Even After The Plot To Kidnap Gov. Whitmer, Michigan Militant Groups Continue To Thrive On Facebook
After being banned, some militant pages returned with different names. “We are back!” the leader of one such organization said after relaunching on the platform last month. “Help us rebuild share and invite friends.”
A day after the FBI disclosed that organized armed extremists coordinated on Facebook to hatch a terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, multiple pages that encourage political violence were still active on the social network.
An examination by BuzzFeed News and the Tech Transparency Project, a nonpartisan watchdog group, found at least five such pages on the platform as of Friday morning. Those pages, which in some cases appear to be simply rebranded versions of previously banned organizations, use Facebook to recruit and to promote objectives that at times call for violent uprising.
Facebook announced in August that it was banning right-wing militant, anarchist, and QAnon groups after a series of violent crimes were tied to organizations that used the platform. Since then, the company has removed thousands of groups, and this week announced it had banned all accounts, pages, and groups tied to QAnon, the collective delusion that alleges that a secretive government cabal is kidnapping children.
Despite Facebook’s efforts, some of those pages have escaped removal despite incorporating words such as “militia” or “minutemen” in their names or web addresses; others were created after Facebook removed their original groups or pages and appear to have avoided detection by making small changes to their names.
The Michigan Liberty Militia, for example, was banned from Facebook in August. On Sept. 11, it reappeared under a page with new, slightly altered moniker — MLM Michigan liberty minutemen — and marked its return with a picture of a flag bearing two hatchets, the Liberty Bell, and two assault rifles.
“We are back!” read a post on the page posted at 8:59 a.m. and signed by the group’s leader, Phil Robinson. “Help us rebuild share and invite friends.”
A Facebook spokesperson said Friday that its work to remove violent content and extremist organization pages is ongoing.
“We remove content, disable accounts, and immediately report to law enforcement when there is a credible threat of imminent harm to people or public safety,” the spokesperson said.
That person added that the company had removed three pages identified to it by BuzzFeed News because they violate its policies, but noted that some of them had not been active recently.
While Facebook has taken a harder stance against violent organizations that have used the platform for years to organize and grow, the continued existence of Michigan extremist groups underscores the difficulty the social networking company is having in moderating content. And even as it attempts to show that it is doing more ahead of a contentious 2020 presidential election, Facebook is still falling short, according to its critics.
“This is yet another example of Facebook's ongoing moderation failures despite ample warnings from researchers and journalists, making clear that the company is either unable or unwilling to remove militia and extremist movements from their platform,” said TTP Director Katie Paul, whose organization was able to locate three Michigan extremist pages still on Facebook as of Friday morning. “This comes after months of highly publicized statements from Facebook that it is removing these groups, yet we are still able to identify them with basic searches.”
Since August, Facebook said it has removed more than “6,500 Pages and Groups tied to more than 300 Militarized Social Movements.”
Although there are other social networks that prove more welcoming to such organizations, none have anything remotely close to the enormous reach of Facebook. For that reason, many organizations, reluctant to abandon the platform, have found ways around the ban, creating new pages with different names to avoid being linked to previously removed pages and groups.
In other cases, Facebook has been slow to remove pages that have clear links to calls for violence.
In late August, for example, members of a militant group called the Kenosha Guard used the platform to organize a confrontation with protesters demonstrating against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. During that event, a 17-year-old gunman allegedly shot and killed two protesters and injured another.
The Kenosha Guard event page, which had been flagged by users 455 times prior to the events of Aug. 25, was not removed from Facebook until after the shooting.
And although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially took credit for removing the event page, BuzzFeed News later revealed it had been deleted by the event’s organizer.
On Thursday, unsealed federal and state charging documents detailed how a right-wing militant group in Michigan known as the Wolverine Watchmen used the platform to connect with one another and help plot to kidnap and possibly kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over what the conspirators believed was government overreach in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
An FBI affidavit filed this week indicates that the group, separately identified by the Michigan attorney general, had been “attempting to obtain the addresses of local law-enforcement officers,” and a member of the Wolverine Watchmen at the time expressed concern to the bureau that the group planned to “target and kill police officers.”
Facebook said Friday that it began proactively communicating with law enforcement about the Wolverine Watchmen at least six months ago, and the group was removed from the platform on June 30 as part of a sweep to ban what it called a “violent US-based anti-government network.”
Yet despite this work, not only are Michigan extremist pages still active on the platform, according to TTP’s Paul, but Facebook’s recommendation algorithm appears to continue directing users to like other pages if they are already following one.
On Friday morning, for example, the platform’s algorithm recommended multiple pages for militant groups to a reporter examining a different organization’s page, including one for an organization called West Michigan Guardians, which describes itself as a “constitutional militia.”
TTP found three other pages, including Michigan Minuteman Platoon, which had not posted since last year. Another, Great Lakes Light Infantry, identified itself as a “militia group” and used photos of children in camouflage clothing to promote its cause.
A fifth page, MCM Standing Together, Defending Together, which had its original page removed in a purge over the summer, returned to Facebook on Sept. 21. The new page’s URL features the phrase “MichigansConstitutionalMilitia” and is liked and followed by 50 people.
“Originally we were not going to rebuild the page on FB however YOLO,” a page administrator posted on the date it was created.
The page’s most recent post, a meme of a soldier and the Statue of Liberty holding a gun, appeared on Sept. 24.
“It’s been a tough year,” the text on the meme reads. “But our way of life is worth fighting for.”