What do members of ISIS and the Proud Boys have in common?
They spend an average of 144 minutes a day on Facebook.
Despite vast differences in motivation and ideology, international and domestic terrorist groups alike utilize social media for organization and recruitment. (8.,9.) Facebook is the most used platform, utilized by an astounding 64.53% of U.S. extremists. (3.) While this is by no means a new phenomenon, the rate at which the radicalization is occurring on Facebook is accelerating globally. (3.) The key factor in this violent outgrowth? Facebook’s increased investment in Groups.
Facebook groups, launched in 2010, are an online tool for connecting users in meaningful, relatively closed communities dedicated to a particular interest. Currently 400 million users are in groups on the service; Mark Zuckerberg recently stated his platform aims to increase this number to 1 billion. (7.) As innocuous as this seems, groups are now the fastest growing method for spreading spam, fake news, conspiracies, health misinformation, harassment, hacking, trolling, scams, and other threats to users(8.). Why isn’t this content caught by the site? Groups are primarily moderated by members, not Facebook, and thus are largely insulated from Facebook’s content standards.
Furthermore, users will be algorithmically suggested similar groups, drawing them into progressively insular online communities. As a direct result of inadequate moderation interacting dangerously with recommendation algorithms, Facebook increasingly draws users into conspiracy theorist groups or those geared toward illicit online activity. (8.) Users who join public groups are funneled to more intense closed groups, and eventually into invite-only groups requiring a vetting process as to prevent users from flagging content. (10.)
One could argue the oversight is inconsequential when applied to groups dedicated to cycling or science fiction. However, it becomes shockingly lethal when examined in the context of transnational terrorism, genocide, and lone-wolf actors.
In 2015, Facebook groups became the linchpin of white supremacist recruitment efforts, utilized by Finland’s Soldiers of Odin and the U.S. Proud Boys alike. (2.,10.) The same year, the Charleston Church attacker was radicalized in this manner, referencing the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens and its associated Facebook groups in his manifesto. (11.)
In 2016, social media played a primary or secondary role in the radicalization of 93.18% of Islamist extremists. (3.) Their preferred recruitment ground? Facebook groups.
In 2017, two anti-government terrorists attempted seemingly unrelated attacks in the U.S., one attempting to replicate the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing, the other burning down a mosque. (4.) The tie? Both were active members of, and posted information about their attacks to, Three Percenters Facebook groups. (4.)
In 2018, ethno-nationalist leaders and the military of Myanmar used Facebook groups to organize violence against the Rohingya community during the ongoing genocide. (5.)
In 2019, the Christchurch Mosque shooter live streamed his attack to Facebook. The video was eventually pulled by the platform, but has been reposted 1.5 million times in the aftermath. (6.) The primary location of the reposted videos? Facebook groups. The result? Copycat killings across the world fermented in, you guessed it, Facebook groups. (1.)
While this information is deeply saddening on its own, the phenomenon grows more troubling when one realizes Facebook is complicit. Zuckerberg increased investment in Groups even after being made aware of the issue. (7.) Vice President Jason Osofky asserted if any group does violate our community standards, we will remove it. (7.) The catch? A group will only be removed if they are dedicated to promoting hate against protected characteristics as a sole focus. (11.)
Despite being confronted with these nation-spanning allegations by both journalists and internal whistleblowers, Facebook made no major changes to its group recommendation algorithm at the time of this writing.
As a result, violent ideologies no longer need to be sought out; they’re curated and hand delivered. No longer are extremists bound by location or regional political structures; they’re globalized, digitally literate, and democratized. The largest transnational terrorist network in the history of the world isn’t in the Middle East, North Africa, or Eastern Europe it’s on a server farm in Tennessee.
Full citations can be found here
About the Author
Beau Harris is a junior at The University of Kansas majoring in Political Science and International Studies. His research interests include digital literacy, disinformation, and the development of coffee growing communities.