Addressing Homegrown Violent Extremists on Social Media

Such homegrown terrorists, along with anti-government militia activity and racially motivated extremism, are often overlooked by the mainstream media, where the focus is largely on the threats posed by outsider groups like the Islamic State.

by / May 19, 2016
This map depicts the domestic terror incidents in the United States in 2015. They range from anti-government actors to extremist groups supporting animal rights. New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP)

Late last month, GovTech caught up with officials leading the cybersecurity charge in New Jersey’s Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell (NJCCIC). During the conversation, we learned that their approach also included analysts from the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP), who help to close the communications gap between state agencies and improve intelligence sharing.

On Tuesday, May 17, analysts and NJOHSP officials hosted a monthly intelligence webinar to brief their national partners on a recent domestic terror conference and to “unclassify” some of the threats they monitor on a daily basis. The webinar was attended by participants from state and federal law enforcement, academia and private-sector partners from across the country. 

During the roughly 50-minute webinar, counterterror officials discussed the overarching threat environment, but also some of the technological tools used by the groups in question and how NJOHSP monitors these threats online. 

The transparent, and almost surprising, approach to homeland security is meant to drive awareness of issues, like homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), anti-government militia activity and racially motivated extremism within the state. 

According to those on the afternoon call, these topics are often overlooked by the mainstream media, where the focus is largely on the threats posed by outsider groups like the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL).

Among the myriad topics discussed during the panel was the idea that social media has become a useful tool in the efforts of certain groups to spread their extremist ideals. Analyst Paige Schilling said she constantly monitors social platforms like Twitter to stay on top of the conversations around certain hashtags.

“I can say as an analyst that I am on TweetDeck most of my day and I’m looking at different hashtags,” she said. “The news may not be 100 percent accurate because it’s coming out so quickly, but it’s a way to really connect with different academics and follow and watch for these hashtags so you can watch for them and view the movements overall.”

Unlike accounts linked to ISIS, Schilling said groups like white supremacists and black separatists are often not as likely to have their accounts closed by administrators, which allows them to retain followers and use the online mediums to effectively communicate their messages.

When asked whether social media has been as useful a tool for investigators and analysts as it has been for domestic extremist groups, officials said there was no surefire way to measure. Dean Baratta, the analysis bureau chief with the NJOHSP, said the online tools play an important role for both sides of the domestic terror issue.  

“I think it’s been valuable. I don’t know if I can weigh which has been more valuable for whom. But certainly, if you review for example the criminal complaints of the dozens of homegrown violent extremists that have been arrested since 2010 ... these extremists go online, on some form of social media usually, and say something, do something, incriminate themselves that leads to them getting charged. So, it does help, but certainly extremist groups are finding it valuable as well.”

When asked whether domestic groups appear to be focused on the critical cybersystems and infrastructure, officials said the issue was not specifically addressed during the conference under discussion, but confirmed it was an important topic for future dialog.

Baratta said the technology focus of the recent conference was more focused on how technology is being leveraged by groups operating within the borders of the United States.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.