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Facebook purges US 'boogaloo' extremists trying to kickstart a new civil war

Laurence Dodds
In this file photo taken on April 30, 2020, armed protesters provide security as demonstrators take part in an "American Patriot Rally," organized by Michigan United for Liberty on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses. - A far-right movement whose followers have appeared heavily armed at recent US protests has suddenly become one of the biggest worries of law enforcement, after one killed two California police officers. - Jeff Kowalsky/AFP

Facebook has launched a new crackdown on far-Right "boogaloo" extremists accused of attempting to exploit the George Floyd protests in order to start a second US civil war.

The tech giant said on Tuesday that it had identified a specific network of "violent anti-government" activists using "boogaloo" as a codeword who are actively promoting attacks on civilians and government agents.

That network was taken offline the same day in a series of digital dawn raids that removed 220 Facebook accounts, 95 Instagram accounts, 28 pages and 106 groups. Details were also passed to US law enforcement agencies.

The move heralds a stronger hand against the nebulous "boogaloo" movement, which takes its name from the cult Eighties film Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo and which constantly changes its symbols and language in an attempt to evade surveillance.

The movement has been linked with at least six attempted murders, terror attacks or other plots across the US, and its adherents have been a conspicuous presence at both George Floyd protests and the earlier anti-lockdown protests.

But Facebook has so far struggled to stop boogaloo groups from recruiting and inciting violence on its services. In some cases it has actually helped them do so by recommending their content to new members or letting them run adverts targeted at people who have already expressed an interest.

Members of the boogaloo movement watch a demonstration near the BOK Center where President Trump will hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020 - Charlie Riedel/AP

The company said: "Today we are designating a violent US-based anti-government network as a dangerous organisation and banning it from our platform.

"This network appears to be based across various locations in the US, and the people within it engage with one another on our platform. It is actively promoting violence against civilians, law enforcement, and government officials and institutions.

"Members of this network seek to recruit others within the broader boogaloo movement, sharing the same content online and adopting the same offline appearance as others in the movement to do so."

It described the network as very dangerous, and stressed that it took action because it has evidence of a credible threat rather than due to any judgement of the group's ideology.

Facebook has its own counter-terrorism department employing about 350 staff, which monitors extremist groups and regularly designates some of them as 'dangerous'. Users are then forbidden to praise, glorify or uncritically use the symbols of such groups.

That stamp had already been applied to individual boogaloo believers charged with violent crimes, but the new designation will catch a far wider swathe of groups, discussions, images and memes. On Tuesday 400 pages and 100 groups were removed in this way.

32-year-old Steven Carillo was charged with the murder of a federal agent in Oakland, California - Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office/AP

The boogaloo movement is a youthful and recent offshoot of the American militia movement, with no central organisation and little agreed ideology except for a commitment to escalating revolution.  

The phrase "electric boogaloo" is a venerable internet meme describing a ridiculous or unnecessary sequel – in this case, "Civil War 2". That term has since broken down into a kaleidoscope of codewords and symbols such as the image of an igloo (for "big igloo").

Experts say the movement is also ideologically diverse and internally divided, with clashes between hardcore white supremacists and anti-racist anarchists who want to join forces with groups such as Black Lives Matter.

A spokeswoman for Facebook said that it had not yet been able to build AI systems that can distinguish genuine support for violence from innocent or satirical discussion. The company is currently tracking over 50 derivatives of the original term.

Prof Joel Beeson, who studies extremist movements at West Virginia University, said Facebook and similar mainstream social networks "provide a way to groom or recruit people" to the cause with "adjacent content", which gently spreads boogaloo ideas via humour and irony.

He described the movement's ideology as "an intersection of gaming culture, online Right-wing counterculture [and] a fascination with weapons and military hardware", saying that the George Floyd protests had given it "quite an opportunity" to don meme-laden clothing and "sow chaos".

Facebook said that it had seen no evidence of foreign entities covertly amplifying the movement.