WASHINGTON — Social media posts are a distinct type. They darkly hint that the CIA or FBI are behind the mass shootings. They traffic in racist, sexist and homophobic tropes. They relish the prospect of a “white boy summer.”
White nationalists and supremacists, on accounts often run by young men, create thriving macho communities on social media platforms like Instagram, Telegram and TikTok, evading detection with coded hashtags and innuendo.
Their snarky memes and trending videos get thousands of followers excited about controversial issues like abortion, guns, immigration and LGBTQ rights. The Department of Homeland Security warned Tuesday that such biased framing of topics could lead extremists to violently attack public places across the United States in the coming months.
This kind of racist threats and ideology have become so common on social media that it’s nearly impossible for law enforcement to separate internet ramblings from dangerous and potentially violent people, said Michael German, who has infiltrated white supremacist groups as an FBI agent, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. tuesday.
“It seems intuitive that effective social media monitoring can provide clues to help law enforcement prevent attacks,” German said. “After all, the white supremacist attackers in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and El Paso have all had access to online materials and expressed their hateful and violent intentions on social media.”
But, he continued, “so many false alarms drown out the threats.”
DHS and the FBI are also working with state and local agencies to raise awareness of the increased threat around the United States in the coming months.
The heightened concern comes just weeks after an 18-year-old white youth walked into a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, aiming to kill as many black customers as possible. He shot down 10.
This shooter claims to have been introduced to neo-Nazi websites and a live stream of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shooting on anonymous online messaging forum 4Chan. In 2018, the white man who shot 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue shared his anti-Semitic rants on Gab, a site that attracts extremists. The previous year, a 21-year-old white man who killed 23 people at a Walmart in the predominantly Hispanic city of El Paso, Texas, shared his anti-immigrant hatred on messaging forum 8Chan.
References to hateful ideologies are more elusive on mainstream platforms like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Telegram. To avoid detection by AI-powered moderation, users do not use obvious terms such as “white genocide” or “white power” in conversation.
They signal their beliefs in other ways: a Christian cross emoji in their profile or words like “Anglo” or “pilled,” a term adopted by far-right chatrooms, in usernames. More recently, some of these accounts borrowed the pop song “White Boy Summer” to encourage the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion on Roe v. Wade, according to analysis by Zignal Labs, a social media intelligence firm.
Facebook and Instagram owner Meta banned praise and support for white nationalist and separatist movements in 2019 on corporate platforms, but social media’s shift to subtlety is making it difficult to moderate posts. Meta says it has more than 350 experts, drawn from national security and radicalization research, dedicated to ridding the site of such hate speech.
“We know these groups are determined to find new ways to try to evade our policies, and that’s why we invest in people and technology and work with outside experts to constantly update and improve our enforcement efforts,” said David Tessler, head of dangerous organizations. and Individuals Policy for Meta, said in a statement.
A closer look reveals hundreds of posts steeped in sexist, anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic content.
In an Instagram post identified by The Associated Press, an account called White Primacy appeared to post a photo of a billboard depicting a common way of exterminating Jews during the Holocaust.
“We are only 75 years old since the gas chambers. So no, a billboard calling for bigotry against Jews is not an overreaction,” the billboard said in the photo.
The post’s caption, however, denied that gas chambers were used. The post’s comments were even worse: “If what they said had actually happened, we’d be in a better place,” one user commented. “We will finish what they started one day,” wrote another.
The account, which had more than 4,000 followers, was immediately deleted on Tuesday, after the AP asked Meta about it. Meta has banned posts that deny the Holocaust on its platform since 2020.
US extremists are emulating the social media strategy used by the Islamic State group, which turned to subtle language and imagery on Telegram, Facebook and YouTube a decade ago to evade world-wide repression. terrorist group’s online presence industry, said Mia Bloom, a communications professor at Georgia State University.
“They’re trying to recruit,” said Bloom, who has studied social media use for Islamic State terrorists and far-right extremists. “We’re starting to see some of the same patterns with ISIS and the far right. The coded speech, the ways to escape the AI. The groups were appealing to younger and younger audiences.
For example, on Instagram, one of the most popular apps for teens and young adults, white supremacists amplify other people’s content daily and direct their followers to new accounts.
Over the past few weeks, a bunch of these accounts have turned to Pride month, with some calling for the ‘recriminalization’ of same-sex marriage and others using the #Pride emoji or the rainbow flag. to post homophobic memes.
Law enforcement is already monitoring an active threat from a young Arizona man who says on his Telegram accounts that he is “waging war” on retail giant Target over its Pride Month merchandise and its children’s clothing line and promised to “hunt out LGBT supporters”. in shops. In videos posted to his Telegram and YouTube accounts, sometimes filmed at Target stores, he encourages others to visit the stores as well.
Target said in a statement it was working with local and state law enforcement investigating the videos.
As society increasingly accepts LGBTQ rights, the issue can be particularly triggering for young men who hold traditional beliefs around relationships and marriage, Bloom said.
“That might explain the vulnerability to radical belief systems: a lot of beliefs that they grew up with, that they held quite firmly, are being shaken,” she said. “That’s where it becomes an opportunity for these groups: they go after very different things.”