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Violent militia groups have become “key” spreaders of vaccine misinformation on Facebook, and now those groups are using the platform to boost their online followings and urge new followers to engage in violent, real-world protests.
These are the findings of a new report called “Facebook’s New Toxic Stew: Militia Groups and Vaccine Conspiracies” from the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), a nonprofit that aims to hold Big Tech accountable for its failings. The report was shared exclusively with VICE News ahead of its publication Tuesday.
By leveraging the fear and anxiety about COVID-19 and the pandemic, militia groups like the Three Percenters are reaching new audiences that would have had little or nothing to do with them before.
“You get the soccer mom who doesn’t see herself as a Three Percenter or maybe didn't think of herself as a ‘Stop the Steal’ person, but those moms are aggressive about protecting their kids from the vaccines, and so it's easy to loop in an entirely new audience,” Katie Paul, director of TTP, told VICE News.
And the social media giant has allowed the administrators of some of these organizations to obtain a “Group Expert” badge—a label the company says is designed to recognize “trusted, well-informed members.”
The admins of these groups are using their new titles to spread dangerous COVID-19 misinformation. They’re also boosting violent rhetoric about a coming vaccine war and spreading baseless conspiracy theories about Bill Gates.
Facebook rolled out its “Group Expert” label in April, while it was struggling to get a grip on widespread sharing of COVID-19 misinformation on the platform, something Paul says should not have happened:
“When it was rolled out in April of this year, [Facebook] hadn't gotten a handle on the vaccine misinformation, the COVID misinformation, the election misinformation, and yet they're creating these new tools that they have to imagine are going to be used by nefarious actors inappropriately. So while failing to address their problems they're adding in new tools to make those problems worse.”
And the result could be lethal, Paul said. “Passing off vaccine misinformation as expertise is something that can literally kill people.”
TTP did not share its findings with Facebook ahead of the report’s publication, and the social media company told VICE News that it could not comment on the findings in detail without first seeing the report.
But Facebook spokesperson Drew Pusateri told VICE News the company had removed tens of millions of pieces of misinformation on the platform, which he said had contributed to the fact that “for people in the U.S. on Facebook, vaccine hesitancy has declined by 50% since January, and acceptance is high.”
Groups that call themselves militias are not automatically banned from Facebook, but Pusateri said the company has banned more than 890 of these organizations to date, removing almost 20,000 Facebook groups in the process.
Paul said TTP did not share the details of their report with Facebook because “we're not here to be their free content moderators,” pointing out that when TTP shared details of previous reports with them the company failed to act on the information they contained.
To highlight the findings of the new report, consumer activist group SumOfUs placed life-sized cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, dressed in full camo gear and standing next to life-sized cutouts of militia members, outside the company’s headquarters on Tuesday morning.
The trend of far-right extremist groups looking to capitalize on the chaos created by the pandemic emerged last year when the Boogaloo Bois started to use lockdowns as a way to get people involved in fighting so-called government tyranny.
Today the militia groups are focusing more on mask mandates and vaccine mandates being introduced across the country. Rather than just posting misinformation about these perceived threats online, these militia groups are openly urging their new followers to take up arms against those in authority.
“If there is a national vaccine mandate of some sort, we will see violence, because that's exactly what these people are protesting against,” Paul said.
And it’s happening already. Last month, the militia group “Idaho Liberty Dogs” promoted a July 15 rally at the Boise Capitol against vaccine mandates for healthcare workers, with a flyer saying, “WE ALL HAVE A CHOICE! #STOPTHEMANDATE.” The rally drew hundreds of people.
And just last weekend, a protest outside Los Angeles City Hall against COVID-19 vaccine requirements was attended by members of the Proud Boys. The protest became violent, and one person was stabbed.
One of the biggest groups being tracked by the TTP is “US Freedom Fighters,” which has amassed over 4,500 members since it was started in late April. The group’s leaders make it clear that they believe a war between the vaccinated and unvaccinated is imminent.
“We need to prepare for what is lying ahead, which in most cases is looking like another civil war, and we need to start preparing for that,” the group’s about page states. “They are segregating us by vaccine vs no vaccine, mask and no mask… Eventually they will be introducing a vaccine passport in order for you to travel anywhere. You think it’s just going to stop there? If you are in this group you had better be prepared to actually have to do something! We aren't just sitting around being keyboard warriors!”
Those applying to join the group are asked a series of questions about how far they are willing to go to protect their freedom. As one question put it: “Are you willing to go full on as if your life depends on it? (which it does).”
Facebook is even allowing these militia groups to run ads spreading COVID-19 disinformation.
The militia group linked to anti-government activist and Idaho governor candidate Ammon Bundy has established a Facebook group called “The Bundy Ranch”, amassing over 180,000 followers. It serves “as an online bullhorn for whipping up anti-vaccine sentiment and other misinformation about the pandemic,” the report states.
Back in May 2020, the group was allowed to run an ad that claimed Washington State was going to put children in “emergency quarantine centers.” The Washington state Department of Health issued a statement calling such claims “rumors and misinformation.”
“[The groups are] capitalizing on people's desperation and fear around the vaccine, and the concerns of government overreach and we're seeing increasingly violent rhetoric and organizing… it's really taking advantage of people who were already vulnerable and misinformed and just amplifying that on an even more concerning scale.”
Paul says the problem is caused by the sheer scale of Facebook’s network and the difficulty of monitoring such a large amount of content. But it is also caused by the company’s failure to invest in the right type of experts, who could help address the problem.
“Facebook is not investing in experts,” Paul said. “They have listings for lobbyists in DC, but not a single listing for an expert in medical information, in vaccine information, in militia groups, in wildlife trafficking, in any of these areas where there are people with deep expertise that the platform is not willing to invest in hiring experts in these areas. They want the cheapest possible solution, which is AI, and it’s not effective.”