Social media companies are often not seeing or applying a double standard to “shockingly bad” content proliferating online — in much the same way that ISIS has used the platforms — to promote and recruit for domestic extremist movements, lawmakers heard at a Thursday hearing on accelerationism and militia extremism.
“The lives of our law enforcement officials are on the line in so many of these instances. The lives of innocent citizens who are congregating in protest are on the line, and I do believe in so many ways the future of this country and the sanctity of the Constitution is on the line,” House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism Chairman Max Rose (D-N.Y.) said.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at the program on extremism at the George Washington University and an expert on anti-government movements and militias including Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, said that the militant segment that aims to use force to bring about change “goes through cycles, and in the months following the 2016, the election, alt-right and white supremacy groups experienced a meteoric rise, and militant extremists either joined these movements or went relatively quiet.”
“In general, they approve of the current administration, and so their anti-government rage abated for a time,” she said. But “renewed conversations about gun control laws, stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, the mainstreaming of deep state and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, high unemployment rates, civil unrest in major U.S. cities, and the extreme divisiveness plaguing the upcoming election have triggered a recent rebirth in the militant groups.”
Private paramilitary militias have local chapters, conduct weapons training and “operate with impunity.”
“The idea of a second American revolution where armed patriots rise up and overthrow a tyrannical government has been a dream of militant extremists for decades,” MacNab said, adding that most Boogaloo members are “libertarian anarchists who hate cops” and hope to hasten the fall of the government through attacks on law enforcement.
The accused gunman in the slaying of a Federal Protective Service officer in Oakland last month is linked to the Boogaloo and was an active-duty staff sergeant stationed at Travis Air Force Base. Authorities said Steven Carrillo wrote “BOOG” and other phrases in his blood on the hood of a vehicle he later carjacked.
The driver on the night of the shooting, Robert Alvin Justus, Jr., reportedly told agents that he met Carrillo on Facebook and that Carrillo “expressed an interest multiple times in shooting a helicopter, police officers, and civilians” in the course of their trip to Oakland.
The Boogaloo movement “isn’t really a movement — it’s a dress code, it’s a way of talking, it’s jargon,” MacNab explained. “The people who belong to it came from other extremist groups, usually on Facebook. They might have been militia; they might have been white supremacy, but they picked it up somewhere and donned that Hawaiian shirt and yet they are treated as a separate movement. And the problem is you are ignoring the underlying areas that they came from.”
MacNab said anti-government extremists could be triggered to commit violent acts with the passage of gun-control legislation or COVID-19 lockdowns, as the pandemic “is placing significant stress on extremist groups.”
“I’m concerned that individuals and small groups will lash out violently against government, law enforcement, medical professionals, essential workers, contact tracers, and medical infrastructure,” she said. “Some militants driven by conspiracy theories have already turned to armed resistance at reopen rallies and have taken up guns to protect business owners who want to violate stay-at-home orders.”
Violence could also be sparked “if the president loses his re-election bid” in November, MacNab continued. “The risk that worries me most right now, though — I am concerned that there will be a shootout at one or more of the Black Lives Matter protests. There are too many guns at these events held by too many groups with conflicting goals,” she said. “…And there are militant groups and individuals willing to shoot at or bomb random police and protesters just to get that street war started so they can use the resulting chaos to accelerate their own plans for revolution. These groups know they need a catalyst, a big event. They need a Ruby Ridge or Waco so they can be the next McVeigh. Most are waiting for the big event, but there are some who will do what they have to to force its occurrence.”
Heidi Beirich, co-founder and executive vice president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told lawmakers that “a global and increasingly violent extremist movement composed of an incendiary mix of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and new groups like the Boogaloo Bois” are all “interested in bringing about the collapse of democracies through terrorist violence — this is what accelerationism is.” The threat, she said, is underscored by the mass shootings by such extremists in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Christchurch, New Zealand.
“The accelerators, these extremists, are sharing their hateful ideologies, recruiting, and growing and connected internationally in a way that was never before possible,” she said. “This growth can be laid primarily at the feet of the tech companies that refuse to adequately address the hate and extremist content that thrives on their platforms.”
These movements are currently taking advantage of COVID-19 and the racial justice protests to spread hateful memes and attack protesters and police, and “it is likely that the violence will intensify as we approach the November presidential elections,” Beirich warned.
“Nothing is going to stop this movement’s growth and violent activity if we don’t accept that the online platforms are driving extremism. Much as Hitler used what was then the new technology of the radio to unleash his genocidal views into German families’ homes, extremists today do the same with the web,” she said. “Starting in 2015, the number of perpetrators of terrorist incidents who were exposed to violent extremist ideology almost entirely online rather than in the real world began to rise substantially. That was all forms of extremism: right, left, Islamic.”
“Online platforms are where recruitment occurs, money is raised, plans are hatched, and the strategy is sophisticated drawing in recruits through slick videos, event planning, inside jokes, and so on.”
Beirich said that while Islamic extremists are usually deplatformed by social media companies, white supremacist propaganda has been growing unchecked. And while tech companies began to take more notice after the murder of a protester by a white nationalist in Charlottesville in 2017, Beirich’s organization has discovered dozens of YouTube videos posted by the International White Nationalist Network that inspired Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant, “and they were monetized earning ad revenue both from businesses and, unbelievably, political campaign ads.”
“Even after notifying YouTube, most of this is still up. If we are to stop the spread of accelerationism and violence, the social and online platforms must design adequate policies, and they must enforce them” — with white supremacist and Islamic extremism treated the same, she stressed.
Beirich also warned that there are “way too many actively serving troops and veterans in these movements.”
Jack Donohue, a fellow at the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resiliency at Rutgers University and former Chief of Strategic Initiatives at the New York City Police Department, warned that “cyber social militia extremism and the power of online movements” can influence violent action.
“In the earliest stages of the ISIS caliphate, social media was used effectively to motivate some youth impressionable isolated disaffected to take up arms in support of ISIS… the same cycle is happening domestically with militia accelerationist movements on the far right and the far left,” he said.
“…What law enforcement needs and what is out there comes from open source with one big exception: when people use encrypted communications, police have zero visibility into those channels, and that is where tactics and opportunities for confrontations are shared.”
Donohue noted that “despite social media efforts to minimize the availability of extremist messages they persist, and to be certain social media companies are not in a position to identify those who mobilize the violence,” and a challenge for law enforcement is that “the timeframe may be remarkably short” between identifying extremists and violent action.
“The outcomes of militia and revolutionary extremists’ online movements are not predictable,” he said.
Asked to name the greatest threat from these movements, Donohue cited the power of online messaging, with messages “so virulent that they make sense to certain people, and that is where we need to have the ability to have visibility into those networks and the people who are motivated to violence.”
Beirich said recent mass-casualty attacks have demonstrated the threat of white supremacists “who have come to believe that they need to use terrorism, violence to bring down systems of government, multicultural democracies basically to stop a white genocide.”
“That has motivated most of the big mass casualty attacks and that motivation is not going to go away because demographics are shifting in much of the Western world, and that is what they view as a threat,” she added. “And if we don’t intercept how this propaganda is spread on mainstream platforms where it allows for recruiting, I am just afraid that the next Christchurch could be around the corner anywhere here or abroad.”
MacNab said militia groups are “actively recruiting younger male members” on social media, but then move onto private messaging platforms like Discord or Signal.
“Trying to police this, I think, would be impossible,” she said. “If you got rid of you know the bigger groups, the bigger propaganda things on Facebook, you would put a dent in it. I don’t think there is a large risk of these groups ever coming together and forming a private army, but I am very concerned of small cell terrorism.”
In Las Vegas, she noted, one of the Boogaloo plots was to take down the power grid during a protest “so that they could then fire on protesters, bomb protesters, and the chaos would be horrible because it would be pitch dark.”
“Mass casualty is an issue. I don’t think it’s going to be large-scale,” MacNab continued. “I don’t think it will be coordinated too much in different cities, but I think the possibility for someone to have learned, for example, from the Las Vegas shooter — getting up high and shooting down into a crowd — is a very big concern.”