Broken Promises

Facebook Ran Recruitment Ads for Militia Groups

For years, Facebook profited from militia group ads looking to attract new recruits. The messages reached tens of thousands of users.

Facebook has allowed dangerous militia groups to run recruiting ads that reached tens of thousands of users and is still enabling such groups to organize on the platform, according to a Tech Transparency Project (TTP) investigation that highlights deep flaws in the company’s handling of domestic extremists.

The investigation—which follows news of a thwarted plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which involved militia members and played out on Facebook and other social media—shows how Facebook has repeatedly failed to block these violence-prone groups from using its various tools and features to build their movement.

TTP found that numerous militia groups, over the past several years and as recently as August, have used Facebook ads to recruit new members, with messages calling militia men the “last hope of freedom” and imploring, “Fight with us to take back America.” That means Facebook has been directly profiting from this kind of paid messaging on its platform.

At the same time, the investigation identified more than 50 Facebook pages and groups dedicated to militia organizations, including some associated with the so-called Three Percenters, an anti-government extremist movement. The activity is continuing despite Facebook’s announced action against “militarized social movements” two months ago.

The disturbing findings show that Facebook is routinely behind the curve in cracking down on domestic extremists on its platform—a pattern that played out in the Whitmer case and threatens additional harm heading into the Nov. 3 election, amid President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations about voter fraud and a “rigged” result.

Here are of the main takeaways from TTP’s investigation:

  • Facebook for years allowed militia groups to run recruitment ads on the platform and profited from the activity. Some of the ads reached tens of thousands of users.
  • As recently as October, Facebook hosted an ad encouraging militias to attend a “freedom march” in cities across the country just days before the election.
  • At least 53 Facebook militia pages and groups are still active on the platform. Some of them even have the word “militia” in their name.
  • Facebook’s recommendation algorithm is still pointing users who visit militia pages to other militia pages, potentially accelerating radicalization.
  • Members of “patriot” and pro-Trump Facebook pages have posted explicit threats to kill public officials and racial justice protesters.

Profiting from Militia Recruitment

For years, Facebook allowed militia group pages to run recruitment ads, which evidently made it through the platform’s review process for advertising.

As recently as mid-August, a Facebook ad for a group called New Mexico Light Foot issued a call for new members, expressing its allegiance to the 2nd Amendment with an image of an semi-automatic rifle. (“Light foot” refers to privately organized local militia battalions.) Another ad for America’s United Militia touted the group’s mission to “uphold and support the constitution,” adding, “Fight with us to take back America.” That ad had up to 45,000 “impressions,” indicating how many times it appeared on a screen.

The Facebook page for “Virginia Militia” ran a total of 61 ads. One of its last ads from February 2020 promoted a “Muster Call,” with the message, “Are you going to give up your rights or fight?” TTP also found an ad campaign for a Facebook page called “My Militia – American Patriot Community.” The page ran political ads in fall 2018 ahead of the midterm elections, with the message “The red wave is rising” and “It’s not revenge we are after, but a reckoning.” After the midterms, the group took out recruitment ads calling American militia men “the last hope of freedom” and urging users to “join your local militia today.”

Slides of militia recruitment ads on Facebook:

 

 

 

 

 

The militia pages that purchased these ads have since been deleted, most likely by Facebook. The company on August 19 announced a crackdown on “militarized social movements,” saying it would “limit the spread” of such content and remove pages and groups that feature “discussions of potential violence.” The company added on Sept. 30 that it would prohibit anyone from running ads that “praise, support or represent” such movements. 

But Facebook never addressed the issue of how it profited from militia recruitment ads or what, if anything, it would do with the revenue it received from them.

Meanwhile, there appear to be blind spots in Facebook’s enforcement. An ad from the American Patriot Council this month said militias are “strongly encouraged” to attend an Oct. 24 “freedom march” in cities across the country, calling it “a show of solidarity” and a chance to “demand emancipation from the bondage of tyranny.”

Facebook has a history of inaction on dangerous groups using its advertising and fundraising tools. A BuzzFeed News report on June 30 found that the company had been allowing ads for the “boogaloo” movement, which envisions a violent uprising against the government. (TTP has tracked Facebook’s repeated failures to deal with the spread of boogaloo groups, which have been linked on several occasions to real-world physical attacks.)

Last month, TTP discovered that the neo-fascist street gang Proud Boys had been using Facebook’s fundraising tools to raise money for a rally in Portland, Oregon. Facebook banned the Proud Boys in 2018, but didn’t take action on the fundraising activity until a HuffPost reporter contacted the company about TTP’s findings. Facebook takes a fee from such fundraising through its platform.

Failing to Remove Militia Content

Despite its ongoing crackdown on “militarized social movements,” Facebook continues to allow militia activity on the platform. TTP found 45 pages and eight groups dedicated to militia organizations that remained active on Facebook as of Oct. 13. Some of them featured logos and images affiliated with the Three Percenters, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “core component” of the anti-government militia movement.

Incredibly, 13 of the pages and groups have “militia” in their name, raising questions about the effectiveness of Facebook’s crackdown. Six pages and one group were created after Facebook’s Aug. 19 announcement targeting “militarized social movements.”

One example of the ongoing activity is the Facebook group “Arkansas Minutemen 1776,” which was created on September 22. By October 13, the group had amassed more than 650 members and featured documents detailing its “Standard Operating Procedure” and applications to join the militia. The group features violent talk and memes related to the upcoming election. In response to a post stating that people are “scared” about what Democrats will do, a member of the militia Facebook group replied, “NOT SCARED JUST WORRIED IF I HAVE ENOUGH AMMO.”

Slides of militia pages and groups on Facebook:

 

 

 

 

 

Following the news of the thwarted kidnapping plot targeting Gov. Whitmer—which played out in various ways on Facebook—the company told Bloomberg News that it reached out to the FBI early in the investigation, and takes down content when it's reported to law enforcement if there is a “credible threat of imminent harm to people or public safety.”

Facebook also said the company had removed Michigan militia groups since August, including Michigan Liberty Militia and the Michigan Militia Corps. At least two members of the Michigan Liberty Militia were reportedly arrested in connection with the Whitmer plot.

But TTP that same week found a number of Michigan militia pages still active on Facebook, including another page for the Michigan Liberty Militia—which Facebook said it removed—under a slightly altered name, “MLM Michigan Liberty minutemen.” The findings, shared with BuzzFeed News, are part of a pattern in which Facebook announces an enforcement action but misses simple name changes that allow targeted groups to evade detection. The same dynamic has played out with boogaloo groups.

TTP identified another troubling aspect of Facebook’s treatment of Michigan militia groups. As demonstrated in the video below, if a user “liked” the Facebook page for MLM Michigan Liberty minutemen, the platform’s “related pages” feature suggested other militia groups, including “MCM Standing Together, Defending Together,” a variant of the Michigan Constitutional Militia. This shows how Facebook’s recommendation engine continues to point users to dangerous groups, potentially accelerating radicalization.

Facebook removed several of the pages after being contacted by BuzzFeed, including MLM Michigan Liberty minutemen, MCM Standing Together, Defending Together, the “Michigan Minutemen Platoon,” and “Great Lakes Light Infantry.”

However, some of the pages remained active on Facebook as of October 13: “US Wolf Pack Militia,” “SMVM Jackson County,” and “North West Michigan Rangers” along with its accompanying Facebook group, “Friends of North West Michigan Rangers.” These are used to organize training efforts and share slogans about a coming civil war. Members of Friends of the North West Michigan Rangers group used images of the Michigan Liberty Militia flag, suggesting the groups are aligned.  

Toxic Brew of Extremist Groups

TTP has also observed members of militia groups comingling with boogaloo supporters and far-right Proud Boys in some Facebook groups, as various elements of the U.S. extremist movement look for places to gather amid Facebook’s piecemeal enforcement actions.

One example is a public Facebook group called “Proud Patriot.” The group was created on September 14 under the name “The Angry Patriot,” but changed its name to “The Proud Patriot” on October 1, potentially to lure Proud Boys trying to evade Facebook’s algorithms. In its first three weeks of existence, the group gained 4,459 members—a rate of roughly 207 per day.

The Proud Patriot group includes posts from self-declared Proud Boys who call for others to join their movement and share a logo featuring Trump’s comment at the recent presidential debate that Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” Some members of the Facebook group also called for joining local militias. One user said militias “will be on the front line ‘Taking Back Our Country !,” adding, “If your [sic] interested pm me !” Other members express support for the boogaloo movement in posts or comments.

Slides of posts from The Proud Patriot Facebook group:

 

 

 

This activity continues despite statements by Facebook’s head of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations, Brian Fishman, touting the company’s vigilance in removing Proud Boys content after Trump’s debate comments.

TTP also found Facebook pages for local and national militia groups that feature years-old, but still active, recruiting posts. Facebook users are still commenting on these old posts asking how to join up. Facebook has said it is “down-ranking” some kinds of militia content to make them less visible, which may be occurring in these cases, but the continued comments suggest that users are still being driven to such pages by Facebook’s recommendation engine.

Some militia pages have pop-up automatic messenger windows that prompt users to contact page administrators—a feature that could facilitate militia recruiting. The pop-up provides users with a direct route to privately contact the admins, complete with pre-set messages users can send to convey interest. With this feature, Facebook is providing people with a direct line of communication to organizers of those militia groups. 

Slides of pop-up messenger windows on Facebook militia pages:

 

 

Recurring online threats against public officials

Facebook had ample heads-up about threats to Gov. Whitmer on its platform over the past year. In May, TTP found examples of this circulating in private boogaloo groups that were highlighted in an Associated Press report. One post from May 5 called for lynching Whitmer, saying the governor misunderstood “who the noose was for”—apparently referring to nooses brandished during a protest against coronavirus stay-at-home orders—while another replied, “let her swing.” Facebook finally removed that boogaloo group as part of a June 30 enforcement action.

Members of private Facebook groups dedicated to “patriots” and Donald Trump have also posted explicit threats to kill public officials and protesters.

Take the group called “Pro-Police, Pro-Military, Pro-Trump,” which has about 11,200 members. One member suggested on Oct. 5 that Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who’s frequently targeted by racist and misogynist rhetoric, should be “sent to Guantanamo Bay,” a comment that sparked replies like “Just shoot the bitch” and “she needs a drone strike.” Despite Facebook’s statement that it removes content that poses a “credible threat of imminent harm to people or public safety,” the threats to Rep. Omar remained active as of October 13.

A Facebook group called “Trump’s Army,” which has roughly 99,900 members, features violent talk about people demonstrating over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. One member wrote, “All Trump supporters should shoot them and kill them,” prompting a reply, “working on it.”

Slides of violent threats in Facebook groups:

 

 

 

Facebook has faced increasing pressure over its inability or unwillingness to remove dangerous militia content since the events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in late August.

The company allowed a Kenosha Guard militia page to stay up after it called on followers to bring weapons to a local protest, despite the fact that users flagged the issue to Facebook a reported 455 times. A 17-year-old gunmen is accused of killing two protesters and injuring a third that night. CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the failure to remove Kenosha Guard’s post an “operational mistake,” though it later emerged, via BuzzFeed, that an administrator for the page eventually removed the event—not Facebook, as the company had previously suggested.

The Kenosha tragedy highlights how Facebook’s tools can be used for militia organizing—and the potentially deadly consequences. But TTP’s investigation shows that Facebook’s effort to curb militia activity leaves some gaping holes, which are cause for alarm amid growing concern about domestic extremism.

Download a spreadsheet of the Facebook militia groups and pages TTP identified »