Thursday, June 20, 2024

FBI responds to spate of bomb threats against Planet Fitness after right-wing transphobic campaign

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For a month, bomb threats have been reported at various Planet Fitness locations across the United States following a concerted social media campaign against the gym chain led by Chaya Raichik and her anti-LGBTQ+ Libs of TikTok social media account.

The right-wing extremists’s social posts have stoked outrage over the gym chain’s inclusive policy toward transgender people. The threats have prompted evacuations and investigations by local law enforcement agencies, raising concerns about safety and the impact of online rhetoric on real-world violence.

According to police reports, the threats were primarily communicated through emails and, in some cases, phone calls, targeting Planet Fitness branches in states ranging from Alaska to Connecticut, Virginia, and elsewhere. The incidents have forced temporary closures and evacuations, though, to date, no actual explosive devices have been discovered at the targeted locations.

Media Matters for America reports that at least 38 Planet Fitness locations have faced such threats. The watchdog group has tracked the campaign’s evolution, noting that right-wing media outlets quickly amplified the initial post about Planet Fitness’s policy, contributing to a significant increase in hostile actions against the gym chain.

In Alaska, Fairbanks NBC affiliate KTVF reports that a bomb threat was determined to be a hoax after a Fairbanks location was targeted.

Similarly,in Rhode Island, Providence ABC affiliate WLNE reports simultaneous threats received by multiple Planet Fitness locations in the area on Tuesday, marking the fourth time in a month that locations in the state were targeted. These threats, also communicated through email, falsely claimed that bombs were placed inside the facilities, causing panic and leading to evacuations and police searches that confirmed the threats to be unfounded.

Washington, D.C.’s ABC affiliate WUSA reports several bomb threats at Planet Fitness locations in Maryland, while in Virginia, Patchreports a particularly distressing incident where a Planet Fitness location in Manassas received a threatening phone call alleging a bomb was hidden within the gym and set to detonate, prompting a full-scale response from authorities, who later determined the threat was a hoax.

The campaign against Planet Fitness began in March when Libs of TikTok highlighted the company’s policy allowing members to use locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. After a cisgender woman’s membership was canceled for taking a photo of a transgender woman in the locker room, right-wing radicals became outraged and began targeting the gym chain. The account’s posts, which mischaracterized the policy as a threat to women’s safety, rapidly gained traction, leading to a broader backlash that included calls for boycotts and, eventually, bomb threats.

Law enforcement agencies across the affected states are actively investigating the threats and seeking to identify those responsible.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesperson told The Advocate that the agency was monitoring the situation.

“We are aware of the recent bomb threats made in cities around the country, and we remain in touch with our law enforcement partners to provide assistance,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “As always, we encourage the public to remain vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activities that could represent a threat to public safety.”

According to security experts, this pattern of threats against businesses and organizations supportive of LGBTQ+ rights underscores the potential for online hate speech and misinformation to escalate into real-world violence and intimidation. Security professionals have described Raichik’s actions through her Libs of TikTok account as examples of stochastic terrorism, a phenomenon in which violent acts are incited through the dissemination of public messages designed to inflame sentiments and provoke such acts. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently added Raichik to its Extremist Files.

Planet Fitness has reiterated its commitment to fostering a welcoming and secure environment for all members, emphasizing that the safety and privacy of its patrons and employees remain paramount. The company has publicly condemned the threats and the spread of misinformation.

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