The good news is that online extremism is not thriving in Monterey County as it is elsewhere in the country. The bad news is that corporate gatekeepers keep so much of what’s happening on the internet private and proprietary that it’s impossible to be sure of the above.
The Weekly recently reported on a new research team at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies that uses tech tools to track hate speech, incitement to violence, and how people get radicalized on the internet. As part of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, they are contributing to a growing field focused on turning the internet into a less dangerous place.
In the spirit of collaboration, CTEC Deputy Director Kris McGuffie and Digital Research Lead Alex Newhouse agreed to train the Weekly, providing a tutorial on how to search for online extremists tied to a certain geographic region, in this case, Monterey County.
The first thing to understand, Newhouse says, is the goals of the extremists on the internet. They want to radicalize as many people as possible, which means they must operate on mainstream social networks like Facebook or YouTube. These platforms have weaknesses that can be exploited, like the tendency of polarizing content to go viral.
After priming audiences with subtle messages of hate, extremists hope to recruit more people into their movement and they do so on niche online communities. They target individual users on video game forums, apps like Discord, or certain groups on Reddit.
Finally, extremists need to develop their group’s identity, plan gatherings or demonstrations and eventually violent attacks. That activity happens in designated digital communities, with some known examples being Iron March, Stormfront, KiwiFarms and 8kun.
Each of these online spaces, from Facebook through 8kun, can be classified according to how easily accessible and searchable it is. There’s the regular internet, or “Clearnet,” which is indexed by search engines and is easy to navigate. The “Grey Web” refers to invite-only groups or spaces that you have to already know about to reach. The most hidden part of the internet is called the “Dark Web.” It will never show up on Google results and getting to it requires specialized software such as a Tor browser. The Dark Web is where child pornography is distributed, drug deals are conducted, and where neo-Nazis make plots.
After going over the basics, Newhouse talks about the methods of investigation. This tutorial is taking place on Zoom, so Newhouse begins sharing his screen. The first stop is Facebook where he quickly locates a certain politically focused page with Monterey County in its name. He scrolls down to reach the sidebar suggesting “Related Pages.” This sidebar is populated by a recommendation algorithm, which is one of the main ways regular users on innocuous pages get funneled toward extremist pages.
“Facebook’s recommendation algorithm is completely broken down, sending you to ever more extremist content,” Newhouse says. It’s like a rabbit hole of radicalization. YouTube has been shamed into changing a similar recommendation algorithm, but it remains in place on Facebook. Newhouse goes through a few Related Pages, but nothing alarming comes up.
Next up, Newhouse opens up a website called Iron March Exposed, a database of leaked posts from the now-defunct fascist chat platform Iron March. A keyword search for “Monterey” yields a post from May 20, 2015 by a user known only as Jakob. Jakob says he’s 18 and finishing up high school somewhere in or near Monterey. He says he’s an Eagle Scout and a Senior Patrol Leader and his goal is to become a U.S. Air Force pilot. Jakob is also well-read, and he rattles off his fascist credentials: “My preferred authors are George Lincoln Rockwell, Julius Evola, Benito Mussolini and Machiavelli, and I have just started reading Mein Kampf,” he writes. His classmates just never seemed to get it: “I am joining because of the lack of like-minded people around me. I went into high school smoking weed, thinking race-mixing was fine and thinking gays were alright.” To end his post, Jakob notes that he is “very good at shooting. I grew up around firearms and have plenty of training with rifles and shotguns and handguns alike.”
(Deputy Scout Executive Eric Tarbox says he searched the Boy Scouts database but could not identify any Eagle Scout or a Senior Patrol Leader with a matching age and name.)
After Iron March shut down, white supremacists migrated to Discord, among other places. And there was a leak from that platform as well, Newhouse says, while navigating to Discord Leaks, a database hosted by a media outlet called Unicorn Riot. Another place to hunt for hate speech is 4plebs.org, where conversations that took place on 4chan, an anonymous internet forum, are archived.
This type of work is quite manual, and extremism researchers are assisted by their accumulation of knowledge about memes, slang and violent ideologies. Clues such as user names and email addresses can sometimes be tracked and cross-checked on different platforms to discover more details about profiles of users.
But without too many concrete local results, Newhouse moves on another set of techniques – those involving the collection of large amounts of data for further analysis. Relatively few social media companies make their data accessible for downloading by researchers and analysts. Examples of transparent companies – with what are known as open APIs, or application programming interfaces – include Twitter, Reddit and Telegram. (Facebook and Instagram, by contrast, do not allow data to be downloaded in bulk.)
After learning how to download as many as 18,000 tweets at a time, the Weekly wrote some of its own lines of code using the software language R. Every tweet posted over the past week or so and linked to a location within a 30-mile radius of Monterey County’s geographic center entered into a new dataframe. Next, the Weekly searched the dataframe for certain polarizing terms and codewords, like “#Obamagate” and “QAnon.” Many of the resulting tweets were from ordinary people simply remarking on the news of the day. Some led to anonymous accounts like @LawlessBorders located in “Freedom, USA” and devoted to incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric. The search also turned up a Santa Cruz resident by the name Justin Rothling. He is a proponent of the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to which a secret cabal of pedophiles within the U.S. government is plotting against President Donald Trump.
It’s not always easy to classify online behavior as extremist, and a good example is the case of @DaveOv10, the not-so-well-hidden Twitter identity of Dave Overton, an associate professor of warfare of the Naval War College who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. At least once, Overton promoted the #plandemic conspiracy theory, which serves to undermine public health efforts aimed at sopping Covid-19. He also a amplifies dangerous rhetoric by using hashtags #EnemyOfThePeople to attack the press. But his primary issue of concern appears to be the exoneration of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
The Michael Flynn cause overlaps with QAnon but is not the same thing, says Marc-André Argentino, who is conducting his doctoral research on the QAnon theory at Concordia University. “The user probably navigates and consumes similar conservative root media as QAnon adherents, probably also consumes some conspiracy theory content based on his posts,” Argentino says.
Overton declined an interview request, but writes by email that the opinions expressed were his and not of any government institution.
Do you want to join the mission to stop hate in Monterey County? A number of local groups make that part of their mission.
- LULAC: The League of United Latin American Citizens advocates for civil rights and political influence for Latinos. The also support members facing challenges like evictions or workplace harassment. Locally, Council 2055 serves the Salinas area and Council 2057 serves North County. 206-9089, lulacsalinas2055.org.
- National Coalition Building Institute Monterey County: NCBI trains people to see and celebrate diversity, rather than letting it become a source of conflict. Students in Diversity Leaders Training become mentors in their schools to fight against intolerance. Workplaces can invite NCBI moderators to lead workshops on recognizing diversity among colleagues. 373-4606, ncbimonterey.org.
- NAACP Monterey County: The national civil rights organization has been active locally since 1932. They advocate for policies to end racism, and support opportunities for Black people to pursue leadership roles as well as education attainment through a scholarship. 394-3727, montereynaacp.org.
- Peace Coalition of Monterey County: This group serves as a hub for many other local groups, with a meeting place (the Monterey Peace and Justice Center in Seaside) and is active in hosting speakers and events to oppose war and violent conflict internationally and nationally. 899-7322, peacemonterey.org
- Whites for Racial Equality: The group is committed to forthright discussions about race and privilege and how to be an ally. Discussion materials for a four-part workshop, “Preparing White Folks to become Allies and Leaders for Racial Equity,” as well as lists of articles, books and movies and are available online at whitesforracialequity.org. It’s connected to the national group Showing Up for Racial Justice, showingupforracialjustice.org. firstname.lastname@example.org.