There is a growing trend toward censoring and de-platforming extremists in America. Neither approach will secure our nation from hate-motivated violence.
In the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist attack on a New Zealand mosque last March, Facebook announced a ban on white nationalist content. Earlier this year, YouTube updated its hate speech policy and removed white supremacist videos from its website. Some advocacy groups are also campaigning to deny hate groups access to financial services.
Though well-intentioned, these strategies may drive extremists deeper underground into the recesses of the internet and cryptocurrencies, away from the watchful eyes of citizens and law enforcement agencies. In other words, instead of building a better mouse trap, advocacy groups are focused on hiding the mice from public view, essentially creating a game of whack-a-mole.
Rather than pushing unsightly hate groups under the digital rug, a better strategy for keeping them at bay and thwarting criminal activity is subjecting such groups to extra scrutiny and suspicious activity reporting within our nation’s social networking platforms as well as its financial system. The success of this strategy crucially depends on the availability of open-source information about hate groups and the lone wolf terrorists they inspire.
American financial institutions are required to detect and prevent criminal activity, including terrorist financing, through their anti-money laundering (AML) programs. This regulatory mandate was vastly expanded after the 9/11 terror attacks and the passage of the Patriot Act.
Among other things, financial institutions are required to conduct a detailed risk assessment of their customers and monitor transaction activity with varying levels of scrutiny depending on the risks identified and patterns observed.
For example, nonprofit organizations are considered high-risk customers because of their susceptibility to money laundering and terrorist financing. Many nonviolent extremist groups, including prominent white and black supremacist organizations, are registered as 501(c)(3) organizations. Thus, it is very likely that the financial lives of such groups and their leaders are already being subjected to enhanced due diligence (or, as President Trump might say, “extreme vetting”) on a regular basis by banks, credit card companies, and payment processors.
Regardless of a customer’s risk rating, any suspicious activity detected in a customer’s account by a financial institution is required to be reported to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a branch of the Treasury Department.
The evidentiary standard for filing a suspicious activity report is significantly lower than the proofs required to support a criminal indictment or conviction. Filing such a report does not mean that criminal activity has occurred, but it ensures that the subject of the report will end up in a government database, which is monitored by law enforcement agencies.
One simple but effective tool that AML and counterterrorism professionals use to conduct enhanced due diligence and detect suspicious activity is open-source internet research. For example, if a customer engages in out-of-pattern transactions, financial investigators can try to rule out suspicious activity by checking the customer’s social media accounts and searching the internet for adverse information about the customer. If this due diligence uncovers YouTube videos or Facebook or Twitter posts suggesting that the customer is involved in, contemplating, or advocating criminal activity, this could lead to the filing of a suspicious activity report.
On the other hand, if bigots are taken offline merely because their speech is offensive, this may make it harder for financial institutions to investigate these individuals, understand their financial lives, and report red flags to law enforcement agencies.
It is said that sunshine is the best disinfectant. At a time when advocacy groups and technology companies are adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” strategy for combating hate groups, policymakers and law enforcement officials should embrace a “follow the money” approach. The success of this approach requires that hate groups be fully exposed to public scrutiny. In this context, censorship and de-platforming are counterproductive.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.