Michigan kidnapping plot, like so many other extremist crimes, foreshadowed on social media

Such online declarations, brimming with anger and potentially violent intent, have become staples of extremism-fueled crime news in recent years, from police killings to synagogue massacres to bombing plots. Before they become real, they percolate online, courtesy of a social media ecosystem that is ubiquitous, barely moderated and well suited to helping aggrieved people find each other.

Fox and other suspects in the plot to kidnap Whitmer (D) left a trail on social media that, viewed with the hindsight of Thursday’s announcement of their arrests, looks both troubling and troublingly familiar — a line of rage that flows from online memes to real-world violence that at times has become deadly.

There’s a YouTube video of one suspect, Brandon Caserta, pretending to fire a weapon while wearing a sleeveless shirt that used an obscenity to describe what he’d like to do to “THE GOVERNMENT.” Visible in the closet behind him are Hawaiian shirts — common symbols of the violently anti-government Boogaloo movement. In a TikTok video, Caserta is shown wearing such a shirt.

There’s the Twitter account that apparently belongs to another suspect, Barry Croft, ranting about immigrants, praising President Trump and calling for the prosecution of Trump’s onetime Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. One image featured by the account shows a young man draped in ammunition and cradling a rifle in his hands. Croft also appears to have an account on a small social media site devoted to spreading QAnon, the right-wing conspiracy theory.

And then there was a Facebook page called “Michigan Militia Corps, Wolverines” that, until it was taken down in recent weeks, enlisted similar rhetoric as the group behind the plot, which authorities identified as “Wolverine Watchmen.” In a May post linking to an article headlined, “Trump sides with protesters against Michigan governor,” there is an accompanying image of men holding massive firearms.

“Social media companies have been allowing these communities to build and grow, ignoring the mounting evidence that memes, posts and images encouraging violence can and do translate into actual violence,” said Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and vice president of analysis for the Alethea Group, which tracks online threats and discovered the Wolverines page. “Not only have many of these Michigan pages and groups been on Facebook for years, the Facebook algorithm actively recommended other militia-related groups and pages to join, allowing each page and group to expand their reach. ”

Facebook in June removed hundreds of Boogaloo accounts and groups, including one for the Wolverine Watchmen, after growing signs that their violent online rhetoric was spilling into the real world. The company said in a statement Thursday: “We remove content, disable accounts and immediately report to law enforcement when there is a credible threat of imminent harm to people or public safety. We proactively reached out and cooperated with the FBI early in this ongoing investigation.”

Though it’s impossible to know exactly what role social media plays in developing criminal intent, incidents of violent extremism increasingly are accompanied by substantial evidence of online activity that, after arrests, is laid out in court documents and cobbled together by independent researchers.

When a security guard was gunned down in May outside the federal courthouse in Oakland, Calif., investigators quickly linked his accused killer, Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo, to the Boogaloo movement, which spread extensively on Facebook and other social media before sites cracked down on them.

Carrillo, according to court documents, posted about his desire to inflame protests happening near the Oakland courthouse ahead of his ambush of the security guard. “Use their anger to fuel our fire. Think outside the box. We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.” He scrawled the word “Boog” in blood on a car he had stolen in a separate incident that resulted in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy.

In June, federal officials charged three men affiliated with Boogaloo of planning to use molotov cocktails and other explosives to trigger a violent reaction among protesters gathered in Las Vegas. They were part of a Nevada Boogaloo group on Facebook, documents said.

In the 15-page FBI affidavit about the Michigan plot released Thursday, there are three references to a private Facebook group and 11 to encrypted communication apps. Independent researchers soon found the arrested men active on Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube.

A second criminal affidavit, filed by the Michigan State Police, said that one of the arrested men, Joseph Morrison, was the commander of Wolverine Watchman. But he had another name he used online, Boogaloo Bunyan, in yet another reference to the violent anti-government movement that gained prominence during the anti-government protests that erupted in many state capitals and other cities in the spring.

Although much online extremism comes with at least a dash of irony or humor, sometimes delivered in visual memes, it can have the effect of gradually introducing radical ideas to people newly encountering them online.

“After you’re exposed to ironic violence for an extended period of time, the irony fades away. Then it’s just violence,” said Alex Goldenberg, lead intelligence analyst for the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies online extremism and has warned about the dangers posed by the Boogaloo.

SITE Intelligence Group, meanwhile, found threats to Whitmer and government officials generally on fringe social media sites, such as 8kun. One user lamented that the governor wasn’t killed when protesters entered the Capitol in Lansing in April to protest pandemic-related restrictions on individuals and businesses.

“You can’t seize power unless you kill those who had power,” the anonymous user said. “They did not. ”

SITE Executive Director Rita Katz said, “In recent months at SITE, we’ve watched different corners of the far right and militia groups flooding the same predictions of civil war, military coups, and chaos. It’s a startling consensus among them that violence against the ‘other’ is inevitable. ”

The Facebook page affiliated with the Wolverines group had around 3,000 likes and was active until at least the end of August, according to the Alethea Group’s Otis.

An examination by Alethea Group and the Global Disinformation Index, which also tracks online threats, suggests social media has been instrumental in the escalating actions by Michigan militias, first over pandemic-related restrictions imposed by Whitmer and now in the run-up to the November election, despite recent efforts by Facebook and other platforms to curtail violent activity.

The groups, while now mostly knocked off Facebook, used the platform for years to build their membership, exchange information, host events and coordinate training. In the spring, they proved themselves capable of disrupting democracy, fomenting armed standoffs at the Capitol that caused the state to cancel a legislative session.

The Wolverines page advertised meet-and-greets and pro-gun marches. It was also littered with anti-Whitmer content, including a headline calling her “America’s most incompetent politician,” according to a cached version of the page.

Alethea Group and the Global Disinformation Index identified 25 militia groups in Michigan, including several that operate well-organized bureaucracies with leadership hierarchies, local chapters, and fitness and training activities.

While some of the groups have recently been banned from Facebook, their members say they quickly have been able to restore their personal accounts and have little difficulty communicating through other channels, including the social networking app MeWe.

The main obstacle for Phil Robinson, a co-founder of the Michigan Liberty Militia who appeared during the spring’s events in Lansing with green tactical gloves and a matching long gun, was that he lost photos he had posted of the group. “We’re always ready to respond,” he said, while adding that preparing for winter was a more immediate concern than the election.

At least two members of the Liberty Militia were arrested as part of Wednesday’s sweep, according to Michael Lackomar, a communications officer and team leader for the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia. Robinson did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

One of the suspects who faces federal charges, Caserta, appeared to have a TikTok account under the username kinetictruth.

In a recent video, he is shown wearing a Hawaiian shirt, which has become a marker of the Boogaloo movement. In another, he warns that the “price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” according to a recording from the Detroit News. But after the charges were filed, his videos were removed and his account was banned from the app. TikTok confirmed it removed the account in line with its policies “to reduce potential glorification of harm or martyrdom,” representative Hilary McQuaide said.

Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.