The man charged with threatening to kill Gov. Tim Walz frequently shared Facebook posts from Right Now, a local conservative outfit funded by prominent, rich Minnesota men.
On August 2, Shawn Simonson, a 51-year old man from Blaine, called Walz’s public line and left a threatening voicemail. In the profanity-laced message, he threatened to put the governor’s “dead body in that building and then we’re gonna burn it down,” according to charging documents.
Simonson alluded to a number of conspiracy theories and storylines popular on the right in his voicemail and subsequent conversations with state troopers investigating the incident, according to the charges.
Simonson routinely reposts content from a dozen or so right-wing Facebook propaganda channels, but one of the most frequent to appear in his timeline is Right Now MN.
On May 9, for instance, Simonson shared a Right Now post that compared Walz to a mad dog and criticized him for recommending that Minnesotans wear masks, a recommendation shared by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Right Now MN is a conservative political committee funded by some of the wealthiest men in Minnesota, and it has an affiliated federal super PAC — Right Now USA. As the Reformer recently reported, Right Now — whose donors include Louis Hill, Mark Davis and Stanley Hubbard — promotes false and misleading information.
Through a shell company called 1854, Right Now pays a downtown Minneapolis ad firm called Brick to produce online content of the kind favored by Simonson.
Neither Brick nor Right Now responded to requests for comment.
Brick routinely lists social media advertising as one of their core competencies. In 2019, the Brick company Facebook page posted, “43% of U.S. Adults get news from Facebook. Ask us how we target 100% of Americans.”
When reached by phone, Simonson declined to comment on the voicemail but told the Reformer that he gets his news from Facebook and cable TV. “I used to watch CNN,” he said, “but now I just watch Fox. Not the local Fox 9, I mean, but Fox News.”
As recounted in the charging document, Simonson was particularly enraged that Walz endorsed U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s reelection campaign.
Right wing media frequently portrays Omar as an anti-American radical, and hypothesize that she has infiltrated the U.S. government to destroy the country. On July 13, Right Now posted, and Simonson reposted, this half-joking example of the conspiracy theory:
In the voicemail to Walz, Simonson also complained about “that six million dollar building you bought, that refrigerated building that you bought that is standing empty.” This is a reference to a warehouse the state bought in May to act as an overflow morgue. COVID-19 deaths in the state dropped off shortly after the purchase, and the need for the facility has not materialized. In a recent WCCO segment, the director of Minnesota homeland security called the purchase a wise decision based on what was known at the time.
Simonson does not agree. He told the Reformer he considered it “government waste” and “fraud.” Right Now posted about the building on May 20, and again on June 8. The latter post was captioned “Hopefully the state has the ability to sell this and minimize our loss. Do you like your tax dollars being controlled by ‘TAXING TIMMY WALZ?’”
Walz is a frequent target of right wing media, including Right Now.
After the August 2 voicemail, state troopers spoke to Simonson about the incident. According to the charging documents, Simonson told them he is “frustrated about the virus and the riots,” referring to unrest in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
One post seems to sum up Simonson’s frustrations. Originally posted by Right Now on July 12, Simonson reposted it the same day (errors in the original):
“Notice how quickly the ‘Stay home and save lives’ crowd, went to ‘You must support the Protests’ and then back to ‘Stay home and save lives’ and now ‘Wear a mask or kill someone’. Basically whatever the Media tells them to do. This has been the greatest experiment in Civil Obedience in History.”
The caption is accompanied by a frame from They Live. In the 1988 movie, a down-on-his-luck working class man is given a pair of glasses that allow him to see the reality behind everyday life. He discovers that earth has been conquered by aliens who use mass media to manipulate people into accepting the status quo. The man takes up arms to violently oppose the despots.
Several Right Now posts shared by Simonson celebrate political violence. One tells protesters not to “whine when you become nothing more than a fleshy speed bump,” paired with a photo of two vehicles apparently ramming into a crowd of protesters, two of them flying through the air.
The troopers also reported that Simonson was frustrated that he “is not allowed to voice his opinion on Facebook because he is banned when he voices his opinion.”
Looking through Simonson’s timeline shows a one-month gap of posting between July 20 and August 20, which puts the call to the governor about two weeks into the ban.
Simonson told the Reformer he was banned for sharing a post about masks that the platform determined to be false. It’s not clear which post he was referring to, but about a week before the ban, Simonson shared two posts about masks from Right Now that are labeled as “partially false” and “false,” respectively.
While Right Now’s content was on Simonson’s media diet, it is only one part of a larger right-wing media ecosystem in which millions of American’s live. As the New York Times reported Monday, “Facebook posts by Breitbart, the far-right news outlet, have been shared four million times in the past 30 days, roughly three times as many as posts from the official pages of every Democratic member of the U.S. Senate combined.”