Domestic terrorists are proving much harder for big tech companies to police than foreign terrorists like ISIS, experts say.
One of the key differences between ISIS and today’s domestic extremists is that being part of ISIS, a group that designates its members, is effectively illegal, says Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former Facebook Chief Security Officer, reports Axios.
Being a follower of a fringe-right group like QAnon or Proud Boys isn’t inherently illegal: they’ve done nothing wrong until they become a part of a violent or forceful conspiracy, Stamos said.
Social media firms were “scrambling to crack down on domestic terrorist threats ahead of the inauguration and beyond, but experts say their efforts are only temporary solutions,” according to Axios.
Twitter has removed President Donald Trump and suspended more than 70,000 accounts sharing QAnon content after the deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol last week.
Twitter also limited accounts that engaged with them and has deployed technology to surface “potentially harmful tweets for urgent human review,” according to USA Today.
Facebook banned Trump and said it removed content with the “Stop the Steal” phrase “to stop misinformation and content that could incite further violence during these next few weeks,” according to a blog post last week from Facebook executives Guy Rosen and Monika Bickert.
However, these purgings are not stopping the extremist militias and fringe groups from organizing and planning, and may actually be making it harder for the FBI and law enforcement to track them, experts say.
In the New York Times podcast “Is More Violence Coming?” on The Daily, Sheera Frenkel, cybersecurity reporter, said that after Facebook and Twitter cracked down, and the conservative-favored site Parler went dark as Amazon pulled the plug on its platform, the extremists moved to encrypted apps like Telegram and Signal.
“It happened so quick,” Frenkel said. “I watched Proud Boys grow 8,000 members in a matter of days… As these groups become fractured and spread, there are that many more places that law enforcement have to be monitoring.”
An FBI source told Frenkel: “What you saw on Twitter and Facebook was just the surface level, but it gave you clues to what they were thinking and what they were saying.” A date would trickle out, giving law enforcement something to follow up and investigate.
“They were leaving behind little breadcrumbs.” Now, says Frenkel, the breadcrumbs are disappearing.
On the apps they’ve scrambled onto, extremist group members use fake names to create multiple accounts and burner phones, all while being end-to-end encrypted.
“They’re planning for a long-term war,” she said. “They grew up on the Internet. Being very online and very flexible is part of their DNA.”
Back on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, staffers are trying to search for phrases and terms that indicate violent extremism, but it was much simpler to do this with groups like ISIS.
“Even when big tech companies do take action on these types of movements — Twitter and Facebook have both effectively banned QAnon — the lack of industry-wide coordination around the issue means fringe movements can easily migrate to smaller platforms, and often darker corners of the web,” according to Axios.
On mainstream social media, groups like the fringe anarchist Boogaloo can easily change the terms they use to refer to themselves online to avoid detection, creating new hashtags and using subtle codes.
And to hold many of these beliefs is not inherently illegal. Two QAnon supporters currently hold seats in Congress, although one, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, was temporarily suspended by Twitter.
Mark Little, CEO and co-founder of disinformation tracking firm Kinzen, said that when it comes to domestic terrorism, “You can’t solve this with an algorithm.”
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.