Opinion

Report on legislators in ‘far-right’ Facebook groups doesn’t tell real story of Kansas extremism

June 6, 2022 3:33 am

Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, speaks at the Freedom Revival in the Heartland at City Center Church in Lenexa back in September 2021. The event featured debunked COVID-19 conspiracy theories and calls for battling mandates. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

By any measure, the Kansas Legislature has a problem with right-wing extremism.

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson physician, introduced legislation that would give him an exemption for prescribing ivermectin to COVID-19 patients. Sen. Mike Thompson shared in the viral skepticism, while also agitating against wind power. And Rep. Cheryl Helmer spewed a torrent of lies and hate when pressed about transgender rights.

None of these politicians, however, is included in a report tracking legislators in all 50 states who joined far-right Facebook groups. And that demonstrates the challenges facing voters heading into another election season.

The report in question, titled “Breaching the Mainstream,” was issued last month by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. As the introduction says, it makes a valiant effort at “bringing much-needed context to the national discussion” by identifying 875 legislators across the nation who followed 789 groups online. Twenty of those lawmakers hail from Kansas.

“As someone who’s tracked far-right activity for three decades now, I thought I couldn’t be shocked anymore,” said Devin Burghart, executive director at the institute. “But our entire research team was stunned by the breadth of the problem — both the massive number of state legislators and the different types of far-right groups joined.”

I was surprised too, but in a different way. As I looked through the data from Kansas I found myself puzzled by some legislators who were included, and the way a fairly mainstream conservative group was characterized as “far right.”

It didn’t depict the state I knew, or that Kansas Reflector has covered since 2020.

Any such effort requires judgment calls. Burghart and his team have identified a pressing issue for our body politic. The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and continuing hold on power by former President Donald Trump suggest a violent streak has been growing underneath our noses for years.

But as I thought about the report and considered what I’ve seen in state politics, I decided to go a little deeper. 

Last month, I reached out to those 20 Republicans. I wanted to hear what they had to say and how they saw their presence in the report, which has been reported in local and national media. I spent time on Facebook myself, looking at the profiles of legislators who weren’t on the list. And I contacted Burghart, curious about his group’s experience.

 

Legislators on the spot

Of those 20 Kansas legislators — 16 representatives and four senators — eight responded to me.

I asked them two simple questions. Did they have any response to being included in IREHR’s report? And did they see the groups they were involved in as part of the “far right”? I wasn’t interested in letting them define the term, but I wanted to see how it resonated with legislators who are part of a deep-red supermajority.

The responses came in two general flavors. The first was short and snappy. They got bonus points for mentioning the “far left.”

Sen. Renee Erickson (listed as a member of Open Up Kansas!, ReOpenKS and Americans for Prosperity-Kansas), R-Wichita, asked me questions: “Just curious, have you questioned any legislators about membership in what an organization defines as far-left Facebook groups? Does such a report exist? If not, why not?”

Rep. David French (listed as a member of Open Up Kansas!, Stop CRT & National Civics Standards in K-12 Schools, and STOP THE STEAL #Election2020), R-Lansing, vented a bit: “What the Far-Left believes to be Far-Right is just Americans standing up for their constitutional rights, which the Marxist(s) want to destroy.”

In these cases, the legislators appear to be avoiding the questions, changing the subject or justifying their approach by gesturing in another direction. While left-wing extremists certainly exist, they don’t pose the same systemic risk as those on the right.

One side tried to violently overthrow the government. The other didn’t.

On the other hand, Rep. Samantha Poetter Parshall (listed as a member of Open Up Kansas!), R-Paola, took a different approach with her pithy response.

“I’ll let my pro-freedom voting record, including voting for sports wagering, medical marijuana, and keeping our state open, speak for itself,” she wrote. 

Groups defined as being part of the “far-right” in Kansas included some that have played mainstream roles in our state’s politics. Those joining them on Facebook don’t necessarily represent the most extreme voices in the Kansas GOP.

– Clay Wirestone

This encapsulates the biggest concern I had when looking through the IREHR report. Groups defined as being part of the “far-right” in Kansas included some that have played mainstream roles in our state’s politics. Those joining them on Facebook don’t necessarily represent the most extreme voices in the Kansas GOP.

Burghart says his organization has been collecting data on these groups for several years as part of “ongoing research into far-right activity,” and the paper describes them in detail. For instance, some have roots in the Tea Party, while others are based in COVID denial or election conspiracies.

This brings us to the second flavor of legislator responses. These folks wrote longer, thoughtful email messages that seriously engaged. I wish I could quote from more of them, but even online space is limited.

Rep. Nick Hoheisel, R-Wichita, was the member of a single Facebook group listed on the report, Americans for Prosperity-Kansas. The Reflector highlighted his support of a bill increasing special education funding earlier this year. He argued in his response that the Koch-funded group was far from the far right.

While AFP’s economic policies and free market principles may not be the left’s favorite avenue to prosperity for all, there are many other areas where AFP works across party lines on mainstream issues, including criminal justice reform,” Hoheisel wrote. “AFP pushed … successfully to ban the box in Kansas, fights civil asset forfeiture, testified in favor of suspended driver license reform, and introduced the First Step Act on the federal level. AFP-Kansas’ biggest priority in the 2021 session was HB 2066, which reformed Kansas’ licensure laws. This legislation passed both chambers with an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority and was signed into law by our Democratic governor.”

Hoheisel wrote further that “we do a great disservice to our state if we fail to engage and work together on areas where we agree,” just because we may disagree on some others.

Voters deserve that from their leaders, during election season and beyond. Everyone does.

 

State Sen. Mike Thompson, seen at the Statehouse on Jan. 26, is chairman of the Utilities Committee and has introduced bills hostile to wind power. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The loudest voices in the room

A quick trawl through Kansas Reflector’s coverage of the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions reveals certain notorious names, over and over.

As mentioned at the very beginning of this story, Steffen blazed a trail with his anti-vaccine advocacy. After the revelation of a Kansas Board of Healing Arts inquiry into his prescription of off-label drugs for COVID-19, he pushed a bill that would shield himself from liability. He even sent a letter to health care providers across Kansas implying that his bill had the force of law when it in fact had only passed one chamber.

Steffen doesn’t appear in the list of legislators who joined “far-right” groups. Yet his Facebook page reveals that he followsConvention of States” and “Kansas Family Voice,” both of which back rock-ribbed conservative causes.

Thompson joined Steffen in his COVID-19 disinformation crusade, and he also tried to ban wind power throughout the state this session. He offered three bills that, taken as a whole, would have essentially ended the industry in Kansas — an industry that climate activists see as essential to ending our dependence on fossil fuels.

He’s also not listed in the “Breaching the Mainstream” report. His Facebook page shows that he follows “Kansans for Constitutional Integrity,” “Kansas Family Voice” and “Watch Kansas.”

Finally, Helmer gained plentiful negative reporting toward the end of 2022’s session for her email to a University of Kansas graduate student in which she said she didn’t like using the restroom with one of her colleagues, a “huge transgender female,” while repeating debunked claims about trans people sexually assaulting children. She had sponsored House Bill 2210, which criminalized gender reassignment surgery and hormone replacement for minors.

She followed that coverage by insisting on her Facebook page that reporters should cover “all the plane loads of Mexico Illegal Immigrants that have arrived in the last few days.” None of that landed her on the national report.

On the other hand, Helmer’s Facebook page presents a remarkably bipartisan picture. She follows a number of Democrats, including Gov. Laura Kelly and Lt. Gov. David Toland. She’s also keeping up with the latest doings of U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Burghart acknowledged the scale of the task tackled by his organization. Unlisted legislators can be more extreme and problematic than those listed. Some may be members of the most benign social media groups possible while spewing hate in real life. And while the report lists hundreds of “anti-human rights bills” sponsored by identified legislators, Steffen, Thompson and Helmer’s efforts aren’t among them.

“There is a tremendous search for accurate information about what’s happening at the state level,” Burghart said. “We’re hoping to secure funding to make this an ongoing project. We think it would be particularly helpful to be able to look at this type of data longitudinally over time. Given the ever-changing nature of the social media ecosystem, we are also exploring ways to do similar work on other platforms like Telegram, Gab, Parler, Truth Social, and others.”

Those sound like worthwhile ideas, ones that could produce a more nuanced and meaningful product.

 

Rep. Nick Hoheisel, R-Wichita, belonged to a single Facebook group listed on the report, Americans for Prosperity-Kansas. “There are many other areas where AFP works across party lines on mainstream issues, including criminal justice reform,” Hoheisel wrote. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The meaning of ‘far right’

What does this all add up to? A confused and confusing picture. A fair number of legislators in Kansas would no doubt be delighted to be classified as followers of “far-right” groups. Kansas voters would no doubt like to know who these extremist legislators are.

Sadly, they aren’t necessarily listed in the report.

The 789 groups highlighted by IREHR also raised questions for me. Americans for Prosperity chapters in Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Utah and Kansas City were included — but not AFP chapters from other states. I asked Burghart about that.

“We didn’t single out any groups, we were limited by available data,” he told me. “Americans for Prosperity is a great example of a national group that does not maintain a national Facebook group. Instead, there are a handful of state chapters that have state-level groups on the platform, like the ones listed in the report. All of the groups we could identify on Facebook were added to the dataset, and all of the legislators whose Facebook profile URLs indicated membership were included in the report.”

What do you think?

Do you see political extremism as a problem in the Kansas Legislature? What do you think all of us should do about it? Write [email protected] with your thoughts for a follow-up column.

A quick search on Facebook also shows AFP groups for Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin, to name just three presidential swing states. Perhaps their membership rolls were unavailable.

While you can question individual pieces of the report, the biggest roadblock is all that the term “far right” implies. It suggests extremism, which few people want to be associated with, and could alienate legislators who might be otherwise inclined to work across the aisle.

Let’s imagine a young Kansas representative. She comes from a more rural area and thus runs as a Republican. However, she wants to make friends with folks from both parties and build bridges. This is the way politics should work, she tells herself.

One day, this representative joins the AFP-Kansas group on Facebook.

A few months later, she hears from a reporter. She learns that she’s been listed as one of nearly 900 legislators who joined far-right groups. Maybe she responds to the journalist, maybe she doesn’t.

But a seed of doubt is planted that day. Do Democrats or progressives really want to work together? she wonders. Or are they more interested in painting those across the aisle as extremists? After all, she supports Medicaid expansion and rural development projects. Did that count for nothing?

Over time, that representative listens less to differing opinions. She insulates herself in a cocoon of right-wing agitprop, stuffed with watered-down white nationalism and unrestrained adulation for Trump. When the time comes to stand for or against a fascist takeover of government, she doesn’t hesitate. She’s with the authoritarians.

In some places, this might seem like a ridiculous fantasy. In Kansas, it’s a legitimate concern.

Our government won’t function without reasonable, rational Republicans. Activists and voters throughout the state should find ways to recruit and support trustworthy, solid people, while reserving scorn for those who have truly earned it.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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