Contagion and Ideology Reports

These are an independent, data-driven, evidence-based series of reports that the NCRI and select partners release regarding the spread of hostile ideological content. One of the main goals of these reports is to handle sensitive social issues around the spread of ideology in an objective and data driven way. We aim to facilitate honest conversations about the spread of political deception, hate and manipulation, especially on social media.

CYBER SWARMING, MEMETIC WARFARE AND VIRAL INSURGENCY: How Domestic Militants Organize on Memes to Incite Violent Insurrection and Terror Against Government and Law Enforcement

Contributors:

Alex Goldenberg, Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute
alex@ncri.io

Joel Finkelstein, Corresponding Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute
The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University
joel@ncri.io

 

NCRI White Paper Memetic Warfare

Even as law enforcement and intelligence begin to map how social media can rapidly radicalize individuals to commit acts of domestic terror, they remain challenged to understand how social media empowers entirely new groups to self-organize radicalized militant cells and incite violence. The ability of extremist groups to self-organize creates a new and poorly understood theater for emerging threats in the cyber domain. In this briefing, we document a recently formed apocalyptic militia ideology which, through the use of memes—coded inside jokes conveyed by image or text—advocates extreme violence against law enforcement and government officials. Termed the “boogaloo,” this ideology self organizes across social media communities, boasts tens of thousands of users, exhibits a complex division of labor, evolves well-developed channels to innovate and distribute violent propaganda, deploys a complex communication network on extremist, mainstream and dark Web communities, and articulates a hybrid structure between lone-wolf and cell-like organization. Like a virus which awakens from dormancy, this meme has emerged with startling speed in merely the last 3–4 months. Using a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches to our investigation, we chart this contagion as it metastasizes across Facebook, Instagram and the chans. We document how boogaloo enthusiasts strategize, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass. Perhaps most alarmingly, we observe how the boogaloo is specifically marketed, through merchandise and memes, towards current and former members of the American Armed Forces. As we document this new structure and capability, we provide recommendations for how policy makers and officials examining unlawful acts or perceived threats may better investigate, prepare and operationally integrate for memetic warfare, an evolving threat domain.

 

The Boogaloo Meme, Origins and Current Context On January 20th, thousands descended on Richmond, Virginia, for the Virginia Citizens Defense League’s annual Lobby Day. In attendance were traditional gun-rights supporters as well as militia groups, conspiracy theorists, and far-right extremists ranging from ethnic supremacists to extreme libertarians. One particular group of interest, identified as the Patriot Wave, donned Pepe the Frog patches entitled “Boogaloo Boys,” as well as patches evocative of the American flag emblazoned with an igloo in place of the 50 stars. Some members wore a skull balaclava, which according to the SPLC, is considered the face of 21st-century fascism and is a key symbol of the Atomwaffen Division. One member of the Patriot Wave during a podcast posted on the Patriot Wave Facebook page boastfully declared, “Some of the guys we were with aren’t exactly out of the military yet, so they had to keep their faces covered.” The boogaloo catchphrase, or meme, is based on the 1984 movie sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which critics panned as a shockingly unoriginal, near-mirror copy of the original film. As adopted by meme culture, the term is often used by libertarians, gun enthusiasts, and anarchists to describe an uprising against the government or left-wing political opponents that is a near-mirror copy, or sequel to, the American Civil War. While the reference has been around for years, recent iterations have caught on and spread quickly over the past few months. While many still use the boogaloo meme jokingly, an increasing number of people employ the phrase to incite an apocalyptic confrontation with law enforcement and government officials or to provoke ethnic warfare. This ambiguity is a key feature of the problem: Like a virus hiding from the immune system, the use of comical-meme language permits the network to organize violence secretly behind a mirage of inside jokes and plausible deniability. Evolving threats, from this vantage, can emerge all at once, undetected and with no top down organization at all. Traditional qualitative analysis methods, by themselves, fall short in the capacity to detect such self-organized genocidal violence over massive scales of data, through inside jokes and unknown dog whistles.

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