Far-right groups becoming more localized in North Carolina

North Carolina news

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – Far-right extremists are losing their access to mainstream social media channels. Executives with the tech companies say it’s to stop the spread of hate. 

Security experts say these groups won’t go away when those accounts are deleted.

“When deplatforming exists, on one channel that they’re using, let’s say it’s a Facebook group. Once they’re removed, the ideology doesn’t necessarily go away,” said Bryce Webster-Jacobsen, Intelligence Director at GroupSense, a company that tracks cyber threats.  

Webster-Jacobsen said extremist groups are migrating to more secure methods of communication and becoming more localized.

“You have five to 10 individuals that are part of the same group, and they are able to form a smaller group chat that they can easily plan or discuss topics with one another,” Webster-Jacobsen said. “That is a little more difficult than a group that has tens of thousands of people in it on a larger platform.”

Encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and Signal had millions of downloads after mainstream social media sites deleted groups’ accounts for violating their terms of service. Webster-Jacobsen said that poses a problem in monitoring the activity of those groups.

“It takes attention, it takes active work to essentially follow the groups to the more closed channels that they are using,” Webster-Jacobsen said.

There are also concerns about how much training members of local police and sheriff’s offices get to combat extremist activities.   

“It’s a huge question, the lack of resources or the availability of resources and technology to be able to track these groups as they become hyper-localized,” Webster-Jacobsen said.

Experts say far-right groups were active at North Carolina protests in 2020. 

“Particularly with some of the protests that happened across the state of North Carolina this summer we saw, in pictures you can observe different symbols or patches or flags, from a variety of different far-right extremist groups, the Boogaloo group for one,” Webster-Jacobsen said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 32 hate groups in North Carolina. Nine On Your Side reached out to the FBI about tracking extremist groups online.  

Agents declined our request for an interview, but sent a statement saying they will open investigations if any activity calls for violence or criminal activity.  The FBI also has published information on terrorist organizations and their response to them, especially after 9/11.

The FBI can’t initiate an investigation based solely on First Amendment-protected activity, and that includes comments made on social media. As offensive as a statement can be, the FBI cannot open an investigation without a threat of violence or alleged criminal activity. However, when that language does turn to a call for violence or criminal activity, the FBI is able to undertake investigative activity.

Shelley Lynch, FBI Communications

Webster-Jacobsen said there are signs to watch for if there’s hate or extremist ideology in our area.

“Where you see active organization is where there’s a shared grievance, or a shared sense of grievance, whether that be economic or racial or ethnic,” Webster-Jacobsen said.

He said they thoroughly analyze the intentions of group leaders. 

“What we find is that people in charge or the more charismatic leaders of these groups don’t necessarily really even buy into the ideology they are espousing, they are looking to incite violence, or looking to incite people to spread the violence that they wish to exist, or they’re looking to make money,” Webster-Jacobsen said.

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