machine to machine, letting attackers set their own code loose on computers running Windows 10. By the next day, he’d found 76 unpatched Netscalers and more than 100 other vulnerabilities in health care facilities all across the US. He recognized the names of some of the biggest hospitals in the country. One in particular seemed to jump off the screen —his own doctor’s network was running an exposed Netscaler. “When it’s your own doctor that’s at risk, that’s scary,” Warfield says. “That’s when it really hit home.”

Warfield spent almost 45 minutes trying to figure out how to contact his doctor’s network IT security team. Finally, he found his way to the LinkedIn page of someone who seemed to work there and sent a message, cramming who he was and the problem he’d found into the 1,900-character limit and hoping he didn’t sound like a scammer. As he expected, he never heard back.

“This is not an efficient way to do this,” Warfield realized. “I’m never going to be able to contact all these people.”

Just before Zaidenberg messaged him, Warfield sent his list of vulnerabilities to Chris Mills, a colleague of his at Microsoft. He hoped Mills would have a better idea of how to get in touch with the hospitals. As it happened, Mills knew people at the Healthcare Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or ISAC. An ISAC is an independent nonprofit that monitors and shares threats specific to particular sectors of the economy—the result of a push two decades ago by the federal government for major industries to better understand the risks they face. Today there are ISACs for everything from the entertainment world to the retail sector to the maritime industry.

nurses looking at digital tablet

Mills figured the ISAC would know how to contact the right people at the right hospitals. As he passed the list along, Zaidenberg set up a Slack group for what he’d decided to name the Cyber Threat Intelligence League. A few days later, Warfield sent a message to a group of trusted security researchers he belonged to called the Roadhouse Miscreant Punchers to see if anybody else wanted to join their effort. Mills and Zaidenberg were also spreading the word, and they quickly brought on Marc Rogers, a British expat who oversees cybersecurity at the cloud-based identity management company Okta. Rogers had run security operations at Defcon, one of the world’s biggest hacker conventions, for the past decade and seemed to know just about everyone in the cybersecurity world.

Before long, people from around the world were contacting the league, wanting to know if they could get involved. Like so many of us, cybersecurity researchers and threat experts were sitting behind their computers, watching the pandemic unfold, wondering if there was a way they could help the doctors and nurses working on the front lines. One person, in a message to Zaidenberg, wrote, “I’m feeling useless. I don’t know what to do. I know how to run scripts. I know how to run Java. I know how to analyze malware. In Idaho. I need to do something.”

Cybersecurity experts Marc Rogers (left) and Nate Warfield cofounded the CTI League with Zaidenberg, helping to quickly expand the group’s membership and contacts to a global scale.Photograph: David Jaewon Oh

In just a few days, Zaidenberg had assembled a team of cybersecurity researchers to look for vulnerabilities in the medical sector. But to expand on what they’d done with Warfield’s list of vulnerable Netscalers, they would need hospitals to know who they were and to trust them. “If a hacker goes and knocks on the door of a hospital, especially one that’s under stress because of the pandemic and says, ‘Hey, I found a vulnerability,’ you know, companies historically have not responded well to that,” Rogers says. If the league’s work was going to be taken seriously, they needed to partner with established organizations that could serve as conduits to would-be victims.

So the league asked the health care and other ISACs for on-going, official support in helping push out information to medical facilities. “People know us and trust us,” says Stacey Wright, who works for the Center for Internet Security, which runs two ISACs—one dedicated to threats against state and local governments, the other to threats against election infrastructure. ISAC representatives like Wright brought all of the connections from their day jobs, from law enforcement agencies to local officials across the country, which were now available to help the league spread the word about cyberthreats.

Just a week after Zaidenberg had messaged Warfield, the league was fielding dozens of membership requests a day, taking a Wild West-like approach to building up an infrastructure as new volunteers tossed out ideas. “If you want to donate your time, we’re not going to tell you what that looks like,” Warfield says. One member developed a bot that pulled data from the Shodan search engine in real time, scanning the internet for vulnerable hardware running on medical networks and automatically posting geolocation and network data to a dedicated Slack channel. Someone else built a bot to monitor BGP changes—BGP is the primary routing protocol for traffic on the internet, and big changes can indicate that someone’s hijacked a bunch of IP addresses.

Within a month, the group had well over a thousand members, each vetted for their identities and the skills they could contribute: Were they already members of a trusted cybersecurity group? Could anyone in the league vouch for them? Hospital administrators were joining. Federal-level Computer Emergency Readiness Teams, or CERTs, asked to partner up. When a number of European CERTs wanted to know if there was a way to see only information on threats in their own countries, a developer in the league built a program to automatically create and send out weekly country-specific bulletins.

Each morning, Warfield would lie in bed and watch messages come in on his phone confirming that patches had been applied. Eventually he got a message from a volunteer who happened to do security consulting for the network that included Warfield’s doctor. The hospital had patched its Netscaler vulnerability over the weekend.

In early June, a member of the Russian dark web forum Exploit posted a message. “Selling access to a large hospital in the EU,” the post read. The hospital had 5,000 employees and hundreds of servers. A few days later, the same user, who went by the handle TrueFighter, posted a second, similar message—this time offering administrator access for a hospital in the US. The price was $3,000.

Cyber threats related to Covid aren’t limited to vulnerable hardware at hospitals or malicious emails with attachments claiming to list cures. The dark web was exploding with hospital network administrator credentials—both real and fake—for sale. There were piles of stolen patient data. People were selling hydroxychloroquine pills and supposed Covid vaccines. “They shift their business tactic to whatever is the hot item at the moment,” says Sean O’Connor, an Atlanta-based league member who specializes in dark web infiltration. “And the hot item at the moment is Covid.”

While the initial idea was to help protect hospitals, by this point the league had experts in everything from advanced persistent threats to malware analysis to dark web tracking. It also had raw manpower—members were spread across nearly every time zone. Rather than just searching for vulnerabilities in health care systems, they’d also analyze malware, hunt down malicious websites, pore through repositories of phishing scams, and comb the dark web for compromised medical facility credentials and virus-related scams. “The deeper we go, the more areas we find where we’re like, Hey, we can help here, we can help there,” Warfield says.

League members organized themselves into teams and fanned out to hunt down Covid-related threats before they could wreak havoc. “We’re seeing attacks from every country, going to every country, phishing emails in almost every language known to man,” Rogers says. “I’ve been calling it almost like a world cyberwar.”

From the start, Rogers knew that he wanted to involve law enforcement in the league. While working with police as head of security at the Defcon hacker convention, he’d developed a strong conviction that hackers and law enforcement should work with, not against, each other. He knew that the league would eventually run into threats that were also being investigated by law enforcement.

Rogers reached out to FBI agents he knew from Defcon, as well as some contacts at the Department of Homeland Security. Both agencies got on board right away. Then the league put out an invitation to law enforcement through various official and unofficial channels. Today, the group has members from law enforcement worldwide, from the FBI and Interpol to local officers in places as far flung as the Faroe Islands. “We can reach the law enforcement of a large chunk of the planet if we need to,” Warfield says.

An Israeli member of the CTI League was searching dark web forums for threats when he saw the posts on Exploit offering hospital access in the EU. Pretending to be an interested buyer, he messaged TrueFighter, asking where the hospital was located. When the answer—Poland—came back, he posted the information to a league Slack channel monitored by law enforcement, where Polish authorities saw it and could respond.

With international law enforcement, CERTs and ISACs, hospital IT teams, and cyber security experts from 80 different countries, the group’s Slack channels quickly became a global hub for information about all sorts of malicious activities and threats popping up during the pandemic. The dark web team found scammers selling vials of a virus “cure” for $25,000. One police lieutenant from a township in western Pennsylvania found threats against a 911 call center and a local prosecutor’s office. When a vulnerability in a device similar to a Netscaler was discovered in early July, league members spent an entire weekend tracking down devices and alerting vulnerable hospitals.

“It’s really an information exchange,” said Christopher Krebs, director of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. In ordinary times, using ordinary channels, it can take a while to reach the person with the right expertise, or the correct organization in the relevant country. But CTI League is like standing in the middle of a crowded room or a town square, Wright tells me. “You just holler out, and chances are somebody’s going to pop up and go, ‘Yep. I can help.’”

Within the first month alone, they’d found more than 2,000 health care software vulnerabilities in 80 countries. They identified nearly 400 malicious files that were unlikely to be stopped by common antivirus software—things like trojans disguised as instructions on donating to coronavirus relief, which would allow someone to get inside a system, disable protections, and install even more dangerous malware. They also flagged almost 3,000 web domains for takedown. Those websites ranged from slick operations impersonating entities like the World Health Organization and the UN to bottom-of-the-barrel hack jobs cobbled together by opportunists hoping to cash in on the crisis, even if just a little. One website demanded a bitcoin payment without any actual malware or other threat to back up the demand—its creator was apparently just banking on people’s fear being enough to scare them into paying.

Fear is a powerful motivator. During a time of global panic, it’s not difficult for a hacker to find a target, Rogers says. Choosing to click on a link promising to show Covid case numbers in your state isn’t a completely irrational decision. But the campaigns he and other league members were seeing capitalized on any number of tall tales circulating on the internet—shelter-in-place orders as a ploy to install 5G towers, certain home remedies as a cure for the disease. You’ll never click on a link offering an effective coronavirus vaccine unless you already believe a vaccine exists and for some reason it’s not being made available. So Rogers pinged a data scientist he’d been working with over the past couple years. “Hey,” he wrote. “How busy are you?”

Sara-Jayne Terp was, in fact, quite busy. She was holed up in Bellingham, Washington, for the pandemic. She’d landed there after spending the previous nine months criss-crossing the US on a one-woman quest to better understand how misinformation affects middle America. At the same time, she was working to adapt the tools of cybersecurity to track such misinformation. By the time Rogers reached out to her, Terp was already running two other groups pursuing that mission.

But Rogers’ request was a huge opportunity; he wanted Terp to join the league and head up a team dedicated to misinformation. Terp, who has a background in AI and crisis mapping—using real-time sources in the aftermath of disasters to create a holistic picture of what’s happening on the ground—had spent the previous three years arguing that misinfo operations should be viewed as cyberattacks, and that “the infosec crowd,” as Terp puts it, is particularly well-positioned to combat the threat. The league offered the chance to set up shop right in the middle of the community she was trying to get to take on misinformation, so she came aboard and built a team.

One of the first things they began tracking was a yellow poster that appeared on social media in early April, calling for protests against the lockdowns. Terp and her team analyzed the campaign like they would a piece of malware: How did it work? How did it move? What vulnerabilities was it targeting, and what would be the consequences if it were successful? They mined the poster for artifacts—images, associated hashtags, the curious use of the phrase “village piazza”—all of which helped them track the campaign from user to user, and back and forth between websites and social media. The team traced the poster from the US to Canada to a dead end in England, then to Australia, and ultimately, although it made no mention of 5G, to a 5G conspiracy site.

The global uprising the poster called for on April 12 didn’t materialize; gatherings were small and sparsely attended. But over the next few weeks, protests against lockdowns grew, spurred on by new social media posts and slightly different hashtags. Terp called the yellow poster an early test case. “It’s like somebody is trying something, and it hasn’t made it out there yet,” she says. Understanding what works and what doesn’t, and how that might influence other campaigns, is critical in the fight against misinformation.

When Terp had worked in crisis mapping, she’d seen how the people most affected by disasters were often treated as objects, rather than as a part of the solution. Given the distributed nature of misinformation campaigns, with so many nodes (read: human beings), involving people who might otherwise be victims is critical. “They’re not victims,” says Terp. “They have agency. They have their own minds.” The more people you get involved, she says, the better.

On a sweltering day in early June, I meet Marc Rogers in a park near his home in Moraga, California. A middle-aged former club bouncer from England who’s been a hacker since the ’80s, he has snake tattoos running down each forearm and a graying goatee that’s partly obscured by a sparkly, light-blue mask. We sit down at opposite ends of a picnic table. In Oakland, about 10 miles to the west, protests against police brutality were continuing for the sixth straight day. I ask him about the notion of viewing misinformation as a cyber threat.

All of these bad actors are trying to do the same thing, Rogers says. “You find a vulnerability or weakness—whether that’s an absence of information or it’s a fear of something, or it’s a natural fault line in society—and then you exploit it. You build a piece of software, you put together a command-and-control infrastructure.” Then you push it at the vulnerability and watch things break.

Like Terp, Rogers takes a holistic approach to cybersecurity. First there’s physical security, like stealing data from a computer onto a USB drive. Then there’s what we typically think of as cybersecurity—securing networks and devices from unwanted intrusions. And finally, you have what Rogers and Terp call cognitive security, which essentially is hacking people, using information, or more often, misinformation. Once, large-scale information campaigns were the sole province of nation-states and perhaps the church. But the tools of influence are now available to anyone with an internet connection.

Rogers tells me the league’s misinformation team had recently started tracking campaigns targeting the George Floyd protestors. They’d seen posts saying that antifa was causing riots and that were trying to bait Black Lives Matter supporters to attend protests intentionally scheduled to conflict with second amendment rallies. It was a bit far afield from the league’s original mission, but the volume of misinformation was so great and the potential for harm—both viral and violent—so high. “You have sophisticated groups who are doing this, who have great attention to detail,” he says. “Protests can create life-threatening situations.”

He was thinking about the future of the league. The everyday reality of the virus is shifting from emergency response to a sustained state of being. There’s a question of what comes next. Over the summer, the league has become more formalized. Teams run regular trainings. They’ve written procedure manuals, which they’re translating, hoping to make connections in areas of the world where they have less of a presence. Members who just seem to lurk without contributing much are asked to leave. In July, Zaidenberg headed up a CTI League hackathon to develop better info-sharing feeds and new bots, and to think through what the group will look like as the virus wears on—and beyond.

Rogers and his cofounders believe that what they’ve built can persist, perhaps in a scaled-back form, monitoring threats against the lifesaving sector, and then roaring back to full strength when the next crisis hits. While some league members have eased back on their participation as some normalcy returns to life in their corner of the world, many others continue to contribute as their day jobs have picked back up. Health care infrastructure will still need security support, even after the pandemic has passed. Other events looming on the horizon, like the election and, someday, the Olympics will inevitably usher in an onslaught of cyberthreats. “Someone needs to be in the gate, ready to go,” Zaidenberg says.

Warfield tells me that for many league members, what they do in their day jobs is somewhat intangible. “I joke sometimes that if a solar flare wipes out all the computers in the world, I will have nothing to show for what I’ve done with my life,” he says. That’s not just a function of the work being online. When your mission is prevention, there’s not much to show for a job well done. But when the world looks the way it does right now, the absence of one more bad thing feels almost tangible.


Americans Remain Distrustful of Mass Media September 30, 2020 by Megan Brenan

Americans Remain Distrustful of Mass Media

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a time when Americans are relying heavily on the media for information about the coronavirus pandemic, the presidential election and other momentous events, the public remains largely distrustful of the mass media. Four in 10 U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” (9%) or “a fair amount” (31%) of trust and confidence in the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” while six in 10 have “not very much” trust (27%) or “none at all” (33%).

Gallup first asked this question in 1972 and has continued to do so nearly every year since 1997. Trust ranged between 68% and 72% in the 1970s, and though it had declined by the late 1990s, it remained at the majority level until 2004, when it dipped to 44%. After hitting 50% in 2005, it has not risen above 47%.

The latest findings, from Gallup’s annual Governance poll conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 13, are consistent with all but one recent trust rating — in 2016, a steep decline in Republicans’ trust in the media led to the lowest reading on record(32%).

Republicans’ trust has not recovered since then, while Democrats’ has risen sharply. In fact, Democrats’ trust over the past four years has been among the highest Gallup has measured for any party in the past two decades. This year, the result is a record 63-percentage-point gap in trust among the political party groups.

While majorities of Democrats have consistently expressed confidence in the media since 1997, this has not been true of independents since 2004. Republicans’ last majority-level reading for trust in the media was in 1998.

Democrats’ and Republicans’ Degrees of Trust Have Shifted

Although Americans’ overall trust in the media has remained steady since last year, the 33% who do not have any confidence this year reflects a five-point uptick and is the highest reading on record. Republicans are the main drivers behind this change: 58% of them now express this view, marking a 10-point increase and the first-ever majority-level reading.

Although Democrats’ overall level of trust has not changed, the 57% who now say they have a fair amount of trust represents a 12-point jump from 2019, mostly attributable to a decrease in the percentage saying they trust the media a great deal.

Bottom Line

Americans’ confidence in the media to report the news fairly, accurately and fully has been persistently low for over a decade and shows no signs of improving, as Republicans’ and Democrats’ trust moves in opposite directions. The political polarization that grips the country is reflected in partisans’ views of the media, which are now the most divergent in Gallup’s history. Recent Gallup/Knight Foundation polling has shown that although Americans increasingly see bias in news coverage, they nonetheless believe that an independent media is key to democracy.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.


The pandemic is plunging millions back into extreme poverty – The Economist Sep 2020

It could take years for them to escape again

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub

FOR MORE than a decade Suresh Aryal has flogged momos, steamed dumplings from Nepal, on the streets of New Delhi. On a good day the 32-year-old could take home as much as 6,000 rupees ($82). Then in March, as covid-19 spread, India shut down. Mr Aryal waited for things to improve for three months. When they did not, he returned to his home village in Nepal.

India has since eased its lockdown. But Mr Aryal has no plans to return to the Indian capital. While people are still strapped for cash and reluctant to eat on crowded kerbsides, there is little point. Years spent surviving in a big city and sending money home to his family have left him with no savings. He has been getting by on loans from neighbours, but such generosity has its limits. Jobs are scarce in the village and Mr Aryal does not qualify for government support. “I don’t have a plan,” he says. “I’m going to have to hustle to feed my family.”

Mr Aryal is not alone. According to estimates in June by the World Bank, national lockdowns and the ensuing economic catastrophe will push between 71m and 100m people into extreme poverty this year, defined as subsisting on less than $1.90 a day (at 2011 prices). Its predictions have worsened since the pandemic began, and suggest that three years of progress will be wiped out. Some countries could be even worse hit, depending on the scale of the recession (see chart). From 1990 until last year the number of extremely poor people fell from 2bn, or 36% of the world’s population, to 630m, or just 8%. Most of those left in poverty were in sub-Saharan Africa (see map) and in countries riven by conflict. By contrast, almost half the newly destitute will be in South Asia.

The United Nations is even gloomier. It defines people as poor if they do not have access to things like clean water, electricity, sufficient food and schools for their children. Working with researchers from Oxford University, it reckons the pandemic could cast 490m in 70 countries into poverty, reversing almost a decade of gains.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities more sharply than previous recessions. The pandemic has left them with few fallback options. Those who lost formal jobs were unable to make a quick buck in the informal sector driving rickshaws, shining shoes or sorting rubbish, because the world had shut up shop. Lockdowns have frozen entire economies—black, white and grey. Since the disease has struck everywhere, relatives in richer countries may not be able to send extra cash home; remittances may drop by about a fifth this year, the biggest decline in recent history, according to the latest figures from the World Bank.

Worst affected have been the millions who escaped poverty by moving to bustling cities with running water, electricity and schools. Many have lost work and fled to more rural areas, where there are few jobs but at least living costs are cheaper. Official data in India suggest 10m people have relocated, but others reckon the total is five times more. In Kampala, Uganda’s capital, SafeBoda, a motorbike ride-hailing app, reckons that 40% of its drivers went back to the countryside under the lockdown. Returning to big cities holds little appeal until it is clear that economic activity is picking up and that further lockdowns are unlikely. With places such as Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, announcing new restrictions in response to rising infections, it is not clear when that will be.

The economic crisis is already turning into a food crisis. Peter Lutalo ran a thriving bar in Kiboga, in central Uganda. His family used to eat meat at the weekend and drink milky tea every day. But since the government ordered bars to close they can afford meat only once in three weeks and take their tea black. He is far from alone. The number of people unable to afford enough to eat could double as a result of the pandemic, says the UN’s World Food Programme. That would mean an additional 130m people this year suffering from the sort of debilitating hunger that harms adult health in the long term and can stunt children’s development.

Nor have international organisations plugged the gap. Anna Obba is a teacher in the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda. When schools shut down, her income disappeared and her children’s education was disrupted. The World Food Programme cut food rations for refugees by 30% in April, citing a financial crunch. Since then the family has been living on one meal a day.

The disruption to education will have awful long-term consequences. Children whose families have fled cities will probably get a worse education in rural areas, if they get one at all. A survey by the UN’s World Health Organisation found that in August schools were fully open in only six of 39 African countries; only 12 more expect classrooms to reopen this month. Kenya has closed schools until 2021. As every year of education is reckoned to increase annual earnings by roughly 10%, the consequences for poor children are alarming.

The harm to health-care systems will be long-lasting, too. Clinics have been short of staff as medics have been unable to travel to work safely. People have been nervous about visiting them, too. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says vaccination rates among children are dropping to levels last seen in the 1990s. Some of those jabs can be done once doctors are able to work properly again. But for infectious illnesses like measles, even a temporary pause may be lethal. Just 67% of the world’s children may get a crucial third dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine (which is usually administered around the age of six months) this year. Last year 84% did.

Some hope that, as lockdowns lift, economies will start to grow again fast, as they often do after disasters. Large parts of Vietnam were destroyed during the war there, but the country bounced back rapidly thanks to economic reforms: between 1990 and 2015 real GDP per person tripled, according to IMFestimates. The portion of the population living on less than $1.90 a day has fallen from over 60% in the 1980s to less than 5% just before covid-19 struck.

Poor countries are unlikely to see similar growth in the short term. For the first time in 25 years sub-Saharan Africa will fall into recession this year. The IMF is forecasting a contraction of 3.2% in the region in 2020, and an underwhelming rebound to 3.4% growth next year. Among the G20 economies India’s shrank most in the spring; its GDP is set to fall by about 4.5% in 2020. It may take some time to catch up. “Historically certainly, growth and poverty reduction have gone hand in hand,” says Carmen Reinhart, chief economist at the World Bank. “But there are enormous question-marks about how much growth we’re going to get.”

There are some signs of improvement. According to recent phone surveys by the World Bank in Ethiopia, 87% of respondents said they had had at least an hour’s work in the week before the interview, though that is still below pre-pandemic levels. Employment levels in Nigeria are almost back to their pre-pandemic level.

But it seems likely that a return to growth will be fitful and uneven. People in poor countries are plainly desperate to return to work. Most are young, and so less vulnerable to covid-19. The World Economic Forum estimates that just 3% of Africans are over 65 years old, whereas over 40% are under 15. Hunger could kill them before the virus does.

Hungry for work

If these economies were getting going again, those who stayed in cities should be able to find plenty of work, given the exodus to the countryside. Poor workers still have the same skills they had six months ago; most are keen to use them. But demand for labour remains low. Vishwanath Kamble used to earn around 350 rupees a day as a cobbler in Mumbai. With offices shut and few passers-by, he more often gets only ten rupees nowadays. When he says his daily prayers, he pleads for things to go back to how they were before. That is still far off. Data from Google Maps show that even in mid-September visits to Mumbai’s restaurants, cinemas and shopping centres were down by over 70% compared with January and early February.

Widespread fears about the spread of the virus are still hampering any recovery. “I’m scared too, but what can I do? I have to go to work,” says Munni Mehra, a maid looking for a job in Mumbai. Her husband is working as a cook, earning 10,000 rupees a month. But if Ms Mehra stays at home much longer they will have to go back to their village in Uttarakhand, in India’s far north. Domestic workers see the irony in how middle-class employers think they are the ones at risk if they rehire house servants, says Martha Chen of Harvard, who has been interviewing informal workers around the world throughout the crisis.

Cleaners, with their meagre salaries, are not the ones visiting shopping malls, spas and cinemas where covid-19 thrives. Raju, a flower-seller in the same city, can no longer deliver flowers to people’s homes because security guards will not let him into posh blocks of flats. With no trains running, he has been unable to get to the wholesale market, so has had to use pricier local suppliers. As a result his costs have soared. Since covid-19 took hold in India, his earnings have almost halved, from 13,000 a month to 7,000 rupees.

Nor can poor countries rely on foreign spending. The sharp fall in oil prices earlier this year was enough to slash revenues in countries like Nigeria and Angola that rely on oil exports. In two-thirds of poor countries, commodities make up more than 60% of total merchandise exports, according to the UN’s latest estimates, rising to 88% in Zambia and 100% in Angola. Foreign tourists are not booking safaris in east Africa or beach breaks in Bali. Demand for exports such as Kenyan flowers and Bangladeshi garments has slumped, too. These industries can expect to recover when the pandemic subsides and borders reopen. But the poor cannot wait.

For the time being they must rely on help from their own governments. The World Bank reckons that in the past six months 212 countries and territories have rolled out—or made plans to roll out—1,179 social-protection measures that will reach 2bn people. As well as the usual efforts to hand out food and waive utility bills, poor countries are trying out new ideas. Kenya’s government has started a programme to give temporary jobs to more than 26,000 young Kenyans. Montenegro’s is offering subsidies to the tune of 70% of the minimum wage to encourage employers to create new jobs.

Cash handouts, heralded by policymakers for years as a cheap and effective form of support, are proving most popular. Technology is helping. A new national ID system in the Philippines and a unified digital payment system in Tunisia have been speeded up, so that governments can get cash to the poor faster. The Democratic Republic of Congo wants to use mobile-phone data to locate the poor and then send money directly to their e-wallets. In July the central bank also said it would set up special accounts—either through banks or online—to hand out emergency cash.

But such schemes are useful only if governments can afford to hand out serious lumps of cash. Poor countries on average have spent just $4 a head on programmes to help the poor during the covid-19 crisis, compared with an average of $695 per head of the population in rich countries such as Britain, France and America, according to World Bank estimates. The Congolese government plans to hand out $50m to just two million people in Kinshasa and other badly affected provinces, amounting to $25 for each recipient.

And in other countries governments are doing far from enough. A World Bank survey in Ethiopia in June found that 2% of households had received government help in the previous three weeks. A poll of people in Indian cities by the London School of Economics at around the same time found that only a fifth of those responding had received any money from the government. The transfers on average made up less than a quarter of their monthly salary.

Other governments are barely doing anything at all. Residents of Cañales, a poor suburb of Cárdenas, a smallish city in the Mexico, say the only help they have received was a single round of food packages from the state government in May. Marco Antonio González Cruz has been jobless since the pandemic struck. But he isn’t holding out for help from politicians. “They only come when they want the vote,” he says. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist, created a slew of welfare programmes after taking office in 2018, including an expanded pensions system, an apprenticeship scheme for the young and a tree-planting programme in a number of Mexico’s states. But he has provided close to nothing in response to the worst recession the country has seen in a century.

Because the urban poor have been harder hit than those in rural areas, governments need to spend any money they do have more cleverly. The Indian government should expand its rural employment guarantee scheme to urban areas, suggests Abhijit Banerjee, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The programme, which provides 100 days of guaranteed work every year, could deploy low-skilled workers as assistants in primary schools or care workers for the elderly. “If the cities recover, then there is hope,” argues Mr Banerjee, who won the Nobel prize for economics last year.

Governments will struggle to continue funding such efforts as revenues fall. Emerging-market governments issued $124bn in hard-currency debt in the first six months of the year. But there are limits to how much more they can borrow. The recent wave of sovereign downgrades has been startling, even compared with previous crises.

Too little help from their friends

The response from richer governments and international institutions has been patchy. The IMF has disbursed over $30bn in emergency financing to 76 countries since March. It has acted fast, but the sum is far from enough. Earlier this year African finance ministers got together and calculated that African countries alone will suffer a short-term funding gap of $100bn in 2020, rising to $200bn next year.

The G20 has agreed to suspend payments between May and December on bilateral debt from 73 of the world’s poorest countries, if they want such help. That is a fraction of the $31.5bn in external debt servicing they face in that period. So far just 42 countries have requested support, which would free up $5.3bn for them to spend on things like health care and welfare programmes. The scheme doesn’t touch commercial lending from banks or bondholders. Nor does it include Asian countries such as India and the Philippines, where many of the newly destitute reside.

Politicians in poor countries, shackled by debt, will struggle to provide meaningful support. The pandemic has shown how flimsy recent progress has been, says Andrew Sumner of King’s College London. He reckons that the proportion of people in poor countries living on less than $1.90 a day had fallen last year to 17%. But a third were still living on less than $3.20 a day. Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of that group—the poor but not destitute—in the face of a big economic shock. Policymakers must now help people climb back above the poverty line—and devise ways to make them more resilient to future shocks. ■

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “From plague to penury”