According to a shocking new affidavit, the FBI exposed a group that "planned violent actions against multiple state governments," including a detailed plot to arrest or kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. People involved in the conspiracy organized through Facebook groups, in-person events, and at least two encrypted chat apps that the FBI did not name.
Whitmer, a Democrat, became a major target in the pervasive anti-lockdown sentiment of the political right earlier this year as states imposed restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. According to an affidavit, members of the group "discussed" murdering "tyrants" or "taking" a seated governor at a face-to-face meeting in June, and 13 people were charged with the kidnapping.
The group grew after reaching out to a Michigan-based militia called Wolverine Watchmen, who shared overlapping interests. While it wasn't named Facebook at the time removed the Wolverine Watchmen group from their platform in June when they were cleaning up a number of groups affiliated with the anti-government boogaloo movement. Wolverine Watchmen recruited on Facebook for seven months, from November last year to June.
"Today we call a violent American anti-government network a dangerous organization and forbid it from our platform," wrote Facebook at the time, distinguishing between violent boogaloo groups and the "loosely connected" boogaloo movement.
Facebook said it played a "proactive" role in the FBI investigation and first contacted law enforcement agencies six months ago. The FBI said it became aware of the activity through social media and also relied on an informant to gather information from the group.
"We remove content, deactivate accounts and immediately report them to law enforcement agencies if there is a credible risk of direct harm to people or public safety," a Facebook spokesman told theinformationsuperhighway. "We proactively reached out to and worked with the FBI at the beginning of this ongoing investigation."
theinformationsuperhighway asked Facebook if those people connected to the Michigan militia through Facebook groups did not provide an answer to that question. In August, Facebook identified and banned a number of other Michigan-based militarized groups from Facebook and Instagram, including the Michigan Liberty Militia and Michigan Militia Corps, as well as another group using the name "Wolverine".
Adam Fox, one of the alleged organizers of the group, streamed live to a private Facebook group earlier this year, complaining that Michigan restrictions included gym closures. In the video, Fox referred to Governor Whitmer as "that bully bitch" and said, "I don't know guys, we have to do something."
In April, Trump cheered protests against these measures in Virginia, Minnesota and Michigan, three states with Democratic governors. Many of these early events were organized on Facebook, but the anti-Whitmer sentiment quickly became ubiquitous on social networks and traditional media.
I love Michigan, one of the reasons we are doing such a great job for them during this terrible pandemic. But your governor, Gretchen "Half" Whitmer, is way over her head, she has no idea. Like to blame everyone for their own incompetence! #MAGA
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2020
By July, the group contemplated attacking a Michigan State Police location, but ended up kidnapping Whitmer from her private vacation home or the governor's summer residence. On the same day that that decision was made, Fox wrote on a private Facebook page: “We're about to get ladies and gentlemen busy. . . This is where the patriot appears. Sacrifices his time, his money, his blood sweat and his tears. . . it's starting now, so fuck it up !! "
The group alternated between kidnapping Whitmer for a private "trial" and killing her immediately. Over the coming months, they monitored Whitmer's vacation home, gathered supplies, and planned detailed logistics for the kidnapping plan, including the idea of blowing up a nearby bridge to divert police attention. The group discussed these detailed plans in an encrypted chat.
The affidavit reads: "FOX has made multiple expressions of its intention and desire to kidnap Governor Whitmer before November 3, 2020, the date of the national elections."
The affidavit also lists some of the training drills that members of the conspiracy with militias in Wisconsin and Michigan participated in. There they practiced the production of IEDs “with black powder, balloons, a fuse and BBs for splinters” and carried out exercises for training firearms and fighting. According to the affidavit, they shared photos and videos of their techniques through “Facebook discussions”.
A shift on Facebook
Facebook's attitude towards some forms of extremist activity has changed radically in recent months. While armed political groups have long been thriving on the platform, in August the company cracked down on so-called “militarized social movements”. Just this week, Facebook announced both a broader ban on the pro-Trump conspiracy known as QAnon and a new policy to intimidate voters using militaristic language.
When asked if the terrorist attack had an impact on the company's recent surprise policy changes, Facebook didn't give a straight answer. It's also not clear whether the domestic terrorist attack used Facebook groups for recruitment and online connection, or just for communication between members who already knew each other in real life.
Researchers studying extremism have long raised concerns that Facebook's algorithmic recommendations can lead users to dangerous ideas and behavior.
Militias and other types of domestic extremist groups have increasingly relied on Facebook for recruiting in recent years. Once members are connected and verified, often through public groups, they can be in an inner circle, sometimes in the form of a private Facebook group. The Proud Boys, a violent far-right group with ties to white supremacists, were a prime example of this recruiting strategy.
Users can be guided into those extremist groups through Facebook's algorithmic suggestions previously displayed in a box next to a group's activity. For Facebook Pages, these suggestions will still appear next to the main content stream, directing users to "related pages".
Facebook banned the Proud Boys from its platform at the end of 2018. But groups interested in violence and having a lower profile will be present on the platform well into 2020, including a number of state “patriot” organizations and anti-government boogaloo groups that coordinate firearms and guns Combat training via the platform.
In June, Facebook banned a “violent network” of boogaloo groups, but other groups persist and organize under code words related to the boogaloo movement. A boogaloo site theinformationsuperhighway called "definitely not boogaloo" was selling "Boogaloo Boys" patches and posting violent memes just this week.
Unfortunately for researchers and reporters following this type of activity, Facebook recently removed the option to see at a glance how many members are in a public group from the search page.
Facebook recently announced a plan to actually expand the reach of its public groups and make them accessible to more users. "Public group posts may now be distributed more on and off Facebook, so more people can discover and participate in the conversation," Facebook wrote in the announcement.