Facebook Violence Curbs Thwarted by Groups Using Code Words
(Bloomberg) -- When President Donald Trump urged Americans last month to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” on Twitter, a private Facebook group named “Boogaloo Enthusiasts: CORONAPOCALYPSE” welcomed the tweet.
“Did Trump just call for boogaloo?,” one member wrote, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Well, you heard the man! Let’s go bois,” another responded.
Membership in Facebook groups focused on violent anti-government uprisings in the U.S. has doubled in recent weeks as the coronavirus pandemic has spread and governments impose restrictions aimed at slowing the contagion.
To get their message across, these groups are exploiting loopholes in Facebook anti-violence policies -- using satire, code words and other tactics that mask their motives, according to experts who follow fringe groups on social media. One of the more common such phrases is “boogaloo,” which can refer to a kind of music but more recently has come to describe a pending civil war.
The boogaloo groups, and other extremist groups deploying similar tactics, pose yet another test for the Menlo Park, California-based social media giant, as it tries to strike a workable balance between allowing free discourse and curbing disinformation or those encouraging violence and law breaking.
Facebook’s efforts to fight everything from Covid-19 misinformation to animal trafficking have been made more difficult by the company’s push into more private, encrypted communication, which can make some illicit activity almost impossible to detect -- a trade-off that Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said he’s willing to accept. And though Facebook has delayed other content moderation to focus on pandemic-related material, Facebook groups have continued to promote fake cures and protests to reopen states that could violate social distancing mandates.
Facebook’s challenge has been highlighted by the lockdown protests -- a fringe movement that the “boogaloo” and other far-right groups have leveraged as a recruiting tool, experts say. Between February and April, the number of boogaloo Facebook groups grew from about 75 to 125, according to an April report by the Tech Transparency Project. Membership doubled to 70,000 in a monthlong period ending in late April, according to the report.
“The platforms’ own practices and design create these loopholes that allow disinformation conspiracy theories and radicalizations to exist. What you’re seeing with boogaloo is an example of that,” said Karen Kornbluh, senior fellow and director at the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund. “They are able to pretty clearly violate the terms of service through such simple, obvious strategies, which shows that there’s a lot of tightening up that can be done.”
Facebook and Instagram updated their violence and incitement policy on May 1 to prohibit the use of boogaloo terms when they are accompanied by statements and images depicting armed violence, according to a spokeswoman. She declined to provide a time frame for when they would fully take effect.
More broadly, Facebook is increasingly removing content “connected to organized hate” according to a May 12 blog post. The social media company said it removed 4.7 million pieces of such content from January through March -- 3 million more than it had in the preceding quarter.
Facebook is aware that groups try to hide from their detection efforts, which include user flagging, artificial intelligence and human reviewers, the spokeswoman said. For example, the term “boogaloo” doesn’t always refer to civil war -- it also refers to a music genre, which means Facebook has to review boogaloo uses in context, according to the spokeswoman. It’s also a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” reference to the 1984 breakdancing movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” according to Alice Marwick, an assistant professor of media and technology at the University of North Carolina.
Other Facebook groups attempt to hide by posting images that obscure problematic images or using words that would otherwise flag Facebook’s search tools by writing them in other languages, such as using Roman characters for Arabic words, according to another Facebook representative.
A team of 350 people -- including experts in law enforcement, national security and radicalizations -- studies trends in speech related to violence that lead to real-world harm, including how groups use veiled language to hide their activity, the representatives said. Facebook has also commissioned independent research to monitor shifts across the internet in order to crack down on violent content masked by humor or sarcasm, the representatives said.
In response to questions from Bloomberg News, the administrators of a prominent Boogaloo group, Thicc Boog Line, said members use memes, imagery and satire to start conversations about government overreach and to promote “radical liberty” for all, regardless of race, religion or sexual preference. The group tries to comply with Facebook’s terms of service and changes names and terms to “spice things up,” not to avoid detection, the administrators said.
“Satire is art, and while it may not be an art form that is appreciated by everyone it is art nonetheless,” they said. “If Facebook wants us gone they’ll delete our groups. They will give us no explanation, and we won’t expect one.”
They denied their group’s mission group is to encourage violence but pointed out that other boogaloo groups are “more extreme in their rhetoric.” Some boogaloo groups have been shut down by Facebook, they said, after being infiltrated by white supremacists who “spam the group with pornographic images or racists memes to trigger the algorithms.”
Far-right groups have used in-the-know jokes to engage in racist banter or lend support to violent anti-government rhetoric, Kornbluh said. Facebook doesn’t necessarily check on groups labeled as satire, she said.
For instance, the group called “Anti-SJW Pinochet’s Helicopter Pilot Academy” was apparently a smirking reference to the practice of throwing people out of helicopters, called death flights, which has been used by several repressive regimes including that of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. SJW stands for social justice warrior, a term used to mock progressives. The group has promoted white supremacy and sometimes called for violence, Kornbluh said. After Bloomberg News inquired about the group, Facebook removed it for violating its policy on hate speech, a spokeswoman said.
Facebook doesn’t adequately look for problematic content in groups, especially private groups, instead relying on its algorithm to catch suspicious activity, according to the Tech Transparency Project. That means administrators of groups are essentially given the role of serving as content moderators. “Even when we as the group admins shake our heads at it, it is not our place to censor it,” the Thicc Boog Line administrators said.
Of the boogaloo groups, 90% are private, and some frequently change names so they are hard to find, according to the Tech Transparency Project.
Private boogaloo groups contain photos of weapon stockpiles and call for violence against U.S. law enforcement and minority groups, the report said. While members are specific about their instructions for violence, they can avoid setting off the algorithm trained to detect violence by strategically using code words or variations of names and words -- including “boog,” “big igloo” and “boojihadeen,” the experts said.
At a recent lockdown rally in New Hampshire, pamphlets with the slogan “liberty or boogaloo” were spotted, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. At a rally in Olympia, Washington, last month, an organizer encouraged protesters to wear Hawaiian shirts -- its own form of dog whistle, symbolizing “big luau” or “boogaloo” for those in the know, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.