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Can Police Distinguish Social Media Ramblings From Real Danger?

White nationalists and supremacists, on accounts run by young men, are building thriving, macho communities across social media platforms like Instagram, Telegram and TikTok, evading detection with coded hashtags and innuendo. Their posts are of a distinct type, hinting darkly that the CIA or the FBI are behind mass shootings. They traffic in racist, sexist and homophobic tropes, reveling at the prospect of a “white boy summer.” Snarky memes and trendy videos are riling up thousands of followers on divisive issues like abortion, guns, immigration and LGBTQ rights, reports the Associated Press . The Department of Homeland Security warned last week that such skewed framing could drive extremists to attack public places in the coming months.

These threats and racist ideologies have become so commonplace on social media that it’s nearly impossible for law enforcement to separate internet ramblings from dangerous, potentially violent people, says Michael German, who infiltrated white supremacy groups as an FBI agent. “It seems intuitive that effective social media monitoring might provide clues to help law enforcement prevent attacks,” German said. “After all, the white supremacist attackers in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and El Paso all gained access to materials online and expressed their hateful, violent intentions on social media.” The heightened concern comes after a white 18-year-old entered a supermarket in Buffalo with the goal of killing as many Black patrons as possible. He gunned down 10. That shooter claims to have been introduced to neo-Nazi websites and a livestream of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings on the anonymous, online messaging board 4Chan. Facebook and Instagram owner Meta banned support for white nationalist and separatists movements in 2019 on company platforms, but the social media shift to subtlety makes it difficult to moderate the posts. Meta says it has more than 350 experts, with backgrounds from national security to radicalization research, dedicated to ridding the site of hateful speech.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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