Broken Promises

Facebook’s Militia Mess

Mark Zuckerberg is about to face lawmakers two months after the Capitol riot. But Facebook still hasn’t fixed its militia problem.

Facebook is leaving some gaping holes in its crackdown on militia groups, according to new research by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), raising questions for CEO Mark Zuckerberg as he prepares to testify to Congress for the first time since the U.S. Capitol riot.

TTP has previously detailed how Facebook allowed election conspiracies and far-right militias to proliferate on its platform, fueling the radicalization that drove the Jan. 6 insurrection. Now, with Zuckerberg set to appear before U.S. lawmakers on Thursday, TTP has found troubling evidence that Facebook is not only continuing to host potentially dangerous militia groups, but in some cases actually creating militia content and pushing it to users through its recommendation algorithm.

Facebook’s problems with militia activity persist despite the company’s announcement seven months ago that it would take action against U.S. militia organizations and other extremist groups that pose a risk to public safety.

Here are some of the key findings from TTP’s latest research:

  • The investigation identified 201 militia pages and 13 militia groups on Facebook as of March 18, more than two months after the Capitol riot.
  • Roughly 70% (140) of the Facebook pages had the word “militia” in their name.
  • Facebook is auto-generating pages for some militia organizations, effectively expanding the reach of the movement.
  • Facebook also directs users who “like” certain militia pages toward other militia groups, helping these organizations potentially recruit and radicalize users.
  • Some Facebook users have begun to turn their personal profiles into de facto pages for militia organizations, likely as a way to avoid detection.
  • TTP found some Facebook militia groups circulating propaganda for the far-right Proud Boys, whose members have been charged in the Capitol riot.

Hard-to-miss names

TTP identified 201 Facebook militia pages and 13 groups that were active on the platform as of March 18. These included “DFW Beacon Unit” in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, which describes itself as a “legitimate militia” and posted March 21 about a training session; “Central Kentucky Freedom Fighters,” whose Facebook page posts near-daily content about government infringing on people’s rights; and the "New River Militia" in North Carolina, which posted about the need to “wake up the other lions” two days after the Capitol riot.

Strikingly, about 70% (140) of the Facebook pages identified by TTP had “militia” in their name. That’s a hard-to-miss affiliation, especially for a company that says its artificial intelligence systems are successfully detecting and removing policy violations like hate speech and terrorist content.

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In addition, the TTP investigation found 31 militia-related profiles, which display their militia sympathies through their names, logos, patches, posts, or recruiting efforts. In more than half the cases (20), the profiles had the word “militia” in their name.

One example is the profile for “NaturalBorn Militia,” which includes photos with the Three Percenter logo. The Three Percenters are an anti-government extremist faction of the militia movement, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Some of these profiles appear to be acting as de facto pages for militia organizations, TTP found. That may be a way for them to avoid detection by allowing them to maintain tighter control of information, deciding when to make individual posts public, for example. Such strategies have also been adopted by wildlife traffickers operating on Facebook, according to a report last year from The Alliance to Counter Crime Online.

Some of the militia profiles identified by TTP are networked together. For example, the profile for “Section-Eight Militia” in Texas has a friend network that includes other militia profiles like “Kitsapcounty WaMilitia,” “Missouri Partisan Rangers,” "Central Iowa Militia," and “Southern Nevada Militia.”

Facebook’s continuing struggles with militia content provide a troubling backdrop as Zuckerberg prepares to make a virtual appearance before Congress Thursday — his first testimony since the deadly Capitol insurrection. The House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing is slated to delve into social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.

As TTP reported in January, Facebook allowed domestic extremists to discuss weapons and tactics, coordinate activities, and spread calls to overthrow the government for months leading up to and including the mob attack on the Capitol. The evidence contradicts Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s claims that the January 6 riot was “largely organized” on other platforms.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is putting a heavier emphasis on combatting domestic extremism. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued a March report that identified militia as one of the “most lethal” domestic violent extremism threats.

Amplifying content

Facebook is not just missing militia content. It’s also, in some cases, creating it.

About 17 percent of the militia pages identified by TTP (34) were actually auto-generated by Facebook, most of them with the word “militia” in their names. This has been a recurring issue with Facebook. A TTP investigation in May 2020 found that Facebook had auto-generated business pages for white supremacist groups.

Auto-generated pages are not managed by an administrator, but they can still play a role in amplifying extremist views. For example, if a Facebook user “likes” one of these pages, the page gets added to the “about” section of the user’s profile, giving it more visibility. This can also serve as a signal to potential recruiters about pro-militia sympathies.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s recommendation algorithm is pushing users who “like” militia pages toward other militia content.

When TTP “liked” the page for “Wo Co Militia,” Facebook recommended a page called “Arkansas Intelligent citizen,” which features a large Three Percenter logo as the page header. (The “history” section in the page transparency shows that it was previously named “3%ERS – Arkansas.”)

TTP found that 26 of the militia pages, including two that were auto-generated, were created after Facebook’s announced crackdown on U.S. militias (later described as “militarized social movements”) on August 19, 2020. A total of 44 pages have posted new content since that date.

Six of the Facebook militia groups identified by TTP were also created after August 19. One group, explicitly named “Texas Militia,” launched on the afternoon of Jan. 6, in the midst of the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The administrator who created the group warned that “modern technology has enabled radicals to subvert the process by which we elect our representatives,” adding “we must be prepared … to defend our rights and prevent the takeover of our great nation by radicals, uphold the Constitution and preserve our way of life.”

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TTP identified one Facebook group called “C.A.M.P.,” which stands for “Constitutional American Militia Project.” The group pinned a mission statement on March 12 that encourages all “fellow patriots” to march on state capitols across the country and force out elected officials. The date for the event is “to be announced.” 

On March 13, the C.A.M.P. group’s administrator posted a three-minute video promoting the far-right Proud Boys, an organization that’s been banned on Facebook since 2018 and whose alleged leaders have been charged with conspiracy in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The video is essentially a highlight reel of Proud Boys attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters as well as footage from the Capitol riot.

This kind of admin post highlights a critical flaw in Facebook’s groups policy. In a March 17 policy update outlining new penalties for groups that violate Facebook’s Community Standards, Facebook said it would require group admins and moderators to approve all posts in certain cases. But if the admins themselves are posting the content, and like-minded group members don't report it, then the groups are less likely to come to Facebook’s attention.

Events and recruitment

TTP found that Facebook is continuing to allow militias to use its Events feature, despite revelations that the company failed to act on a “Kenosha Guard” event page that urged people to bring weapons to a Black Lives Matter protest. (Then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse is charged with fatally shooting two people at the August protest.)

A Facebook page called “Tennessee Patriots Militia,” created on Dec. 6, 2020, has used the events feature on three occasions to organize meetings of group members. The most recent event page for a “final start up meeting,” on Feb. 27, featured a skull with the III% symbol in one of the eyes. The III% refers to the anti-government Three Percenters.

Another page called “Light Horse Militia,” which indicates it’s based in Lee County, Virginia, posted a recruitment call for members in July 2020. The post specifically seeks members with “prior law enforcement or military experience.”

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In some cases militias are making use of multiple Facebook tools. A page called the “1st Nebraska Volunteer Militia,” which describes itself as an “organized paramilitary force that is not part of the regular armed forces,” also serves as the admin of a Facebook group of the same name. The 1st Nebraska Volunteer Militia page promoted an event poster for a “Million Militia March” that was slated to take place on Jan. 20 Inauguration Day.

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Some of the pages suggest efforts to coordinate with law enforcement. One page called “Carter County Oklahoma Militia” posted on Jan. 5, 2021, that it had changed its name after speaking with the local sheriff; that the sheriff is looking for “reserve deputies;” and that people interested in being a reservist should contact the page manager.