Oath Keepers leader charged with 'seditious conspiracy' for role in US Capitol breach

The extremist group faced a series of online bans in recent months.

Oath Keepers founder, Stewart Rhodes, speaks during the Patriots Day Free Speech Rally in Berkeley, California, U.S. April 15, 2017. Picture taken April 15, 2017. (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

The far-right extremist group Oath Keepers may soon face particularly serious repercussions for its actions on top of a string of internet bans. A DC federal grand jury has unsealed seditious conspiracy charges against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 other individuals for their alleged roles in the US Capitol breach on January 6th, 2021. Rhodes and followers face accusations they planned to use force to oppose the electoral college vote certification, including the direct attempt to seize the Capitol building as well as through multiple "quick reaction force" teams that planned to deliver guns and other weapons to extremists inside the building.

The Oath Keepers' digital savviness played an important role in the charges. The paramilitary group discussed plans with co-conspirators through encrypted messaging apps, social media, text messaging and websites, according to the Justice Department. Federal investigators revealed they'd used Signal messages as part of the case, although it wasn't clear how they'd obtained the discussions — CNBC speculated that a participant in group chats leaked the contents to federal agents.

Rhodes and Edward Vallejo, who reportedly helped coordinate the quick reaction teams, are the only ones facing charges for the first time. The rest, including prominent members like Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins, were already facing indictments. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The legal action could effectively bring down a group long accused of promoting harm both on- and offline. The Oath Keepers had threatened violence online, prompting a Twitter ban in September 2020, and spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories that sometimes included QAnon-linked hashtags. The group's Capitol incursion, meanwhile, was partly fuelled by online election misinformation promoting unsupported claims of widespread fraud during the 2020 presidential vote.

The Oath Keepers already lost much of their online presence in the months before and after the Capitol incident, but the new charges could make it that much harder for the group or its members to maintain that internet representation. This also underscores social media outlets' imperfect attempts to curb violent organizations and the misinformation that fuels them. While more aggressive crackdowns wouldn't have necessarily stopped the 2021 breach, outlets like Facebook have acknowledged they could have done more to curb groups that spread and acted on that misinformation.

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