By Rob Finch, Detective, Criminal Intelligence Squad, Greensboro Police Department, Greensboro, North Carolina; and Kory Flowers, Detective, Criminal Intelligence Squad, Greensboro Police Department, Greensboro, North Carolina
n today’s world, it is nearly impossible to avoid the constant presence of social media and society’s obsession with it. It is all around us. Smartphones, computers, and tablets provide an individual or group with 24-hour, non-stop access to a vast Internet complete with a host of social forums that allow for constant and continuous information sharing. Individuals no longer focus on face-to-face relationships; instead, they rely on their social media footprint to meet and socialize with peer groups. For example, to be indoctrinated into a criminally subversive anti-government extremist group or belief, it has become as simple as logging into a chat room, forum, or social media website. Social media usage by subversive extremist groups is no longer the exception to the rule, it is the standard. As a result, today more than ever, law enforcement needs to be aware of its impact and use by violent domestic extremists. What was once thought of as a mostly rural U.S. underground movement has now expanded into ideological recruitment in every community.
What Is an Extremist?
Before law enforcement can attempt to fully understand the root of the problem they face, a few basic key points must be defined. An extremist is someone who takes a fanatical stance on a particular issue. These issues are usually political or religious in nature and tend to be hot-button issues within society as a whole. It is important to remember that extremist beliefs are not illegal and that they are constitutionally protected. The concern for law enforcement is when those beliefs cross over into the criminal realm and become planned or executed violent actions.
Extremist beliefs are often deeply rooted in an individual or group’s particular stance on an issue. Often, the individual or group will discount any viewpoint that does not support his or her own and will further gravitate toward the extreme edge of that particular belief. Rational conversation or debate is usually ineffective and common ground is rarely decided upon. For example, a group may wholeheartedly believe that the government in existence today is an illegitimate and illegal corporation without jurisdiction or authority over its citizens. While these beliefs are completely legal and protected by the First Amendment—and the large majority of adherents to this belief may be satisfied with passionate discussion of the topic, a small minority might decide that discussion is not enough and choose to use violence to effect change based on those beliefs.
The reality is these beliefs tend to be contagious and the extremist message can be quickly and easily transmitted to a larger, and often eager, audience via social media. To combat this potential problem, law enforcement needs to be in a position to identify the social media outlets used by extremists and regularly monitor them for specific examples of planned violent criminal activity.
The Power of Social Media
Social media can no longer be viewed by law enforcement as a nuisance or as generation specific. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace are some of the most popular and often used social media websites on the planet. Online radio stations, forums, and blog sites created by extremists or extremist groups pop up daily with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of followers. It is undeniable that the Internet has made the world a much smaller place as instantaneous interaction with people thousands of miles apart is now only a click away.
While the pros and cons of the creation and proliferation of social media will continue to be debated within law enforcement circles for years to come, one fact must not be overlooked. Social media was created to connect people through words, pictures, and ideas. It encourages a two-way information flow with the goal of reaching as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Members of society no longer just consume information, they create it. They feed off each other and build a growing support base for a particular movement or event. The genie is out of the bottle, and it is time for law enforcement to catch up.
The pace at which a criminally subversive movement can now grow is immeasurable. A simple search of the term “Anti-Government Extremist” will return thousands of web pages dedicated to the anti-government movement. These web pages are often created by people associated with large, regional, or national groups and also by extremists with no specific group affiliation. Individuals who frequent these websites are often looking for an outlet. They are looking for a peer group to sympathize; vent; and, in some isolated cases, plot with. While most of these individuals will never join an organized group or attend a meeting of any sort, they are able to grow their knowledge base and further indoctrinate themselves through the assistance of social media.
This self-radicalization through social media has allowed violent extremist groups and individuals to maintain anonymity and limit or completely eliminate the possibility of a law enforcement encounter. As a result, extremists are free to discuss grandiose ideas of violence and conceive complex and well-organized plans that can be carried out by an individual or group. This is the point where law enforcement must have a social media presence to even begin to entertain the idea of identifying a violent plot before it is carried out.
Use of Social Media
Social media enables violent extremist groups and individuals to reach a larger audience and spread their messages or ideological beliefs. A current social media trend of concern for law enforcement is self-radicalization. It is no longer necessary to leave the house to meet with individuals or groups that share similar ideological beliefs. The need for a charismatic leader or “guru” to physically recruit and cultivate a follower or sell a particular stance or belief is no longer needed. Extremist ideas and rhetoric can be quickly disseminated and accessed on the Internet by anyone with access to a smartphone or tablet. Instead of going to a meeting at a local restaurant or club, violent extremists can “meet” in social chat rooms complete with a live video feed. Online radio stations can be streamed continuously. Blog sites can be created and viewed by a technology novice and used to express a particular extremist belief or support for a specific group or movement.
Smaller social networking websites can be set up and used by specific extremist groups to allow for like-minded individuals to locate each other and develop peer groups in a similar fashion to other mainstream social networking websites. Examples like these provide extremist groups with a number of potential supporters and members. Since there is no centralized location in which to meet, these supporters and members can be located anywhere in the country. The necessity to travel is no longer needed. Access to the Internet is the only requirement.
Examples of domestic extremists and mass murderers utilizing the Internet and social networking sites in advertising and predicting their evil acts are many. Law enforcement must be competent and adroit not only in mastering the changing online threats and detecting and disrupting future crimes, but also in identifying the social media outlets used by extremists.
Prior to the 1999 mass murder by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Klebold built and maintained a fledgling website in what were then the early days of the Internet. On the site, Klebold posted manufacturing instructions for explosives, as well as a seminal version of a “hit list,” which named individuals and fellow classmates he wished to harm. The duo also produced a series of fictional fantasy videos in which they stalked and executed classmates they were hired to kill. These videos are still available to this day on video-sharing sites such as YouTube.1
In the fall of 2008, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, two upstart racist skinheads, met on a white supremacist social networking site maintained by the National Socialist Movement, called New Saxon. The two quickly realized their shared hatred for then-Senator and possible presidential candidate Barack Obama and began to formulate an assassination plot. Cowart and Schlesselman both moved to Bells, Tennessee, where they continued to use social media to refine their murderous plan before it was leaked by an acquaintance and disrupted by the United States Secret Service.2
Andrew Joseph Stack, a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen and tax protestor, flew his Piper Dakota airplane into the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Austin, Texas on February 18, 2010, in a last-ditch assault against a government he felt was illegitimate. In the kamikaze-style assault, an IRS employee was killed and numerous others were wounded. Prior to his final act, Stack composed a lengthy document, or manifesto, detailing his ire for the federal government and his plan to retaliate against them at all costs, which he posted online.3
In September 2010, Justin Moose, an anti-abortion extremist, was arrested by the FBI in North Carolina after he attempted to provide explosives to an undercover federal agent that he believed would be used to bomb an abortion clinic. The lengthy investigation was initiated after law enforcement received information regarding Moose’s Facebook page which contained recipes for manufacturing explosives, and esoteric conspiratorial rants about the justified murder of abortion doctors.4
Norwegian national Anders Breivik meticulously planned and executed a mass murder in Oslo in July 2011, after years of what he interpreted as the constant decay of European culture. Breivik created a 1,500-plus word fictional tale in which he detailed his hatred for the modern political climate in Norway, and his fantasized homicidal intentions. Only hours before Breivik carried out his murders, he mass-emailed and posted the document online.5
Tom Metzger, the infamous former Ku Klux Klan leader and founder of the white supremacist group White Aryan Resistance, moderates and maintains a website called www.resist.com. On the site, designed to equip potential domestic terrorists with the know-how they may need, Metzger publishes the “Lone Wolf Tip of the Week.”
Examples such as these of pre-incident predictors of mass violence are varied and, unfortunately, very common. However, one constant is glaring. The new “norm” among extremists is to discuss, plan, and gloat about planned acts of violence on a social media forum. It is critical that law enforcement identify the operational “leakage” by these perpetrators, however minimal or veiled, and use fresh tactics and new ideas to effectively ascertain and combat the problem.
Online and Undercover
Law enforcement is an inherently adaptive and ever-evolving occupation. As the criminal climate and subversive elements change, so must their tactics. Whether as a 1950s deputy in the Deep South, exploring new tactics of rural surveillance against illegal moonshine operations, or as a 1990s undercover officer in central Los Angeles, looking the part of a drug buyer to make cases on dealers, law enforcement must continue to be vigilant and agile as the threats to society change. Within the vast crevasses of the Internet, law enforcement—particularly investigators tasked with criminal intelligence missions—must prove themselves competent, deft, and vigilant in navigating the ever-changing social media landscape for new and evolving threats.
Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are often the first, and sometimes only, outlet that passive-aggressive domestic extremists or mass-murderers utilize to vent and project their rage. Following a tip from a vigilant educator or work supervisor, officers can then begin to monitor the social networking presence of a possible suspect as part of a comprehensive threat assessment process. Detectives may often discover that the banal, daily posts of a possible suspect become hastily replaced by violent, ire-driven rants. As the intelligence in each case will be unique and often spread out over several different social media platforms, every indicator of violence must be thoroughly investigated to either confirm or invalidate a suspicion.
Proactive law enforcement agencies should have dedicated investigators who maintain undercover accounts within the major social networking sites and utilize daily work regimens that tour various blogs, micro-blog sites, and forums that could directly impact their agencies and jurisdictions. As the Internet is a vast web of social media interaction, this process can be time consuming and, oftentimes, daunting. While it may be impossible and imprudent to monitor every aspect of the Internet, best practices should be used by law enforcement to create a proactive social media presence.
While major social networking sites are by far the most common online medium to share thoughts with a large populace quickly, law enforcement must not neglect other prevalent, but lesser known, Internet outlets. Large platform blogs and micro-blogging sites such as WordPress, Tumblr, Livejournal, and Blogspot should be staple bookmarks on every investigator’s computer. Video-sharing sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Metacafe, and Break should be regularly perused for anti-government or extremist postings. Even online classifieds such as Craigslist and Backpage must be understood, monitored, and utilized by law enforcement as a possible facilitator of extremist activity.
In closing, law enforcement leaders must realize that they are operating in a world that not only utilizes, but requires a social media presence. Criminally subversive groups and extremist individuals are no longer solely meeting at a centralized location at a specific time to indoctrinate new adherents or discuss and plan acts of violence. Social media has provided a fast and effective way for extremists to disseminate their messages to a larger group of like-minded individuals.
While extremist rhetoric is nothing new in law enforcement circles, it is operationally imperative that law enforcement leaders embrace the existence of social media platforms and understand how they are used by extremists as a vehicle to deliver their subversive messages. Law enforcement has a duty and responsibility to monitor these social media sites in hope of identifying planned criminal acts or indicators of future violent behavior. ♦
1See “Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold,” YouTube, www.youtube.com/channel/HC9jNmRTfHZEA (accessed April 17, 2013).
2U.S. Department of Justice, “Tennessee Man Sentenced for Conspiring to Commit Murders of African-Americans: Plot Included Then-Presidential Candidate Barack Obama,” press release, October 22, 2010, www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2010/October/10-crt-1194.html (accessed April 17, 2013).
3Kelley Shannon and Jay Root, “Andrew Joseph Stack’s Suicide Attack: Austin Plane Attack Victims Saved by Iraq War Vet,” The Huffington Post, May 25, 2011, www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/19/andrew-joseph-stacks-suic_n_469811.html (accessed April 17, 2013).
4Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Concord Man Arrested for Providing Bomb-Making Advice: Complaint Alleges Women’s Health Clinic Was Target,” press release, September 9, 2010, www.fbi.gov/charlotte/press-releases/2010/ce090910.htm (accessed April 17, 2013).
5Helen Pidd, “Anders Behring Breivik Spent Years Training and Plotting for Massacre,” The Guardian, August 24, 2012, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/24/anders-behring-breivik-profile-oslo (accessed April 17, 2013).
Please cite as:
Rob Finch and Kory Flowers, "Violent Domestic Extremism and the Role of Social Media within Law Enforcement," The Police Chief 80 (June 2013): 3234.