Updated at 9:40 a.m. E.T. on May 26, 2021
Judging by the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, far-right extremists don’t fear arrest. But they do fear one thing: glowies.
During the Trump administration, many far-right groups’ main concern was figuring out how to recruit more people to the cause. But as federal law-enforcement officials continue to round up people suspected of involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and Joe Biden’s administration promises a crackdown on white-supremacist and anti-government radicals, extremists are on the verge of a crack-up, posting widely and worriedly about spies in their midst—“glowies.” That’s the term far-right groups use to describe people they suspect of being federal law-enforcement agents or informants infiltrating their communication channels, trying to catch them plotting violence, or prodding them into illegal acts.
The term is in widespread use among extremists: On January 6, one Telegram user made their channel, which was popular with the far right, private because “nameless faceless glowies are joining.” Two days later, another person suggested that glowies would “float dead cop story, to redirect public attention and sympathy,” referring to the death of the Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick.* One user recommended downloading an alternative platform, ZeroNet, saying, “Glowies cannot take it down.”
Screenshots of these Telegram channels were provided to me by Meghan Conroy, who researches far-right extremism at Moonshot CVE, an organization that aims to counter violent extremism. In addition, I found variations on the “glow” terminology all over 4chan, the imageboard that froths with racist and misogynist messages, and on TheDonald.win, the far-right successor to the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald. All three platforms featured discussions of storming the Capitol in the days leading up to January 6.
Extremists have become more wary of real or perceived glowies since January 6. On the January 11, someone on 4chan asked, “What kind of shit should I get for the boogaloo?,” meaning the civil war that the far-right boogaloo bois are preparing for. This, another person responded, seemed like “glow”—the potential sign of an FBI agent. The same thing happened when another user asked about the best place to store guns. On TheDonald.win, someone suggested that the death of Ashli Babbitt, the woman killed during the Capitol riot, was possibly staged or orchestrated by glowies. “Since all you glowies are here looking for ‘Domestic Terrorists,’” another wrote, “Look in the mirror then apologize for Ruby Ridge you sick fucks,” referring to the 1992 siege by U.S. marshals in Idaho that led to the deaths of three people.
“With increased content moderation by platforms and tons of researchers/analysts paying more attention to the right, it appears these folks want to keep the momentum of the sixth going but are afraid to talk about it openly,” Conroy told me via email.
Federal law enforcement, of course, has a long history of monitoring extremist groups. FBI informants infiltrated both the far-left Weather Underground and the Ku Klux Klan, among others. The FBI declined to comment on whether its agents or informants are currently monitoring far-right communications channels or posting in them directly. But federal agents don’t have to be actively watching the channels to complicate the extremists’ mission. Being watched makes planning harder. So does constant suspicion. The mere possibility of glowies among the militias might be enough to reduce the threat of extremist violence in the coming months.
Far-right forums are rife with racism and misogyny, so perhaps it’s no surprise that glowie derives from the language of hate. The term originated with Terry Davis, a computer programmer who had schizophrenia and harbored paranoid conspiracy theories about the government. In a 2017 YouTube video that has been viewed nearly 1 million times, Davis says: “The CIA niggers glow in the dark; you can see them if you’re driving. You just run them over.” Because the internet can be a terrible place, the term took off, becoming popular on 4chan’s white-nationalist /pol/ board and spreading to other platforms.
Glowie has also sprouted other permutations: Someone who seems suspicious is said to be “glowing.” Seeming too much like an FBI agent—known as an “alphabet” in these forums—is called “glowposting.”
For instance, asking a question like “Do you know where I can get schematics for 3-D-printed guns?” might be considered glowposting, because it suggests that the user is attempting to lure his interlocutor toward committing a crime, says Hampton Stall, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and the founder of the MilitiaWatch blog. If someone is suspected of being a federal agent or an informant for the FBI, other group members will “fedjacket” him or her, making the case about why the person is secretly a snitch. To prevent feds from joining, some forums have devised elaborate vetting procedures. For instance, they’ll ask potential members to send a picture of one of their biceps, on the theory that a reverse image search will reveal whether the picture is original. Also, “they’re very bro-ey,” Stall told me.
Then there’s “glowing,” which is talking about things that are violent and threatening—and therefore likely to attract the attention of cops. In a chat on the Element messenger app that Conroy is in, people have asked, for example, “How brightly are we allowed to glow here?” Or, as part of a conversation about the apparent desire to execute members of Congress, one user said, “Yeah, I’d say every single congresscritter needs to go.” “That’s my kind of glowing right there,” another user responded.
In order to attempt to cover their tracks, extremists will sometimes spell out their violent desires, then quickly add, “in Minecraft.” Because you can’t get arrested for wanting to kill people in a video game, right?
The meaning of glowies has evolved over time. In addition to referring to feds, the term is sometimes applied to dissenters, anti-fascists, or tech companies that might try to take down far-right forums. “If somebody gets out of line in the chat, they accuse them of being antifa,” Stall said.
It’s hard to impersonate the subculture of a group you don’t belong to, so newcomers tend to write messages that read as slightly off, a “How do you do, fellow kids?” from an interloper. The members think, “This could be law enforcement, this could be antifa, but it’s probably not Joe White Supremacist,” says Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “Anybody who strikes them as being different from the crowd is raising alarm bells with them.”
Still, the extremists’ glow-dar isn’t very good, Stall said. They miss people who are very obviously federal agents, or they accuse random users of glowing because they’ll say something like “Time to kill all Democrats.” Police officers who sympathize with white supremacists have been accused of glowing when they actually appear to be trying to help the extremists’ cause.
Extremists’ suspicion of law enforcement might seem strange, given that off-duty police officers were among the mob who stormed the Capitol earlier this month. But although far-right extremists tend to see local law enforcement as the ultimate authority, federal agents, to many of them, are extensions of the federal government, and therefore illegitimate.
In fact, as Arie Perliger, a professor of security studies at UMass Lowell, pointed out in a recent paper, even as law-enforcement officers have joined the ranks of far-right militias, militias have increased their attacks on law-enforcement and military targets. “You can be a police officer, but if you’re not someone who’s part of their constituency,” Perliger told me, “you’re the enemy.”
Many people who have expressed support for the Capitol insurrection talk of glowies, but it’s not yet clear how many of the people who actually seized the building are familiar with the term. Though dozens of known white supremacists who were on a terrorist watch list joined in the Capitol attack, as The Washington Post reported, the mob also included everyone from a horned shaman to a tech CEO. Members of militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters also appeared to be there, but several experts told me those groups don’t typically use online lingo like glowing, which is more commonly used by younger, more tech-savvy radicals.
Regardless of their affiliation, the rioters largely saw the day as a success. To some, it was a sign that the broad far-right movement is growing in strength. “The race war that they really fantasize about, you know, ‘It feels like that we can actually bring this to fruition now, that we’re really gathering steam following what happened on the 6th,’” Peter Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University who studies extremists, told me. Counterterrorism officials are predicting that the boogaloo movement, in particular, might commit additional violence in the coming weeks.
That’s especially likely because the Biden administration will stoke these groups’ rage. “The history of the militia movement for the past four years has been them scrounging around to find other enemies to spend energy on—antifa, Democrats in Congress, governors doing lockdown measures, Black Lives Matter, all sorts of other things to occupy their time,” Pitcavage, of the Anti-Defamation League, told me. “But with Biden as president, it’s quite possible that they will revert to form and once more become extremely antagonistic to the federal government and grow.”
And though extremists have recently been kicked off mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter, they are still active on more esoteric platforms, such as Gab, Rocket.Chat, MeWe, Signal, Rumble, DLive, BitChute, and AR15.com, among others.
Still, even in these obscure corners of the internet, they might be right to be paranoid about glowies. “There’s a long history of law enforcement infiltrating these groups,” Simi said. It’s highly likely that federal agents are actually monitoring these forums today, several experts told me. Trump ignored the threat of domestic terrorism for much of his presidency, but federal law enforcement has cracked down on the groups somewhat in the past year. Federal agents charged several boogaloo bois last fall, and last winter agents arrested the former leader of the white-supremacist group Atomwaffen Division for planning “swat” attacks on journalists and other foes.
Social media has long empowered militias and other far-right groups, and experts told me their banishment from mainstream platforms like Facebook could impede their growth. Every time a forum gets shut down, the extremists have to find a new home, a disruptive waste of their time. “The more time that they have to spend reorganizing and recalibrating is less time that they can spend planning more concrete, dangerous activity,” Micah Clark, a Moonshot CVE program director, told me. “A lot of the far right has had free rein on the internet for years longer than they should have.” Now, he said, these groups “are freaking out, because they sense that things are changing.” Some forums urged members not to attend protests on Inauguration Day, saying it might be an opportunity for entrapment.
But even if federal-agent infiltration doesn’t lead to any arrests, it might serve another useful purpose. These extremist groups, which were already predisposed to paranoia, now have something to be paranoid about. Real or perceived glowies are putting a healthy fear into these groups, which thrive on the premise that they are on the right side of history. It’s humbling to go from being a well-regarded CEO to being judged a criminal and a terrorist.
These days, the Capitol rioters might be thinking, as Clark put it, “I have all this privilege, and I might have just thrown a lot of it away.” The white men at the apex of American society don’t fear much. But they do fear falling to the bottom.
* This article originally referred to Sicknick being killed by being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, based on reporting in The New York Times and The Associated Press citing two unnamed law-enforcement officials. On April 19, Washington, D.C.'s chief medical examiner released a report finding that Sicknick had experienced two strokes and died of natural causes.