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White Supremacist Groups Are Thriving on Facebook

White Supremacist Groups Are Thriving on Facebook

Facebook says hate groups aren’t allowed on the platform. But white supremacists are using the social network to build their movement.

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Click here to download data on the hate group websites »

Dozens of white supremacist groups are operating freely on Facebook, allowing them to spread their message and recruit new members, according to a Tech Transparency Project (TTP) investigation, which found the activity is continuing despite years of promises by the social network that it bans hate organizations.

TTP recently documented how online extremists, including many with white supremacist views, are using Facebook to plan for a militant uprising dubbed the “boogaloo,” as they stoke fears that coronavirus lockdowns are a sign of rising government repression. But TTP’s latest investigation reveals Facebook’s broader problems with white supremacist groups, which are using the social network’s unmatched reach to build their movement.

The findings, more than two years after Facebook hosted an event page for the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, cast doubt on the company’s claims that it’s effectively monitoring and dealing with hate groups. What’s more, Facebook’s algorithms create an echo chamber that reinforces the views of white supremacists and helps them connect with each other.

With millions of people now quarantining at home and vulnerable to ideologies that seek to exploit people’s fears and resentments about Covid-19, Facebook’s failure to remove white supremacist groups could give these organizations fertile new ground to attract followers.

Facebook’s Community Standards prohibit hate speech based on race, ethnicity, and other factors because it “creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.” The company also bans hate organizations. Since the Charlottesville violence, Facebook has announced the removal of specific hate groups and tightened restrictions on white extremist content on the platform.

“We do not allow hate groups on Facebook, overall,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress in April 2018. “So, if — if there’s a group that — their primary purpose or — or a large part of what they do is spreading hate, we will ban them from the platform, overall.”

To test those claims, TTP conducted searches on Facebook for the names of 221 white supremacist organizations that have been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), two leading anti-hate organizations.

The analysis found:

  • Of the 221 designated white supremacist organizations, more than half—51%, or 113 groups—had a presence on Facebook.
  • Those organizations are associated with a total of 153 Facebook Pages and four Facebook Groups. Roughly one third of the organizations (34) had two or more Pages or Groups on Facebook. Some had Pages that have been active on the platform for a decade.
  • Many of the white supremacist Pages identified by TTP were created by Facebook itself. Facebook auto-generated them as business pages when someone listed a white supremacist or neo-Nazi organization as their employer.
  • Facebook’s “Related Pages” feature often directed users visiting white supremacist Pages to other extremist or far-right content, raising concerns that the platform is contributing to radicalization.
  • One of Facebook’s strategies for combatting extremism—redirecting users who search for terms associated with white supremacy or hate groups to the Page for “Life After Hate,” an organization that promotes tolerance—only worked in 6% (14) of the 221 searches for white supremacist organizations.
  • In addition to the hate groups designated by SPLC and ADL, TTP found white supremacist organizations that Facebook had explicitly banned in the past. One known as “Right Wing Death Squad” had at least three Pages on Facebook, all created prior to Facebook’s ban.

TTP created a visualization to illustrate how Facebook’s Related Pages connect white supremacist groups with each other and with other hateful content. To view this interactive feature, click here.

Facebook is Creating Pages for Hate Groups

TTP examined the Facebook presence of 221 hate groups affiliated with white supremacy. The groups were identified via the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Hate Symbols Database and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) 2019 Hate Map, an annual census of hate groups operating in the U.S.

TTP used ADL’s glossary of white supremacist terms and movements to identify relevant groups in the Hate Symbols Database. With the SPLC Hate Map, TTP used the 2019 map categories of Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, neo-völkisch, racist skinhead, and white nationalist to identify relevant groups. Of the 221 groups identified by TTP, 21 were listed in both the ADL and SPLC databases.

TTP found that 51% (113) of the organizations examined had a presence on Facebook in the form of Pages or Groups. Of the 113 hate groups with a presence, 34 had two or more associated Pages on Facebook, resulting in a total of 153 individual Pages and four individual Groups.

Roughly 36% (52 Facebook Pages and four Facebook Groups) of the content identified was created by users. One user-generated Page for a group designated as white nationalist by SPLC had more than 42,000 “likes” on Facebook and has been active since 2010.

The remaining 64% of the white supremacy content identified by TTP involved Pages that had been auto-generated by Facebook. These Pages are automatically created by Facebook when a user lists a job in their profile that does not have an existing Page. When a user lists their work position as “Universal Aryan Brotherhood Movement,” for instance, Facebook generates a business page for that group.

Facebook removed at least 55 of the white supremacist Pages identified by TTP after the publication of this report. Of those, 49 were auto-generated by Facebook.

The auto-generation problem has existed for some time. In April 2019, an anonymous whistleblower filed a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) petition regarding extremism on the platform and Facebook’s practice of auto-generating business pages for terrorist and white supremacist groups. Some of these Facebook-generated Pages gained thousands of “likes,” giving a way for the groups to identify potential recruits, according to the whistleblower.

One of the auto-generated hate group Pages with the most “likes” in TTP’s analysis was for the Council of Conservative Citizens, an SPLC-designated white nationalist group. The group made headlines in 2015 after an online manifesto linked to white supremacist Dylann Roof referenced the organization; Roof opened fire at a historically black church in South Carolina, killing nine people. Facebook’s auto-generated Page for the Council of Conservative Citizens included a description of the group’s white supremacist affiliations, complete with a direct link to their website.

Facebook’s role creating Pages for organizations like these undermines claims by the company that it bars hate groups.

“Our rules have always been clear that white supremacists are not allowed on our platform under any circumstances.”
— Neil Potts, Facebook public policy director

Related Pages: Facebook’s Extremist Echo Chamber

The TTP review highlights flaws in Facebook’s content moderation system, which relies heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) and Facebook users to report problematic content to human moderators for review.

Relying on users to identify objectionable material doesn’t work well when the platform is designed to connect users with shared ideologies, experts have noted, since white supremacists are unlikely to object to racist content they see on Facebook. “A lot of Facebook’s moderation revolves around users flagging content. When you have this kind of vetting process, you don’t run the risk of getting thrown off Facebook,” according to SPLC research analyst Keegan Hankes.

Artificial intelligence, which Facebook has touted for years as the solution to identifying and removing bad content, also has limitations when it comes to hate speech. AI can miss deliberate misspellings; manipulation of words to include numbers, symbols, and emojis; and missing spaces in sentences. Neo-Nazis, for example, have managed to avoid detection through simple measures like replacing “S” with “$.”

At the same time, Facebook’s algorithms can create an echo chamber of white supremacism through its “Related Pages” feature, which suggests similar Pages to keep users engaged on a certain topic. TTP’s investigation found that among the 113 hate groups that had a Facebook presence, 77 of them had Pages that displayed Related Pages, often pointing people to other extremist or right-wing content. In some cases, the Related Pages directed users to additional SPLC- or ADL-designated hate groups.

For example, TTP found that the user-generated Page for Nazi Low Riders, an ADL-listed hate group, showed Related Pages for other groups associated with white supremacy. The top recommendation was another user-generated Page called “Aryanbrotherhood.” (By omitting the space between the two words, the Page may have been trying to evade Facebook’s AI systems, as discussed above.) The Aryan Brotherhood is “the oldest and most notorious racist prison gang in the United States,” according to ADL.

The Aryanbrotherhood Facebook Page in turn displayed Related Pages for more white supremacist ideologies, some of them making reference to “peckerwoods,” a term associated with racist prison and street gangs.

The Related Pages listed on the user-generated Page of American Freedom Union, an SPLC-designated white nationalist group, included a link to a Page for the book “White Identity: Racial Consciousness in the 21st Century.” The book was authored by Jared Taylor, who runs the website for American Renaissance, another SPLC-designated white nationalist group.

Facebook’s algorithms even pick up on links between organizations that may not be obvious to others. For example, the auto-generated Page for Sacto Skins, a short form of the SPLC-designated racist hate group Sacto Skinheads, included a Related Page recommendation for Embassy of Russia in the United States. A recent investigation by The New York Times found that Russian intelligence services are using Facebook and other social media to try to incite white supremacists ahead of the 2020 election.

This web of white supremacist Pages surfaced by Facebook’s algorithms is not new. The non-profit Counter Extremism Project, in a 2018 report about far-right groups on Facebook, identified multiple white supremacist and far-right Pages by following the Related Pages feature.

Banned Groups Persist

Facebook’s Community Standards have included rules against hate speech for years, but in the past three years the company has expanded its efforts.

One significant change came quietly in 2017, following mounting reports about white supremacist activity on Facebook. The company didn’t publicly announce a policy change, but the Internet Archive shows that in mid-July, it added “organized hate groups” to the “Dangerous Organizations” section of its Community Standards. (The change can be seen from here to here.) The company did not, however, specify how it would define such hate groups.

Unite the Right rally participants preparing to enter Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017. Photo by Anthony Crider.

Despite the policy update, Facebook didn’t immediately take down an event page for the “Unite the Right” rally, which SPLC had tied to neo-Nazis. According to one media report, Facebook only pulled the listing the day before the rally, in which one woman was killed and more than a dozen others injured when a white supremacist drove into a crowd of counter-protestors in Charlottesville.

Amid the ensuing public outcry, Facebook announced removals of a number of hate groups including White Nationalists United and Right Wing Death Squad.

Facebook scrambled again in early 2019 following the Christchurch attack, in which a gunman used Facebook to stream the massacre of 51 people at a pair of mosques in New Zealand. As the killings made headlines around the world, the company said it would ban “white nationalist” content along with the previously banned category of white supremacism. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg also said a handful of hate groups in Australia and New Zealand would be banned

Two months after the New Zealand attack, however, BuzzFeed News found that extremist groups Facebook claimed to have banned were still on the platform. Later that year, The Guardian identified multiple white nationalist Pages on Facebook but said the company “declined to take action against any of the pages identified.” Online extremism expert Megan Squire told BuzzFeed, “Facebook likes to make a PR move and say that they’re doing something but they don’t always follow up on that.”

Research suggests there continues to be a gap between Facebook’s public relations responses and the company’s enforcement of its own policies. A recent report by TTP found that videos of the Christchurch attack continued to circulate on the platform a year later, despite Facebook’s vow to remove them. 

Since 2017, Facebook announced removals of at least 14 white supremacist and white nationalist groups in the U.S. and Canada, according to media reports tallied by TTP. (Only one of these groups, Vanguard America, is included in the TTP’s review of 221 white supremacist groups named by the SPLC and ADL.) Of the 14 groups, four continue to have an active presence on Facebook: Awakening Red Pill, Wolves of Odin, Right Wing Death Squad, and Physical Removal.

TTP identified three user-generated Pages for Right Wing Death Squad that are currently active on Facebook. All three Pages identified by TTP were created before the Unite the Right rally and were never removed by Facebook.

The Right Wing Death Squad Pages include extremist language as well as references to the “boogaloo,” the term used by extremists to reference a coming civil war. Some of the Right Wing Death Squad Pages brand themselves as anti-globalist, a term often considered a dog whistle for anti-Semitism.

In March 2020, Facebook announced the removal of a network of white supremacists linked to the Northwest Front, an SPLC-designated hate group that has been called “the worst racists” in America. Facebook’s director of counterterrorism Brian Fishman said the action came after the group, which had been banned for years, tried to “reestablish a presence” on the platform. TTP, however, found that the auto-generated Page for Northwest Front was not removed and that searches for the group’s name on Facebook still fail to trigger the company’s re-direct effort to Life After Hate.

Facebook also said it removed a network of accounts linked to the VDARE, an SPLC-designated white nationalist group, and individuals associated with a similar website called The Unz Review, in April 2020. Facebook said the group had engaged in “suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior ahead of the 2020 election,” and described VDARE’s anti-immigrant focus without mentioning its link to white nationalism. According to Facebook, the network spent a total of $114,000 on advertising through the platform.

As with the action against the Northwest Front, Facebook failed to remove the auto-generated VDARE Page. Clicking on the Page’s link to the VDARE website generates a notice that states, “The link you tried to visit goes against our Community Standards.” Still, it is unclear why Facebook allows the auto-generated Page to stay up when it acknowledges the group violates its Community Standards.

Failing to Direct Away from Hate

As part of Facebook’s expanded efforts to combat white supremacy on the platform following the Christchurch attack, the company said in March 2019 that it would re-direct users who search for terms related to hate.

“Searches for terms associated with white supremacy will surface a link to Life After Hate’s Page, where people can find support in the form of education, interventions, academic research and outreach,” the company announced.

TTP found that not only did Facebook’s anti-hate link fail to surface in the majority of hate group searches, but in some cases, the platform directed users to other white supremacist Pages.

TTP conducted a search for each of the 221 hate groups associated with white supremacy and white nationalism listed by SPLC and ADL. Only 6% of the searches (14 groups) surfaced the link to Life After Hate.

One factor may be that not all of the hate groups listed by SPLC and ADL make their ideologies obvious in their names. But even organizations that have “Nazi” or “Ku Klux Klan” in their names escaped the redirect effort. Of 25 groups with “Ku Klux Klan” in their official name, only one triggered the link to anti-hate resources.

The redirect tool even failed to work on groups that Facebook has explicitly banned. TTP used Facebook’s search function to search the names of the 14 white supremacist groups in North America that Facebook said it had banned. The Proud Boys were the only one of the groups to trigger the platform’s Life After Hate link.

Facebook began removing accounts and pages linked to the far-right Proud Boys in October 2018 after members of the group clashed with anti-fascist protestors. Searches for the group today generate Facebook’s Life After Hate link, and TTP did not find any official Proud Boys Pages on the platform.

But the Facebook search for Proud Boys did bring up a Page for “Proud to be a White American,” which describes itself as being for “The promotion of white initiatives and white causes.” (Notably, the “Proud to be a White American” Page is listed above a Page called “Proud Boys” that does not appear to be affiliated with the far-right group.)

Note: Updated to reflect that Facebook took down some of the Pages identified by TTP following publication of this report.

Extremists Are Using Facebook to Organize for Civil War Amid Coronavirus And Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandburg and Facebook actually creates White Supremacist Business Pages from this

Extremists Are Using Facebook to Organize for Civil War Amid Coronavirus

The groups are fanning fears of government lockdowns as they prepare for an uprising they call the “boogaloo.”

Online extremists are using Facebook to plan and organize for a militant uprising in the United States as they cast coronavirus lockdowns as a sign of rising government suppression, according to a Tech Transparency Project investigation.

A review by TTP found 125 Facebook groups devoted to the “boogaloo,” the term that far-right extremists use to describe a coming civil war. More than 60% of the groups were created in the last three months, as Covid-19 quarantines took hold in the U.S., and they’ve attracted tens of thousands of members in the last 30 days.

In several private boogaloo Facebook groups that TTP was able to access, members discussed tactical strategies, combat medicine, and various types of weapons, including how to develop explosives and the merits of using flame throwers. Some members appeared to take inspiration from President Donald Trump’s recent tweets calling on people to “liberate” states where governors have imposed stay-at-home orders.

The fact that Facebook is letting such activity proliferate, despite explicit threats of violence to government authorities, is another sign of the company’s inability to manage harmful content on its platform—even among groups that make no secret of their intentions.

Some boogaloo supporters see the public health lockdowns and other directives by states and cities across the country as a violation of their rights, and they’re aiming to harness public frustration at such measures to rally and attract new followers to their cause.

The concept of the boogaloo has been gaining in popularity recently, and it’s become a meme among a range of far-right extremist groups. On public Facebook pages, supporters of the movement circulate satirical posts about the overthrow of government, painting the boogaloo as a viral online phenomenon rather than a real-world threat.

But communications of boogaloo supporters in private Facebook groups accessed by TTP tell a different story: extremists exchanging detailed information and tactics on how to organize and execute a revolt against American authorities. This activity is occurring without any apparent intervention by Facebook.

Of the 125 boogaloo-focused Facebook groups identified by TTP, 63% (79) were created between February and April of this year. The groups count 72,686 members, though it wasn’t clear how many individuals may be members of more than one group. Nearly half of the members (36,117) have joined the groups within the past 30 days.

TTP identified the boogaloo groups based on their names, which often incorporated slang and other terms used by supporters to reference the coming civil war, such as “boog,” “big igloo,” and “boojihadeen.” The majority of the groups—112, or roughly 89%—are private, which means Facebook users must request to join and be approved by moderators in order to view the discussions.

TTP was able to gain access to several of these closed groups. But even when TTP didn’t gain entry into private groups, it was able to glean basic information about them. Facebook allows non-members to see data like the groups’ date of creation, number of members, growth rate of membership within a 30-day period, and number of posts during that period.

A Troubling Trend

Both the public and private boogaloo groups that TTP reviewed appear to violate Facebook policies. The platform’s Community Standards on “Violence and Criminal Behavior” explicitly ban facilitating, organizing or promoting “harmful activities targeted at people.” They also prohibit “statements of intent to commit high-severity violence.” Yet membership in the groups appears to have grown unchecked on Facebook in recent months.

Facebook has been on notice about the issue since at least February, when the Network Contagion Research Institute, an organization that tracks misinformation and hate on social media, published a report about how the use of the boogaloo to advocate for extreme violence has spread across social media over the past few months. In response to NBC inquiries about the report, a Facebook spokesperson said the company is tracking such activity.

“We’ve been studying trends around this and related terms on Facebook and Instagram. We don’t allow speech used to incite hate or violence, and will remove any content that violates our policies. We’ll continue to monitor this across our platform.”

Despite this promise, an April study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank that studies extremism, found that “COVID-19 is being used to advance calls for the ‘boogaloo,’” and that two boogaloo-related Facebook groups have seen large spikes in engagement in recent months. One of the groups, Big Igloo Bois, saw an 88% jump in interactions in March, according to the study.

Trump’s tweets about liberating Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota appear to have energized some elements of the boogaloo movement. TTP found that some members of private boogaloo Facebook groups reacted to the president’s rhetoric with memes of celebration and traded details of anti-quarantine protests in Richmond, Virginia, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Facebook later began removing posts promoting the protests in states like California, New Jersey and Nebraska, saying it takes the action “when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful.”

The company’s enforcement, however, appears to be piecemeal. TTP found protest announcements promoted in private boogaloo Facebook groups that remained active after Facebook’s action. One event encouraged people to attend a Wisconsin protest slated for April 24, even though the state is under a stay-at-home order until May 26. The event page lists more than 3,200 people as attending and another 12,000 as interested.

Clothing Line in Public, Civil War in Private

Among the most popular boogaloo-themed pages on Facebook is Thicc Boog Line, a boogaloo clothing brand that has generated nearly 30,000 followers since its October 2019 founding. Thicc Boog Line sells boogaloo-branded clothing and accessories, using its Facebook page to promote merchandise and periodically post memes related to opportunities for the boogaloo in the time of Covid-19.

The Thicc Boog Line page is also an administrator of at least 11 private Facebook groups related to preparations for a civil war. The groups are organized into tactical roles such as intelligence collection, technology, communication, machinery, combat medicine, and weapons discussion. They also have a “backup group” to be used in the event that the others are removed from Facebook.

TTP’s analysis found that Thicc Boog Line and other boogaloo group admins explicitly ban memes from their private groups to keep members focused on serious dialogue around organizing ranks and sharing intelligence. The groups engage in national-level coordination or act as state and local chapters where users share tactical information and survival tips, ranging from topographic map access to instructions for evading authorities.

One of the largest boogaloo groups identified by TTP is moderated by Thicc Boog Line. The group, “BoojieBastards: Intelligence and Surveillance,” has gained over 6,600 members since it was created on February 16—a rate of over 100 new members per day.

Videos related to the boogaloo are also generating significant viewership on other platforms. TTP found that a YouTube video on the “Top 5 Boogaloo Guns” had more than 25,000 views just five hours after it was posted. The YouTube channel that published the video has over 2.3 million subscribers.

Boogaloo Organizers Include White Supremacists

Organizations that study far right groups, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Institute for Strategic Dialogue, have found that the boogaloo has ties to white supremacist movements. TTP’s analysis of private boogaloo Facebook groups found that some members’ profiles include images of Hitler and suggest white supremacist ideologies. But other members (including many of the admins) state that they do not align with white supremacists.

TTP found that members of the BoojieBastards: Intelligence and Surveillance Facebook group include users identifying as veterans, active military, retired and active police, supporters and detractors of President Trump, and average citizens with no obvious political ideology. Many of them share an interest in preparing for a civil war, and they have identified the government-led Covid-19 lockdowns as a critical moment.

Discussions among the group members show mixed feelings about using Facebook as a means of communication. One member post on March 20 chastised others for not being careful enough while talking about civil war preparations on social media, noting that “the boog[aloo] is a class of sleep cell organization and sleeper cells work on the basis that you don’t post about it.”

Members of these groups have posted channels for communications on outside apps like Discord, but the fact that they’re posting them on Facebook suggests they’re still reliant on the social network’s reach.

Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world, giving domestic extremists access to  millions of potential recruits. Facebook had 248 million monthly active users in the U.S. and Canada at the end of 2019. The functions in Facebook groups allow for focused and relatively private communications, features that have been enjoyed by criminal organizations as well.

Documents Detail Civil War Plan

Boogaloo group members have used the Files function in Facebook groups to upload dozens of planning documents, including military manuals, CIA handbooks, and instructions on how to reuse N95 facemasks, among other material. Many of the files are digital versions of open source data and military operations information. One, called The Anarchist Cookbook, is notorious for its instructions on bomb making.

The most concerning document is one entitled Yeetalonians, a reference to the boogaloo. At over 133 pages, the document provides an in-depth look at preparing for the boogaloo and offers advice on what weapons should be used, what propaganda to distribute, and how to psychologically win over civilians to the cause.

The document mentions “target selection,” noting that assassinations of figureheads are “overrated” but “some people have to go.” It discusses how to disrupt U.S. government supply lines, noting that “national guard depots, police stations and factories that produce munitions are all very solid targets.” On propaganda, meanwhile, the document notes that the most important job is “to make the enemy (government forces) see that they are not fighting terrorists, they are fighting their own countrymen who simply love liberty.”Slides of the Yeelatonians document (screenshots):

One Boogaloo Fan

A Facebook profile that appears to be a pseudonym for an Arkansas man named Aaron Swenson—who was arrested after live-streaming himself on Facebook looking for a police officer to kill, according to authorities—has liked more than a dozen pages that mention boogaloo in their names, including Thicc Boog Line.

Some Facebook users leaving comments on the profile on the night of the attempted attack endorsed the targeting of police officers, while others suggested calling 911 in response to the live broadcast. The two videos remain active on the Facebook page and have amassed over 1,500 and 3,400 views, respectively.

After Swenson’s arrest, one boogaloo supporter, posting in the BoojieBastards: Intelligence and Surveillance group, said those who encouraged the attack “ended this man’s life,” while another called unprovoked violence “a danger to the group and movement.”