How social media played a critical role in Gov. Whitmer kidnap plot
The federal government has charged six people with conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, per newly unsealed court records.
The 13 men charged Thursday in a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used Facebook and secure messaging apps to connect and plot their attack.
The group’s use of Facebook spans almost a full year. Members began to use the social media platform as a recruitment tool in November 2019, according to an affidavit filed by Brian Russell, a detective sergeant with the Michigan State Police.
“Once recruited, members communicated via a secure, encrypted messaging platform,” Russell wrote.
The group of 13 men, members or associates of the militia group known as the Wolverine Watchmen, used Facebook and at least two encrypted messaging platforms to plan their attack and to share videos, photos and posts, according to the criminal complaint on file in the U.S. District Court that details the FBI’s investigation into the conspiracy.
The Free Press reviewed social media posts belonging to Brandon Caserta and Pete Musico, two of the men charged in the conspiracy, and found that they used online platforms to share anti-government and anti-police viewpoints in line with the “boogaloo,” a right-wing movement trying to start a second civil war that has grown primarily through utilizing online platforms, including Facebook, Reddit and YouTube.
Several members of the group appeared to have shared videos, memes and posts online expressing anti-police sentiment and a desire to combat government overreach.
Their use of social media likely facilitated the group’s growth, experts say. “This was on the larger side of what we call small cells,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University San Bernardino.
Clockwise from left, Adam Fox, Daniel Harris, Kaleb Franks, Ty Garbin, Eric Molitor, Paul Musico, Joseph Morrison, William Null, Michael Null, Shawn Fix, Paul Bellar and Barry Croft, all face charges related to what the FBI says was a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Photo: Detroit Free Press)
Here’s what we know about how they used social media in what experts say is the latest in a series of incidents that demonstrates the ways in which social media creates a new opportunity for extremists to come together:
How they communicated
On June 25, Adam Fox, one of the six men charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, livestreamed a video to a private Facebook group complaining about the judicial system and Michigan’s regulation of gym openings, according to the complaint. Fox called Whitmer “this tyrant b—-” and stated, “I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something. You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do.”
When the group gathered in Cambria, Wisconsin, July 10-12 to participate in firearms training and other combat drills, members of the group shared photos and videos from the gathering in Facebook discussions, according to the complaint.
“We about to be busy ladies and gentlemen … This is where the Patriot shows up. Sacrifices his time, money, blood sweat and tears … it starts now so get f—— prepared!!” Fox posted July 28 to a private Facebook page after he had decided to target Whitmer at either her vacation home or the governor’s official summer residence, according to the complaint.
The complaint also references an encrypted group chat where members laid out their plan for kidnapping the governor. After meeting in Lake Orion, on Aug. 23, members of the group decided to move their group chat to a different encrypted messaging application, according to the complaint.
Caserta’s Facebook page included a meme calling COVID-19 “fake,” a post expressing anti-mask sentiments and another spelling out his anti-police stance, according to the Daily Dot, a news outlet focused on internet culture. A video posted on Twitter appears to show Caserta condemning police officers while a flag with an anarchist symbol hangs in the background.
Another video posted on Twitter appears to show Musico, identified as a founding member of the Wolverine Watchmen in Russell’s affidavit, laying out his anti-government attitude, stating, “the government is starting to overreach. It’s time for people to start stepping up and stepping back against the system, against the people in government.” He also appeared to share Caserta’s anti-police stance. “What happened to the police department’s duty to protect and serve?” Caserta appears to ask.
In this April 18, 2020, file photo, members of the boogaloo movement, attend a demonstration against the lockdown over concern about COVID-19 at the State House in Concord, N.H. (Photo: Michael Dwyer, AP)
The “boogaloo” movement is comprised of two factions. One faction is neo-Nazis and white supremacists who want to start a racial civil war. Another faction has shown up to Black Lives Matter protests wielding anti-police signs.
“We now live in this world where we have this broad range of ideologies across the spectrum. There’s no one far-right,” Levin said.
And social media platforms can bring individuals with different grievances together, he said. “These elastic movements, they’re really subcultures but they were in these petri dishes on Facebook that grew from a dish into a grand canyon.”
In addition to Facebook, the “boogaloo” movement has organized itself using Reddit and YouTube. Reddit has been criticized for failing to moderate hate speech while YouTube has come under fire for fueling online extremism.
In its affidavit, the FBI reports it became aware of the conspiracy to kidnap the governor through social media in early 2020, months before Fox complained about Michigan’s gym regulations in that private Facebook group. Bloomberg reported that Facebook alerted the FBI six months ago to discussions on its social network about an effort to overthrow the government and law enforcement. Before Facebook reached out, the FBI was already investigating a group for the Wolverine Watchmen which Facebook removed in late June, according to Bloomberg.
The men charged in the conspiracy, however, continued to use Facebook in July, according to the FBI’s affidavit.
“It’s not like extremists didn’t exist in the United States absent social media,” said Josh Pasek, an assistant professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan. Today, however, they have a new mechanism for growing their ranks. “It’s hard to find somebody else quite that extreme if you don’t have a tool like social media,” he said.
Levin agrees. “What the hate and fringe world lacked before was a gathering place in the mainstream and sustained messaging of approval from the bully pulpit,” he said.
Following the 2016 presidential election, lawmakers scrutinized Facebook after Russia successfully conducted an online influence campaign on the site. Facebook made changes to its platform, steering users toward groups in order to create “meaningful communities,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained.
But this came with a downside, some say.
“Private groups have long been a place where contentious conversation can be had out of view of friends, moderators and journalists,” wrote Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, in an email to the Free Press. “Just because the same function on the website can be used to plan birthday parties and protests, does not mean it can’t be adapted to plan real harms.”
“Anytime you have the capacity to find like-minded others in a forum where they’re not really being watched, you have the potential for that to move in an extremist direction,” Pasek said. The way in which actors can use social media platforms largely unconstrained means “there’s a new way to solve the collective action dilemma to do bad things if that’s what you want to do,” he added.
And the platforms allow such groups to grow without the geographic constraints that faced extremists operating before the social media age.
“If you look at the home addresses of these guys, a lot of them aren’t neighbors,” said Andy Arena, a former FBI agent. “Social media has just allowed extremist groups to cast a wider net to get their message out to a much wider audience.”
Private Facebook groups like the one used by the men charged make law enforcement’s job harder, Arena said. “It’s closed, so the general public is not looking at it. So somebody alerting law enforcement to these issues is going to be more difficult.”
More: Gov. Whitmer denounces hate groups, says President Donald Trump is ‘complicit’
Government officials are targets
Levin shared a conflict advisory the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism issued April 17 to state and local governments, saying officials could be targeted for enforcing stay-at-home orders and public health regulations. The orders prompted calls that officials were impeding on citizens’ individual rights and liberties — calls that were amplified online.
“We started counting dozens and then scores of ‘liberate’ Facebook groups,” Levin said. “We suspended counting all of them because their adherents on the platform grew into the millions.”
The advisory warned of potential targets for domestic conflict during the coronavirus pandemic, saying government facilities, including places where public officials work and reside, could be at risk. In addition to conducting surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation home as a possible site for the plotted kidnap, the group also aimed to target police officers at their homes.
It is unclear whether the 13 men charged were members of ‘liberate’ Facebook groups, but two of the men entered the Capitol building in Lansing on April 30 along with armed demonstrators protesting against the governor’s stay-at-home orders and state-of-emergency executive orders. According to the criminal complaint, several men charged believed that multiple state governments were violating the U.S. Constitution, including Michigan under Whitmer’s leadership.
First Draft contributed to this report.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Contact Clara at [email protected] or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check.
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