News & Politics

Right-Wing Extremists Organize and Promote Violence on Facebook -- Should the Feds Bust Them Or Leave Them Alone?

From militias to white supremacists, right-wing groups are using social networking to organize and spread propaganda. Should the government do something?

With all the concern about the lack of privacy on Facebook, one would think that the online social networking site would be the last place that right-wing resistance groups would organize. But a wide range of groups, from patriot organizations to militias and even white supremacists, are using social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube to organize and even espouse illegal activities.

Take the American Resistance Movement, a network of militia groups that vows to take up arms against what it claims is an increasingly tyrannical government, should that government ever turn on its people. Its Facebook pages and those of its members are filled with conspiratorial news about the New World Order and impending martial law, information about semi-automatic weapons, announcements for meetings, links to YouTube recruitment videos, and information about boycotts and elections.

Clicking through ARM's profiles and walls offers a window into these groups. ARM member and Three Percenter Bradley Clifford, who ran the ARM online forum, suggested that I check out Facebook, MySpace and YouTube rather than ARM's own Web site to get a better picture of the group. In fact, he eventually ended up taking down its Web site all together.

The photo pages are filled with shots of masked men holding semiautomatic weapons, some with the U.S. flag tied around their lower faces. There are photos of AR-15s, Palin signs, eagles and hot chicks with guns. There are American flags, Don t Tread on Me flags and Confederate flags. Images of the Founding Fathers sit next to those of Obama depicted as a socialist in front of the Russian flag. Favored Thomas Jefferson quotes like The Tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants and "When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny" litter posts and individual About Me sections.

Looking through pages for ARM as well as other groups members link to on Facebook like Sons of Liberty, (a peaceful group whose mission states, As John Locke said, it is not only the right, but the duty of the people to overthrow an oppressive government. In the future, if need be, the new 'sons of liberty' shall and will take back control of this nation. ) Three Per Centers, Right to Revolt, Rogue Nation and White Fang Revolution, linked YouTube videos range from footage of militia trainings, infomercials about the New World Order and hip hop videos promoting an armed revolution. There are tips on how to stockpile ammo and survival gear, and calls to impeach Obama and resist the New World Order.

It seems odd to see all this on Facebook, but in some ways it makes perfect sense. Any grassroots political movement from the Tea Parties to MoveOn to Obama s election volunteers has to maximize social-networking sites to be successful. Likewise, ARM and other groups realize that the reach and efficiency these sites offer can t be duplicated. They can reach members who are isolated in rural areas (or liberal pockets like San Francisco), link to like-minded organizations and quickly disseminate information far and wide. 

It s particularly essential for groups like ARM, which use the leaderless resistance model, in which organizations operate as a network of small dispersed independent yet interlinked groups and individuals, without one easily identifiable leader who can be easily targeted. It eliminates the weak link represented by a central leadership that has historically been targeted by the government and has proved vulnerable to internal disputes and struggles within movements. It allows individuals to take initiatives on a local level while still working together and sharing strategies and ideas. Popularized in 1962 by former Klansman turned Aryan Nationalist Louis Beam, it s a structure that is used by a variety of groups, from the Earth Liberation Front to the Tea Party movement.

Social networking sites mimic the structure of these groups, making them the ideal way to communicate. The page itself becomes a sort of central command: it s a meeting place, operating manual, source of information and inspiration, outreach tool and in essence becomes a sort of cyber leader in itself. The Xerox machine made pamphleting easier and telephones aided outreach, but social networking has influenced the very essence of organizations.

Social networking sites also encourage a greater level of cross-pollination and cooperation between different factions. If you physically put these different factions in a room together, they would fight. Online they can sound off and vent instead of exchanging blows, and agree to put aside their difference. At public rallies you will find the whole spectrum invited to join together and show a strong presence in the real world. There is more willingness to work together, explains Brian Marcus from the Anti-Defamation League. There is a high crossover between various groups in the patriot and resistance movements, as well as links to Tea Party groups and more traditional campaigns for candidates like Ron Paul and Debra Medina. They are able to work together on shared issues, even though they definitely don t see eye-to-eye on everything.

Social networking sites work best for leaderless resistance models as opposed to hierarchies. The Oath Keepers, for example, which is rigidly led by its founder Stewart Rhodes, has disabled most of its Facebook page, since Rhodes couldn t stop people from posting things like calls for armed resistance that contradicted his message and mission. Online, the group took on a life of its own and became greater than the founder and the official organization itself.

Many of the posts are benign -- sharing news articles or announcements for meetings -- but some cross the line into ambiguously dangerous territory. Declarations from individuals that they will fight to the death to defend their country against a Tyrannical government are commonplace, but should that be taken literally?

Dave Moore, from Deep in the heart of Texas, posts on his MySpace page (on which he goes by the Tyranny Response Team ) I will stand and fight for ole glory until my last breath. And if I die doing this I will die with honor and dignity. Texan Mike Price IIIa member and active online recruiter of the Oath Keepers, Minutemen, Three Per Centers and the Texas Well Regulated Militia, says he doesn t advocate violence, but also posts comment like   We will fight fire with fire. If tyranny ever fires the 1st shot. ( ( Our forefathers did. ( (We fight with honor and dedication to God, country and family. And Texas is in the FIGHT. Go home Illegals and repeat criminals your days are numbered

Another member, Johnny Pernisco, posted, I will start war against to [sic] new world order till it over and our country will take america back to us as we the people. The person behind Right to Revolt posted The Founders knew we would one day lose our Republic. They also knew we would shed our blood & spill the blood of tyrants to restore it! and earlier, I'm beginning to feel an urge, more descriptively.a violent impulse! Totally unrelated I'm sure, but my trigger finger has been having muscle spasms as well! MUCH MUCH self control is being exhausted to keep myself within the confines of the law. What a pity that those we sent to DC to uphold the law, have so blatantly and frequently defecated on it!!!!!!!!!!!!  

Jered Bonneau, who used Facebook to draw people to his militia in Washington State, posted a detailed plan for a mass stand-off blockading state Capitols meant to incite police and federal officers to fire the first shotLetting other militias Amp up their guards. Sending an Alarm and muster throughout the nation. Bonneau has a network of allies in groups like the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, Sons of Liberty across the country that he communicates with almost exclusively through Facebook.

Should those kinds of statements be seen as metaphorical rhetoric or an actual threats and public safety concerns? They could be little more than the kind of late-night hyperbolic rants that often fill the Internet where people tend to run their mouths. When coupled with posts about Mafia Wars and the endless humorous campaigns and off-color humor, they don t seem serious. In fact, some ARM members disparagingly call members who post such things on Facebook Keyboard Commandos, implying that it s all bark and no bite. But when coupled, as they often are with images of masked men holding semiautomatic weapons, it can be interpreted as a potential threat. 

During the health care reform debates there were numerous tweets calling for Obama s assasination. Solomon "Solly" Forell wrote, "We'll surely get over a bullet 2 Barack Obama's head!" Jay Martin, aka Thheee_Jay posted a series of tweets including, You should be assassinated @BarackObama and If I lived in DC I d shoot him myself. Point Blank. Dead Fucking Serious. Most infamously, Daniel Knight Hayden tweeted threats start the killing now signaling his intent to wreak havoc at a Tax Day protest (some of which is still up on Twitter. Under the name CitizenQuasar, he tweeted:

7:59 p.m. "The WAR wWIL start on the stepes of the Oklahoma State Capitol. I will cast the first stone. In the meantime, I await the police."

8:01 p.m. "START THE KILLING NOW! I am wiling to be the FIRST DEATH! I Await the police. They will kill me in my home."

8:06 p.m. "After I am killed on the Capitol Steps like REAL man, the rest of you will REMEMBER ME!!!"

8:17 p.m. "I really don' give a shit anymore. Send the cops around. I will cut their heads off the heads and throw the on the State Capitol steps."

Facebook has a policy against any posts that are hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incite violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violenceviolates someone else's rights or the lawor is used to bully, intimidate, or harass any user. If you violate those rules, your post can be deleted or you can get kicked off Facebook. The goal of these policies is to strike a very delicate balance between giving people the freedom to express themselves, explains spokesperson Andrew Noyes, and maintaining a safe and trusted environment.

Facebook has disabled people s sites and take down certain posts. Brian Anderson, from Garland, Texas, creator of the P.A.T.R.I.O.TPeople Against This Ridiculously Insane Obama Tyrant group (which has 215 members) was temporarily blocked from using certain features after posting "Maybe when they show up the 21 gun salute be made into a 21 gun firing squadHow about that for free speech?" on a page about the Westboro Baptist Church s protest of military funerals. 

Robert Kenehan, member of the Central Texas Militia and Three Per Center (who doesn t want his exact location revealed for security reasons.) was denied permission to post certain links and received numerous warnings about posts that in his words, don't go along with the Corporation of America's agenda. He even had his account disabled a year ago. His new page is filled with information about the New World Order, the birther movement, links to various independent non-state militias, and images including some of him holding a semiautomatic weapon in front of a Gadsden and an American flag. Where do you draw the line?

But a simple search through various groups and individual s sites makes it clear that Facebook can t keep up. For example, it was only after CNET alerted them that Facebook disabled a month-old publicly open Kill Obama page with 122 members. One of its goals read, "We are going to kill Obama. Ten of us will surround the capital, armed with sniper rifles. Mr. Hope And Change just made his last speech." There are enough pro-terrorism posts that Facebook has to regularly remove them, according to Noyes. In fact, they ve set up a separate page to report that kind of thing. When asked whether they hand that information over to the FBI or DHS, Noyes refused to comment.

It s unclear how much the federal government is using the information about these groups that is right there on the computer screen which is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it. It s a delicate balance between freedom of speech and privacy, versus the common sense to keep an eye on activity that is technically public and only one quick click away.

Right now, Facebook is a goldmine of information (that private businesses, at least, are gladly taking full advantage of). The Web site records and stores all user information through screenshots, documenting what people have viewed and entered on the site, even if it has been untagged or deleted. It seems an obvious source for the feds. But there are serious jurisdictional and constitutional limits to what they can do. For example, it is still unclear whether social networking sites legally constitute public or private information and whether it is fair game to go undercover on the sites.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security told me they don t monitor Facebook generally. There are specific instances when you can and can t monitor what someone is posting on Facebook or sending in emails, he explained, There has to be some type of criminal predicate. Likewise, Paul Bresson at the FBI, which admits to looking at such sites in certain examples, explains, There are First Amendment issues that we are aware of and must respect.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for federal agencies policies regarding their monitoring online networks, and several agencies including the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency complied. But numerous agencies said they didn t have any, which leaves the question open as to whether they just infrequently troll the sites, or if it is just the Wild West when it comes to rules on what s fair game.

The DOJ for instance trawls the sites, but hasn t come up with an answer to whether it's allowed to go undercover on the sites, taking on fake personas and friending people. The IRS searches the sites to see if you have side businesses you re not reporting, and has issued clear and strict guidelines that it can only use sites that don t require logging on. The IRS has even created a power point presentation that it shares with other governmental groups explaining how to monitor these sites. But confusion still reigns about when and how to use them in investigations.

Most social networking sites permit emergency access to information. MySpace, which stores current users information indefinitely, only requires a search warrant for any private messages, bulletins, or friends lists that are less than 181 days old. Twitter will only hand over information in response to legal process and has no guide for law enforcement procedures. According to a Department of Justice slide presentation on social networking sites obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Facebook is often cooperative with emergency requests.

It s not that the so-called extremist groups are so naive as to think there isn t a possibility of being monitored. ARM s Facebook administrator posted that he wants everyone to stay vigilant and careful about what you discuss to strangers, we are all living under the patriot act now and must act accordingly. remember it does the movement no good if you are sitting in a federal prison.

Facebook probably is monitored just as much as everything else -- probably more so, says Clifford. That however, should not stop anyone from exercising their rights. If we just hide and not exercise those rights we may wake up with none.

Part of the point of posting calls for revolution on Facebook is because it is a public forum and anyone -- including the federal government -- can see it. There is ongoing debate within ARM about whether or not to use social networking sites. On their group s regular website, the moderator warned members to delete all social networking profiles and links to YouTube videos. This is for security reasons, we just would like to guard and keep our member safe from trolls, loyalist, reporters and everything else, remain anonymous and enjoy. But another member replied, Does it really matter if they know who we are? I know I want them to know that we are out here and are not scared of them!!!!

While most of the content posted on these sites could be unsubstantiated threats and rhetoric -- calling for a revolution is very different from actually taking up arms -- there is power in words. As Bill Bychowski, who posts about everything from getting Tea Partiers into Congress to the eugenics he thinks drives health care reform to stockpiling weapons, points out that Facebook messages also reach those running for office. Mostly politicians are copying the [Facebookers ] phrases, using the terms "revolution", "don't retreat, reload", "born again Americans", Global WAR-ming, says Bychoski. They are paying attention.

When our politicians' response to these calls for an uprising is to co-opt them to win elections, instead of investigate potentially violent crimes, it s time we all pay attention.