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.

9/14/20 – Network-Enabled Anarchy: How Militant Anarcho-Socialist Networks Use Social Media to Instigate Widespread Violence Against Political Opponents and Law Enforcement

Contributors:

Joel Finkelstein, Corresponding Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute
The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University
Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
joel@ncri.io

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

Sean Stevens, Author
Advisor, The Network Contagion Research Institute

Lee Jussim, Author
Chair, Distinguished Professor, Department of Psychology
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

John Farmer, Author
Former New Jersey State Attorney General and Chief Counsel, 9/11 Commission
Director, Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

John K. Donohue, Author
NYPD Chief of Strategic Initiatives (Ret.)

Pamela Paresky, Author
University of Chicago

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COVID-19, CONSPIRACY AND CONTAGIOUS SEDITION: A Case Study on the Militia-Sphere

Contributors:

Joel Finkelstein, Corresponding Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute
The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University
Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
joel@ncri.io

John K. Donohue, Author
NYPD Chief of Strategic Initiatives (Ret.)

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

Jason Baumgartner, Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute

John Farmer, Author
Former New Jersey State Attorney General and Chief Counsel, 9/11 Commission
Director, Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Savvas Zannettou, Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute
Max Planck Institute for Informatics

Jeremy Blackburn, Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute
Binghamton University

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The state by state lockdowns of social and economic activity put in place to attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic have also caused social dislocation on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. Not surprisingly in such an environment, in which fear of the disease is compounded by social isolation and widespread unemployment, discontent has grown steadily as the weeks of lockdown have passed.

A number of Americans—although far from most, according to recent surveys—have grown frustrated with the restrictions on their freedoms and have begun registering those frustrations by calling for a relaxation of the lockdown orders and a reopening of society. A relative few have participated in organized and sometimes armed rallies in state capitols, exercising their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly and their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

This report does not concern peaceful expressions of our constitutional values. Within the ranks of the discontented, however, certain extremist subgroups have been coalescing demonstrably over social media into what we term a “Militia-sphere,” in which the pandemic is dismissed as a political excuse or hoax to enable governments to curtail individual freedoms, and in which law enforcement officers and other government officials are portrayed as the willing instruments of this oppression. The Militia-sphere’s messaging has grown increasingly extreme as the pandemic has progressed, to the point of threatening and enacting violent attacks.

This report details the emergence of a militant network as it coalesces around shared attitudes toward the legitimacy of the pandemic, the lockdown orders, and the role of law enforcement and other government officials. It demonstrates the rising intensity of the messaging associated with the various subgroups, the expanding platform for such messaging as it has spread from fringe web platforms to mainstream sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and the deliberate efforts of the Militia-sphere’s exponents to hijack the national conversation about the pandemic and about when and how the state by state lockdown orders should be relaxed. Finally, the report shows how the largest online conspiracy group in the U.S., QAnon, militarizes in the face of these events to draw massive populist support to portray increasingly seditious and apocalyptic confrontations against the lockdown, government, and a nefarious elite.

Law enforcement patrols the fault lines of our society. It is the first responder for ensuring that the rights of people to assemble and speak are safeguarded, while at the same time preserving public order and the ability for others to go about their lives peacefully. By their very nature, public rallies bring similarly minded ideologically motivated people to a central and symbolic location to amplify the unifying message of their cause. Given the highly charged nature of the current anti-lockdown rallies, with heavily armed persons expressing grievances specifically related to the government-imposed restrictions on assemblage during this pandemic, the potential for violence is now palpable. As this report demonstrates, that potential is amplified by an emerging and uncharted network for opportunistic violence and propaganda.

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WEAPONIZED INFORMATION OUTBREAK: A Case Study on COVID-19, Bioweapon Myths, and the Asian Conspiracy Meme

Contributors:

Savvas Zannettou, Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute
Max Planck Institute for Informatics

Jason Baumgartner, Author
The Network Contagion Research Institute

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

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

John Farmer, Contributing Editor
Former New Jersey State Attorney General and Chief Counsel, 9/11 Commission
Director, Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

John K. Donohue, Contributing Editor
NYPD Chief of Strategic Initiatives (Ret.)

Paul Goldenberg, Contributing Editor
Senior Fellow, Rutgers University Miller Center
Member of (HSAC) US Department of Homeland Security Advisory Counsel

Violent, ethnic hate is exacerbated instantaneously by outbreaks of weaponized information during episodes of viral pandemics. Even as intelligence and law enforcement chart new waves of attacks against Asian citizens1, they remain challenged to understand how social media empowers the self-organization of these massive waves of violence from weaponized information.

As paranoia now rises around COVID-19, several major challenges prevent the protection of these vulnerable outgroups from ethnic hate, especially on social media. Objectively identifying which groups attract hostility in a timely fashion, cataloging cryptic, hateful language and specific conspiracies as they evolve and determining which communities and actors source hostility—all pose significant challenges to law enforcement and intelligence.

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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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