Federal law enforcement and social media failing to address domestic terror threats, Senate report finds

FBI and DHS are inadequately responding to white supremacist and anti-government violence, while social media companies are fuelling the ‘rapid spread of extremist ideologies’

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 29 November 2022 19:21 GMT
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White supremacist and violent extremist content continues to proliferate on social media platforms, at least partially driven by the companies’ own business models at the expense of user safety, according to a new Senate committee report.

Federal law enforcement is failing to effectively respond to domestic terrorism, largely fuelled by white supremacist and anti-government violence, despite a 2019 mandate to track and report data on the domestic terror threats, according to the report from the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The US Department of Homeland Security and FBI have “not fully complied with requirements in federal law to collect and report data” on domestic terrorist attacks, and have not allocated sufficient resources to combat such threats, the report found.

While white supremacist violence poses a “primary threat” among so-called “domestic violent extremists”, social media platforms – including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube – have fuelled “the rapid spread of extremist ideologies”.

The report found that while the companies tout their investments in building trust and promoting user safety, they continue to serve as hotbed for white supremacist and anti-government content – lacking significant safeguards to prevent the amplification of toxic rhetoric and violent threats, and providing little if any transparency to members of Congress.

DHS and FBI officials have repeatedly testified to members of Congress and issued law enforcement-wide advisories to warn against a rise in white supremacist violence, as well as online communities that have laundered disinformation and conspiracy theories tied to violence from obscure corners of the internet into mainstream channels across social media.

The agencies have identified domestic violent extremists, particularly white supremacists, as the “most persistent and lethal terrorist threat” facing the US.

But the report from Senator Gary Peters alleges that federal law enforcement focuses disproportionately on international threats.

“Despite this acknowledgement and multiple analyses, plans, and national strategies across multiple administrations, this investigation found that the federal government has continued to allocate resources disproportionately aligned to international terrorist threats over domestic terrorist threats,” according to the report.

Within the last decade, domestic extremists have been responsible for at least 443 deaths, with more than half caused by white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

But the report found that the FBI and DHS have “different definitions for ‘domestic terrorism’, which could lead to the two agencies categorizing the same event as different types of terrorism”.

In 2019, the FBI reportedly combined all forms of racist extremism, including white supremacist violence, into one category: “racially motivated violent extremists”.

“This change obscures the full scope of white supremacist terrorist attacks, and it has prevented the federal government from accurately measuring domestic terrorism threats,” according to the report.

A makeshift memorial for victims of the Tops supermarket massacre recognises the 10 Black people killed in a racist attack in Buffalo, New York.
A makeshift memorial for victims of the Tops supermarket massacre recognises the 10 Black people killed in a racist attack in Buffalo, New York. (Getty Images)

According to another study cited in the report, social media played a role in the radicalization of violent offenders in 90 per cent of all extremist plots in 2016 alone.

In a statement accompanying the report, Senator Peters pointed to a wave of recent attacks, including massacres at the Tree of Life synagogue and at a Buffalo supermarket that illustrate “how violence inspired by white supremacist and anti-government extremists terrorizes communities across the nation.”

“DHS and FBI’s inability to provide comprehensive data on the domestic terrorist threat creates serious concerns that they are not effectively prioritizing our counterterrorism resources to address the rising domestic terrorist threat,” he added.

The report recommends a reassessment of the federal government’s counterterrorism efforts.

It also calls for stronger accountability measures for DHS and FBI officials to comply with data reporting requirements and improved federal guidelines about the use of social media platforms.

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