How Trump Ally Michael Flynn Nurtured — And Profited From — the QAnon Conspiracy Theory

Flynn hitched his financial fortunes to QAnon as early as the summer of 2019, when he was facing a mountain of legal costs.

The post How Trump Ally Michael Flynn Nurtured — And Profited From — the QAnon Conspiracy Theory appeared first on The Intercept.

Of the many mysteries surrounding the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, few have been more confounding than the connections between former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the QAnon conspiracy theory, and Trump’s #StoptheSteal campaign.

Most media outlets treated Flynn’s videotaped oath last summer, in which he uttered a well-known QAnon slogan, as a sort of coming-out story about a onetime Trump insider who had gone off the rails. The video has since become the subject of a lawsuit by members of Flynn’s family who claim that “left-wing media outlets began to spread false narratives” about the Flynn family’s connections to QAnon. An Intercept investigation has found that Flynn’s ties to the QAnon phenomenon stretch back much further than the July 4 weekend last year when the video first appeared, however, to the days immediately following Trump’s 2016 election victory.

That November, nearly a year before the first cryptic clue from QAnon’s organizers – known as a “Q drop” — appeared on the online message board 4chan, Flynn told a roomful of Trump supporters that the president-elect had been borne into office by an “army of digital soldiers.” The phrase “digital soldiers,” which Flynn later trademarked, has become a central QAnon rallying cry and a key indicator of the movement’s growing turn toward violent extremism and insurrection.

Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who once oversaw military intelligence in Afghanistan and led a sprawling intelligence agency in Washington, would go on to become a central hero in QAnon’s conspiratorial narrative. But his move to trademark the term “digital soldiers” — ensuring that only he and others who obtain his express permission can profit from the sale of “Digital Soldiers”-branded merchandise — hints at his attempt to capitalize on a marketing and communication strategy that resonates with the Q community.

Flynn hitched his financial fortunes to QAnon at least as early as the summer of 2019, when he was facing a mountain of legal costs, The Intercept’s investigation found. His push to leverage QAnon’s viral popularity with the far-right coincided with his efforts to reverse his guilty plea for lying to the FBI in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

The money-making virtual empire that Flynn, his lawyer Sidney Powell, and other Trump loyalists have built on the back of the QAnon phenomenon has long been hiding in plain sight. But in the wake of the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, disinformation researchers began digging into the tangle of financial, legal, and business relationships that have fueled the growth of a far-right conspiracy theory the government has classified as a serious threat. Data and records reviewed by The Intercept for this report were provided by the January 6 Research Consortium, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University focused on investigating social media’s role in contributing to election-related violence at the Capitol and across the country.

What began with the launch of Flynn’s legal defense fund in 2017 has morphed into an intricate network of conspiracy-promoting websites and companies. Among the firms linked to Flynn and his surrogates, including Powell, are entities registered in Florida, Virginia, and Texas, some of which are inactive; they include a political action committee and a related firm now at the center of a $1.3 billion libel lawsuit connected to the 2020 presidential election.

Flynn, Powell, and their lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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After resigning from the White House, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn worked with his brother Joseph Flynn, lawyer Sidney Powell, and others to build a sprawling influence campaign that since 2017 has spanned more than a dozen loosely linked websites and corporate entities, some of which are no longer active.

Graphic: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

The constellation of conspiracy-propagating enterprises reveals how Flynn’s background in irregular warfare, signals intelligence, and psychological operations collided with the strange underworld of hacker culture, alternate reality games, and far-right extremist message boards and spurred the rise of a movement with a cult-like global following.

While QAnon was originally spawned on far-right social media sites, disinformation researchers have tracked the movement’s migration from the fringe to the mainstream on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. QAnon’s global following claims that an unlikely amalgam of mainstream media, Democrats, wealthy billionaires, and Hollywood movie stars are part of an elite cabal of bloodsucking child traffickers out to destroy the United States. A hallmark of the thousands of posts and reposts of QAnon content is the co-optation and repurposing of anodyne catchphrases such as “Save the Children,” “The Great Awakening,” and “We Are The Storm.”

In QAnon folklore, a covert group of military officers tapped Trump to run for president. “The Storm” refers to what the movement’s adherents say are Trump’s ongoing efforts to have members of the “deep state” arrested and sent to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay; references to stormy weather and “The Coming Storm” are threaded throughout QAnon content. Another popular QAnon theme is the exhortation to “take the oath,” an apparent reference to the pledge sworn by QAnon followers, which is widely known as the “Oath of the Digital Soldier.” At the end of the video showing Flynn and his family taking a version of the oath, which is similar to one sworn by members of the U.S. armed forces and others who work for the government, Flynn uses the phrase “Where We Go One, We Go All,” a reference to a quote from the 1996 movie “White Squall” that has also been shortened to a catchall meme for the QAnon movement: #WWG1WGA.

The scope and timing of Flynn’s engagement with the QAnon phenomenon — and the role he and key allies played in promoting false claims about election fraud — are coming into sharper view as Flynn’s stature and influence in the QAnon universe continues to grow. Flynn’s pledge on July 4, 2020, reignited long-running speculation about his role in an online influence campaign that law enforcement officials have linked to violent incidents, including the murder of a leading member of the Gambino crime family in New York and the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Over Memorial Day weekend, Flynn headlined a Q-themed conference in Dallas where he apparently endorsed a Myanmar-style military coup aimed at reinstating Trump as president. Flynn later backtracked from his remarks, but that didn’t stop several prominent politicians from calling him out.

The Daily Beast reported in March that four Trump allies and campaign surrogates, including Flynn’s brother Joseph, had recently registered a 501(c)(4) — a tax-exempt “social welfare organization” that can engage in lobbying and advocacy — called “Defending the Republic, Inc.” in Florida. A lawyer who volunteered to work on Trump’s post-election legal challenges, Peter Haller, created a Florida political action committee, Defending the Republic PAC, Inc., around the same time. Additional public records indicate that Mike and Joseph Flynn, along with Powell, are listed as directors of a Texas corporation by the same name that shares an address with Powell’s Dallas legal offices. The Texas corporation was established on December 1, 2020, less than a week after Trump pardoned Flynn, who was facing up to six months in federal prison.

Ties between Flynn’s legal defense fundraising campaign and his online business efforts became more pronounced beginning in May 2019, about a month before he fired the lawyers who had convinced him to accept a plea deal in connection with charges that he lied to investigators about his contacts with Russian officials implicated in Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Soon after Flynn sought to trademark the term “digital soldiers” and resilientpatriot.com began redirecting to his legal defense fund, he appeared on Parler under the handle @GenFlynn. His presence there coincided with a sharp increase in the number of posts on the platform that included QAnon-themed hashtags, according to a review by the New America-ASU team of more than 183 million posts and comments by Parler users from the time the right-wing social media platform was launched in August 2018 until it was temporarily taken offline in the wake of the January 6 riot. Posts made under Flynn’s handle include an exhortation to take “the oath.”

“#DigitalSoldiers must fight on battlefields NOT of our choosing,” according to an October 2020 post that appeared on Flynn’s Parler account. “Allowing tyranny to reign over liberty keeps us from breathing freedom’s fresh air and informing our democracy of the grave threats our constitutional republic faces. Read, listen, understand, comprehend and respond with facts and sound analysis. That is how Digital Soldiers Fight back.”

A separate but related analysis of Parler posts archived by an anonymous hacker shows that #digitalsoldiers — Flynn’s signature online rallying cry — appeared in no less than 2,700 posts from Parler’s 2018 debut through January 6, 2021. The use of #digitalsoldiers gradually increased from May 2020 to January 2021, when Parler was temporarily deplatformed. Posts containing #digitalsoldiers echoed across Parler as reposts, pushing the hashtag up the ranks of the top 200 most posted terms and often drawing engagement from tens of thousands of Parler users each time.

Corporate filings and other records show, however, that Flynn began flirting much earlier than 2019 with the idea of mobilizing what he called an “army of digital soldiers” to rally conservatives behind Trump and mount a far-right political coup.

As far back as the fall of 2017, Flynn and his surrogates began probing the possibility of deploying a viral online information operation that would tap into the minds of millions of social media users.

As far back as the fall of 2017, public documents, internet registry records, and media interviews show Flynn and his surrogates began probing the possibility of deploying a viral online information operation that would tap into the minds of millions of social media users. Flynn first registered one of the central companies in his online business empire just two months after he resigned under cloud from the Trump administration in 2017. (All but one of the sites connected to Flynn’s network of online enterprises founded between 2017 and 2019 are now defunct.)

The story of Flynn’s attempt to capitalize on the “army of digital soldiers” he conjured to support Trump has not been publicly told until now. That may be partly because the cast of characters, companies, and websites behind Flynn’s lurching quest to profit from his insider status within the military and the highest echelons of Washington’s national security establishment is so sprawling that it seems nearly impenetrable.

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Flynn’s trademark online rallying cry, #digitalsoldiers, is deeply enmeshed in the QAnon movement and appears on multiple social media platforms. This graphic shows how Twitter posts containing #digitalsoldiers frequently appear with other signature QAnon terms like #qarmy and #wwg1wga.

Graphic: Shawn Walker/Arizona State University

Raising an Army of “Digital Soldiers”

Flynn articulated his vision of leveraging digital media to mount a political insurgency at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Veteran’s Day weekend five years ago.

In November 2016, less than a week after Trump had been elected president, Flynn spoke at an event hosted by the Young America’s Foundation. A co-founding organizer of the right-wing flagship Conservative Political Action Conference, the YAF has kickstarted the political careers of dozens of well-known Republican Party personalities, including nativist former Trump adviser Stephen Miller. The anticipation among the high school- and college-aged conservatives in the packed hotel conference room was palpable as Flynn bounded up to a speaker’s podium at the front of the room.

Buoyant and glowing with the excitement of the moment, Flynn declared that the sheer force of a digital “insurgency” had helped Trump win the presidency. The online campaign that Flynn had helped Trump wage was nothing short of a total break with the politics of the past, he said. “This was not an election,” Flynn told the audience of young conservatives, “this was a revolution.” Trump, Flynn declared, had been elected by an “army of digital soldiers.”

That moment would cement Flynn’s pivotal role in QAnon mythology. The video of his November 2016 speech and his role in defending Trump after his departure from the White House have since been referenced in countless QAnon posts, transforming him into the victim-hero of a fantastical, conspiratorial plot to save America from child traffickers, liberals, and the “deep state.”

The first Q drop didn’t appear online until October 2017, when an anonymous user on 4chan posted a curious message about the supposed secret war Trump was waging against a “liberal cabal” running covert child trafficking networks. The online movement grew partly in response to mainstream news coverage at the time of Mueller’s investigation into allegations that members of the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to swing the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

Over time, cryptic messages posted by “Q,” who purports to hold a high-level security clearance, gained a wider following as they migrated from 4chan to the 8chan, then 8kun message boards and spilled across more mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. A December 2020 NPR/Ipsos poll found that 17 percent of Americans surveyed subscribe to idea that a “group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”

A primary strand of QAnon’s ur-narrative is that the person behind thousands of Q drops is a high-ranking military or intelligence official who sees it as their patriotic duty to serve as a backchannel between Trump and his loyal constituents. Flynn features prominently in many Q drops. References to “the oath” became popular after “Q” urged followers to “take the oath and serve your country” on June 24, 2020, and become “digital soldiers.” After #TaketheOath began to ricochet across QAnon communities on multiple platforms, Flynn’s posts garnered thousands of comments, a separate analysis by New America and ASU researchers found. A video of Flynn’s oath last July received 100,000 likes when Flynn posted it on Twitter.

Previously unreported events following Flynn’s November 2016 “digital soldiers” speech raise questions about his role in the origins of the QAnon movement. Days after he spoke to YAF, when his name was being floated for a high-level job in the Trump administration, a website called resilientpatriot.com was created, according to internet registry files. While Flynn’s name does not appear in domain name records for that site, the registry records for another Flynn-linked website list mflynnjr@resilientpatriot.com as the registrant email; Flynn’s son Michael Flynn Jr. also used the name Resilient Patriot on Twitter.

If the elder Flynn played a role in creating resilientpatriot.com in November 2016, it would have been an unusual move for a potential presidential appointee. Many White House officials go to great lengths to avoid extra scrutiny of their business and personal affairs, and it is common practice in Washington for nominees to scrub their social media accounts and reduce their digital footprints.

Flynn was named national security adviser but held the job for less than a month before he was accused of lying to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI about a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador during the transition period. He resigned in February 2017. Two months later, in April, Virginia public records indicate that the state issued a receipt to Flynn for the creation of a company called Resilient Patriot LLC; Flynn’s LinkedIn page lists him as president of a company of that name. At the time, a contrite Flynn had offered to testify before Congress on what he knew about Russian interference in the 2016 election in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

That summer, Flynn’s sister Barbara Redgate and brother Joseph Flynn started a fundraising campaign to help pay Flynn’s legal bills. Web archives indicate that resilientpatriot.com had lain dormant for a time, but at some point after Flynn’s family launched the legal defense fund, Flynn’s resilientpatriot.com site was repurposed, according to website registry records. Starting in May 2019, resilientpatriot.com began redirecting visitors to mikeflynndefensefund.org, according to internet archives.

Initially, the fund garnered donations from thousands of supporters, Flynn’s brother told the press. By Joseph Flynn’s reckoning, however, mounting legal fees appeared to be outpacing donations.

Flynn and his family reportedly determined that one way to make a dent in the bills would be to sell Flynn’s three-bedroom house in the leafy suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. In December 2017, Washingtonian magazine featured splashy photographs of the home’s interior, saying that Flynn had bought it for about $774,000 and that he planned to sell it to pay off his mounting legal costs. A few months later, Flynn’s brother told ABC News that the retired Army general had listed his home at $895,000. (The house later sold for slightly less than that.)

Flynn remained in serious financial trouble in the spring of 2019. After pleading guilty in the Mueller investigation and enduring a bruising inquiry into his company, the Flynn Intel Group, for allegedly failing to report connections to the Turkish government, the disgraced general was reportedly staring down an estimated $4.6 million in unpaid legal bills.

That May, as special counsel Robert Mueller announced that his expansive investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election would soon end, Flynn took his first tentative steps toward launching a new fundraising vehicle, seeking to register “Digital Soldiers” under his name with the trademark division of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He abandoned the registration of those words alone in May 2021 but applied to trademark “Digital Soldiers” when used in tandem with his distinctive red, white, and blue three bars and three stars logo — a nod to his rank as a retired three-star Army general.

The trademark registration shows that Flynn seeks to hold exclusive rights to prevent anyone from selling similarly marked goods. Perhaps more than any other detail, it documents his desire to sell to QAnon adherents; wherever his logo with “Digital Soldiers” is used on anything from T-shirts to swimsuits to mugs and tote bags, he wants to benefit financially.

The trademark documents Flynn’s financial connection to the QAnon movement; wherever his logo with the words “Digital Soldiers” is used, he wants to benefit.

That August, digitalsoldiers.us was created, according to internet archive and domain registry records. The listed registrant for that site is mflynnjr@resilientpatriot.com. Another site advertising a fundraising event for Flynn — digitalsoldiersconference.com — was registered on August 9, 2019. The conference website’s landing page includes an image of an American flag with the stars arranged in a large “Q” beneath the words “The battle is joined. Victory will be ours.” Scheduled for September 14, 2019, at an upscale mall in Atlanta, the Digital Soldiers Conference was the most visible sign yet that Flynn had yoked his personal brand and fundraising efforts to QAnon’s radical ideology.

“America,” the website for the Digital Soldiers Conference declared, “is on the verge of a digital civil war,” and “Flynn is a true American hero fighting the Deep State who put everything on the line for God and Country.”

The site announced that Flynn would be a keynote speaker alongside former Trump campaign adviser and fellow Mueller casualty George Papadopoulos and other MAGA influencers. The website advertised $99 general admission tickets for the conference, while a “VIP All Day” pass cost $500. Those interested in a sit-down dinner with Flynn and front-row access to speeches could buy the “Ultra VIP” ticket package for $2,500. The “majority of proceeds from the Digital Soldiers Conference will go to benefit The Mike Flynn Defense Fund,” the conference website promised.

“To be an outspoken conservative now on social media is to be a pariah. If you’re a patriot and love your country, you’ve been called Nazi, Fascist and White Supremacist,” the site crowed. “Republicans may control the White House and Senate, but these cubicle cowboys control the Media, Universities, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.”

Flynn’s lawyer Powell even filed a petition a month in advance to secure permission for him to travel outside his home state to attend the conference, despite a pending review of his legal appeal in a D.C. court. But Flynn apparently pulled out after Mother Jones reported on the event’s connection to QAnon.

By October 2019, Flynn’s “digital soldiers” websites were joined by a real-world company: Digital Soldiers Media, LLC. Florida public records list Flynn, his brother Joseph, and his son Michael Flynn Jr. as managers of the company and show an address in the tony retiree suburb of Englewood, Florida, where Flynn recently bought a home.

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Graphic: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

Right-Wing “Citizen Journalism”

Part of the Digital Soldiers business plan appears to have been to sell T-shirts and hoodies bearing Flynn’s name and logo. The T-shirt sale model parallels another Flynn-backed website called “The Shirt Show USA,” which also aims to capitalize on Flynn’s hero status among QAnon followers.

But the sale of “WWG1WGA” T-shirts featuring Flynn’s name at $32 apiece was a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of dollars supporters were asked to cough up in a pay-to-publish scheme first advertised on a website linked to Flynn through his Digital Soldiers brand.

“We have an army of digital soldiers: citizen journalists,” an archived version of the digitalsoldiers.us site’s landing page declares, borrowing directly from Flynn’s 2016 speech. It goes on to note that digital soldiers “from all over the world have stepped up to fill the void where real journalism once stood.”

“Soon,” the site promised, “you will be able to submit your story to the Digital Soldiers website, where in partnership with UncoverDC.com, it will be vetted, edited, and shared with our network of thousands of fellow Digital Soldiers.” The digital trails leading from Flynn’s digitalsoldiers.us to UncoverDC surfaced in the analysis of data collected from Parler social media accounts by the New America and ASU team.

UncoverDC.com was created on May 31, 2019, according to internet registry records; soon after, a company called UncoverDC, LLC was registered in South Carolina, according to public records. Run by online influencer Tracy Beanz, the site taps into the “alt-tech” movement that sprang up after major social media companies began taking a more aggressive approach to content moderation in the wake of deadly clashes between protesters at the 2017 “United the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Like many alt-tech sites that seek to monetize access to specially curated content generated by far-right influencers, UncoverDC offers paid membership options.

Flynn has long professed a fascination with journalism. He has likened reporting to intelligence gathering in his public writings about spycraft and in interviews on lessons learned about how intelligence operations could better support counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In those war zones, Flynn advocated the use of open-source intelligence centers to enhance counterinsurgency campaigns and augment the ability of fusion centers to gauge potential emerging threats and target insurgents. He also launched the architecture for military officials and diplomatic and humanitarian aid advisers in Afghanistan to share information about sociocultural dynamics that could influence everything from the price of rice to how Afghans might vote in an upcoming election.

Chock full of conspiracy theory-laden stories on topics ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines to local and federal elections, UncoverDC offers a glimpse at a rapidly evolving business model that is increasingly favored by many far-right influencers, QAnon devotees, and Trump insiders like Flynn. Many of the website’s listed staff are right-wing, alt-tech influencers. Several are one-time micro-influencers and citizen celebrities whose substantial social media following earned them recognition and ad revenues on mainstream platforms like YouTube, but who, after falling afoul of content moderation rules on mainstream platforms, migrated to more fringe platforms like BitChute, Gab, and Parler.

From Dark to Light

Beanz is listed as UncoverDC’s editor-in-chief, and an archived version of digitalsoldiers.us states that that site is a “project of General Flynn and UncoverDC,” linking the sites via a trail of digital breadcrumbs. One of several conservative micro-influencers who have ridden the QAnon wave, Beanz is a central player in Flynn’s growing online profile. A bio on UncoverDC indicates that she worked on Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and Trump’s in 2016.

Beanz also hosts a podcast called “From Dark to Light” and touts her credentials as an “investigative journalist.” The podcast features talk show-style banter and interviews with well-known far-right figures, including one with Flynn himself. A recent episode released in April featured Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman who paid Flynn’s firm for research and lobbying work related to Fethullah Gülen, a well-known Turkish opposition figure.

Beanz, whose given name is Tracy Diaz, was a featured speaker at the “March for Trump” rally in Washington in November 2020. A month later, she appeared alongside Flynn at a Women for America First rally that promoted Trump’s false claims of election rigging. She recently won a leadership position in the Horry County Republican Party in South Carolina; in a video posted on her YouTube channel, Flynn helped her celebrate the victory at an outdoor rally in late April.

Another video on Beanz’s YouTube channel, titled “We are the Storm,” includes montages of the Capitol building against the backdrop of a storm darkened sky interspersed with video clips of Trump and photos of Democratic politicians like Rep. Adam Schiff, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. The video includes a hypnotic soundtrack similar in style to those accompanying QAnon videos and ends with a clip of Trump tracing an imaginary figure in the air and referencing “the calm before the storm,” an iconic image that plays a central role in the QAnon mythos.

In response to an email requesting comment for this story, Beanz invited an Intercept reporter to join her on her podcast. Beanz also noted that she has “litigation in process against several other outlets that have falsely accused me of being part of some larger QAnon conspiracy and I am hesitant to take part in any interviews that may be edited or taken out of context.” Beanz did not respond to a follow-up email.

UncoverDC combines characteristics of a vanity publishing scheme with those of a political fundraiser.

UncoverDC combines characteristics of a vanity publishing scheme with those of a political fundraiser. A chance to engage directly with Beanz gets pride of place on the site’s “Support” page. For $125 a month, users who sign up for the “Say So” editor’s tier can get their investigative contributions published on the site. Those seeking more tailored access or a private audience with Beanz can sign up for the “Luminary Tier,” where a $2,000 donation will also secure access to a group chat. For an even more intimate experience, Luminary Tier members can pay $3,000 to have Beanz “convince a doubter on a hot topic” or $6,000 for a chance to see their name on the site’s “FOUNDERS page.” Donations of any denomination can also be made via PayPal.

Several of Flynn’s lengthy statements appear prominently on the site in blogposts under his name, including a statement posted in February about the elections and a call to join Jericho March, a far-right Christian nationalist group that counts Oath Keepers militia chief Stewart Rhodes and Flynn as among its most prominent members.

Despite the digital dots connecting Flynn’s constellation of websites, there is no express mention of him on the UncoverDC masthead. But in addition to Flynn’s having authored several posts on the site, Beanz and others cover his legal travails and political activities closely. After Trump pardoned Flynn in November, the site’s coverage of Flynn’s activities intensified leading up to and immediately after the Capitol siege on January 6.

Rallying the Digital Troops

It is on Parler, and across the digital annals of Flynn’s websites and business enterprises, that flashes of the violent future of American politics become clearest.

Flynn apparently joined Parler under the handle @GenFlynn in mid-July 2019 but did not post from the account until September, when he announced that he was “coming in for a landing! And a soft one too!!!” He only posted a few comments using that handle the rest of that year, but the tempo picked up considerably after June 23, 2020, when a single line — “Digital Soldiers are on the move (get ready!)” — appeared under his name.

Flynn’s next post appeared on Parler the same day that Twitter temporarily locked Flynn’s lawyer Powell out of her account, and it may have been the first significant sign of the scale of Flynn’s plan to promote the “digital soldiers” cause on alt-tech platforms. “America’s Guardian Angel of American Justice @SidneyPowell1 twitter account has been suspended,” Flynn wrote. “Trust me, she will not be silenced, nor should she be. Digital Soldiers must keep fighting.” The post garnered 9,000 “echoes,” Parler’s version of reposts; overall it garnered 16,000 upvotes, the equivalent of “likes” on Facebook or Twitter.

The New America-ASU review of Parler data indicates that QAnon-themed hashtags, including Flynn’s #digitalsoldiers, are among the site’s most popular. Posts including #digitalsoldiers appear to have generated more traffic on days when Flynn, Trump, or both headlined the news cycle, such as when the video of Flynn and his family reciting the oath and the well-known phrase associated with QAnon “Where We Go One, We Go All” was posted online last July, and shortly after Flynn and Powell were banned by Twitter.

The review also found that several Parler accounts that behaved like automated bots amplified Flynn’s QAnon-related posts on the platform at a rate of thousands per hour. For example, on at least six occasions, Parler user @Reeseysnotsorry averaged more than one post or comment per minute, and on many occasions averaged more than one post or comment every two minutes, for a total of more than 17,000 posts and comments.

While ASU researchers emphasized that it can be difficult to establish when and whether social media posts are amplified by bots as opposed to a group of people who farm out a single account to many users, the push to amplify Flynn’s #digitalsoldiers on Parler dovetailed neatly with key political events during the 2020 presidential election campaign such as Election Day and Flynn’s appearance at a post-election rally in Washington, D.C., in December that devolved into violent clashes between Proud Boys and counterprotesters. Thousands of mentions of related terms, including #digitalarmy and #digitalwarriors received tens of thousands of engagements on Parler, many peaking at key milestones in the timeline from the days leading up to Election Day on November 3, 2020, and after.

As returns from the 2020 presidential election began to roll in from around the country, it became apparent that the race would be close. When the results tipped toward Joe Biden, Trump and his allies made it clear they would contest them.

On December 1, Powell, who had represented Flynn when he sought to reverse his guilty plea, registered the Texas corporation “Defending the Republic, Inc.” Flynn and his brother Joseph were added in an amendment to Texas corporate registry records on December 12, the same day Flynn gave a rousing speech on the National Mall during the pro-Trump Million MAGA March.

Then, on December 31, 2020 — a little less than 24 hours after Republican Sen. Josh Hawley declared his intent to challenge the certification of the Electoral College results — Flynn posted a lengthy quote from George Washington calling for Americans to rally as an army:

My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than can be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.

Battling the “Deep State” Virtually

Flynn posted Washington’s rallying cry for a revolution 13 days after a White House meeting between Trump, Flynn, Powell, former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, and others to discuss the election. It was at that White House meeting where Powell suggested that Trump should seize voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems and where the group reportedly discussed Flynn’s notion that Trump should impose martial law and re-run the elections. In the days that followed, Flynn took to Parler and Telegram, a messaging app, to urge his followers to protest the election outcome at the January 6 rally in Washington.

All the while, during that crucial period in December 2020 when Trump and his supporters sought to overturn the election results, Byrne, Powell, Flynn, Flynn’s brother, and other key Trump surrogates like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell were building the back-end architecture for a dark-money fueled political campaign.

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Left: MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell waits outside the West Wing of the White House before entering on Jan. 15, 2021. Right: Sidney Powell, Mike Flynn’s lawyer and one-time Trump legal adviser, speaks during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19, 2020.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On January 8 — just two days after hundreds of militia members and conservative Christians stormed the Capitol to try to derail the certification of Biden’s victory — Dominion Voting Systems filed a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit that named Texas-based Defending the Republic, Inc. and Flynn’s lawyer Sidney Powell as defendants. Dominion sued Powell, Lindell, and Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani over baseless claims made by all three that Dominion voting machines and software were fraudulently rigged to eliminate or “flip” ballots cast for Trump to Biden.

Dominion’s lawsuit claims that Powell’s law firm, defendingtherepublic.org, and the Texas-based Defending the Republic Inc., are Powell’s “alter egos.” Visitors to Powell’s websites were invited to donate, “but depending on the website or hyperlink the user follows, they are directed to make checks payable to various entities,” according to Dominion’s suit and archived versions of defendingtherepublic.org. An announcement about the launch of the Defending the Republic PAC also appears on sidneypowell.com.

Powell has countered that Dominion’s “alter ego” references improperly blur the line between the corporate entity and Powell as a person, and that the claim is factually incorrect.

Web archives show Powell’s eponymous website has touted her work on Flynn’s federal legal case and linked to several other sites, including dtrpac.com, which redirects to defendingtherepublicpac.com, a website launched soon after Election Day last November. An earlier version of defendingtherepublic.org stated that donations would be used to support lawsuits brought by Powell based on unsubstantiated claims of voting fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and directed visitors to several other sites, including hereistheevidence.com, a crowdsourcing site for reporting election “irregularity.”

“Millions of dollars must be raised to defend the Republic as these lawsuits continue to be filed to ensure victory,” Powell stated on the Defending the Republic website in 2020. At the time, there was no visible reference on the donations page to the Florida PAC, which was added to the page in April 2021. The change to the website came one month after the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a subpoena to GoDaddy requesting information about the owner of defendingtherepublic.org. Other than Sidney Powell, there is also no mention on the site about any of the people listed as directors, agents, or managers of Texas-based Defending the Republic, Inc., and it is unclear who benefits from donations made via defendingtherepublic.org.

On June 15, officials with the Florida commission, which is also known as the FDACS, lodged an administrative complaint against Powell’s Texas-based firm Defending the Republic, Inc., saying that the website’s donation page “misrepresented” the Texas firm’s charitable status in Florida and its ability to accept donations. In a statement issued a few days later, the FDACS described Defending the Republic, Inc. as “legal fund involved in conspiracies related to the 2020 presidential election” and said that the department had found the firm had violated state law. “Defending The Republic has a choice to make – they can come into compliance with the law, or face large fines and court orders,” commissioner Nikki Fried said in the statement.

Lawyers for Dominion contend that Powell only registered the Texas for-profit firm after claiming during several media appearances that she had set up a website for a nonprofit organization to support a litigation campaign aimed at overturning the outcome of the 2020 election. Dominion’s lawyers contend that Powell began soliciting donations on her website in early January on the premise that Defending the Republic was a nonprofit organization, although Defending the Republic PAC had not been officially registered as a nontaxable entity with the IRS at the time.

Flynn is not named in the suit, but Dominion notes Powell’s tie to defendingtherepublic.org and to the Texas-based firm that in December 2020 filings listed Flynn and his brother as directors. The website named in the lawsuit, defendingtherepublic.org, is linked to the West Palm Beach address where the Florida-based PAC is registered. That is also the address listed for former Trump White House liaison Emily Newman, who shows up in registry records for the Florida nonprofit.

The two Florida firms bearing the names “Defending the Republic, Inc.” and “Defending the Republic PAC, Inc.,” were registered in Florida in February. Florida public records indicate that Newman, Flynn’s brother, and Lindell are registered as directors of the 501(c)(4), Defending the Republic, Inc. The 501(c)(4) is no longer active.

On March 22, Powell filed a motion to dismiss Dominion’s defamation lawsuit against her, claiming that “reasonable people” would not accept as fact spurious claims about election fraud that she’d made on the Defending the Republic website or in the press. In a declaration attached to Powell’s motion, former Overstock.com CEO Byrne is listed as the chair and CEO of Defending the Republic. He now claims to have resigned.

Although Michael Flynn is also referenced several times in Powell’s legal brief, no mention is made of his having been listed as a director in the Texas firm’s original filings. Nor is there any reference to Flynn’s brother Joseph, or to Joseph’s connection to the Florida-based Defending the Republic, Inc.

Lawyers for Dominion declined to comment on the case.

At the Memorial Day QAnon-themed conference in Dallas, Powell repeated her false claims that the presidential vote was rigged.

Taking Over “the Idea of Information”

Dubbed the “For God and Country Patriot Roundup,” the Dallas event sparked controversy after Flynn seemed to suggest that the military should mount a coup to reinstall Trump as president. He quickly backtracked, but his comments in Dallas echoed his suggestion in December that military authority could be invoked to restore Trump to the White House. They are also entirely in keeping with Flynn’s repeated appeals to patriotism through posts on Parler and other platforms that venerate the military as a sort of Praetorian Guard of Trump’s presidency.

Flynn’s post, for instance, of George Washington’s Revolutionary War-era words calling for a citizen-led uprising, were emblematic of the grand vision Flynn had spelled out in his calls for a virtual insurgency, and they resonated in the far-right online market he has sought to corner. #digitalsoldiers has appeared most frequently alongside hashtags like #redpill, #qarmy, and #thegreatawakening, according to at least one reliable aggregator of digital tags. In the days leading up to January 6, the hashtag became a clarion call to the far-right to mount an insurgency against Trump’s political detractors.

On his now-defunct website digitalsoldiers.us, Flynn had equated the “army of digital soldiers” to citizen journalists. The wave that had elevated Trump was “an insurgency — irregular warfare at its finest in politics,” Flynn declared in an excerpt from his 2016 post-election speech to the Young America’s Foundation posted on the site. “The journalists we have in our media did a disservice to themselves. More than that, they did a disservice to our country. So the American people decided to take over the idea of information. They took over the idea, and they did it through social media.”

QAnon-themed, right-wing sites similar to those promoted by Flynn appeared to gain more prominence as Trump’s false rhetoric about the election began to build during the course of the 2020 campaign. A search of historical domain registration information shows that digitalarmy.com was registered on GoDaddy in November 2020. A company called Digital Army LLC is registered in Nevada under the name of Sean Schoepflin and an entity called For God and Country Trust, according to records.

It is not known whether Flynn’s digital soldiers websites relate to digitalarmy.com. The sites employ similar tactics to engage users to sign up as “citizen journalists,” but the architects of digitalarmy.com apparently had bigger ambitions. On October 30, 2020, announcements of the coming launch of a “censorship free platform for truth-seekers” appeared on a local broadcast news channel in Youngstown, Ohio. The announcements were picked up by radio and television news outlets in rural areas from Ohio to Nebraska.

The term “digital soldiers” was repeated again and again in connection with the broadcast media push and online rollout of digitalarmy.com. “Monetization will occur after elections, via brands that are built and funded by digital soldiers,” a statement from digitalarmy.com proclaimed. “These digital soldiers will be given ownership of the developed brands and supported by the Digital Army worldwide.” Curiously, both the digitalarmy.com statement and the newswire press release that was pushed out across the country made oblique references to QAnon, stating that “Digital Army has spent the last three years working alongside the ‘Great Awakening’ to develop a foundation for change.” The “Great Awakening” is part of the foundational Q myth about the coming revolutionary rise of the right against the “deep state.”

Most of the online enterprises Flynn was linked to between 2017 and 2019 are no longer active. The lone survivor, the “citizen journalism” site UncoverDC.com, shares a curious feature with digitalsoldiers.us.

Both sites were registered by Anonymize Inc., a subsidiary of Epik.com, a Washington state web hosting firm popular with far-right extremist groups. Epik was best known in 2019 for doing business with the 8chan message board that gave life to #Pizzagate and sparked white supremacist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Hanau, a suburb of Frankfurt, Germany.

Additionally, Epik has hosted BitChute and Gab, two far-right social media platforms cited by civil rights advocates for hosting content posted by Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group. Epik also briefly hosted Parler on its servers after Amazon booted the platform following the violent siege at the Capitol.

How much Flynn knew about Epik’s willingness to do business with white supremacists is anyone’s guess, but the company’s profile as a safe haven for right-wing extremism was well established when both digitalsoldiers.us and UncoverDC.com were set up in 2019.

The post How Trump Ally Michael Flynn Nurtured — And Profited From — the QAnon Conspiracy Theory appeared first on The Intercept.


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