Professor says ‘online radicalization’ may have advanced Whitmer kidnap plot

We’ve learned much of their conversation surrounding this plot started in a Facebook group called The Wolverine Watchmen.
Published: Oct. 9, 2020 at 6:25 PM EDT
Email this link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - (10/9/2020) - In the age of social media, finding like-minded people is only a few clicks away. But, it’s also easy to get caught in an echo chamber.

The social media accounts of the men federally-charged in the alleged plot to kidnap and kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer are littered with far-right, anti-government memes, including links to Boogaloo.

Authorities say the 13 conspirators were members of the group, pledging to overthrow the government.

And, this is just a snapshot of a wide-reaching problem that came to light with Thursday’s announcement of their arrests.

So how does it get to this point?

We’ve learned much of their conversation surrounding this plot started in a Facebook group called The Wolverine Watchmen.

An Ovid man, whose home was raided by the FBI as part of this investigation shared, he was an administrator of this group for a few months.

But he left, after realizing what he thought was a group supporting 2nd Amendment rights changed its focus.

“I feel very sad about it, actually,” MSU Professor Anjana Susarla said. “Because, about a year ago or so, I had written some articles about some of these issues. And so for folks like me, we, there’s no happiness in being right.”

Susarla is a professor of responsible artificial intelligence at Michigan State University. So she knows just how easy it is for ideas to spread on social media.

“Online radicalization is real. And I think part of the reason is, you know, social media platforms are - they’re really primed for engagement,” she explained.

Susarla said we’re pulled in by one tweet or Facebook post, even a video on YouTube. Once we click on it, or respond to it our algorithm changes.

We’re now going to repeatedly see tweets, posts and videos like it, sharing the same idea or opinion... whether it’s real or inaccurate information.

And, we’ve seen just how dangerous that can become.

In March 2019, at least 50 people were killed at two mosques in New Zealand. In October 2018, 11 congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg were killed. In November 2009, 13 people were gunned down at Ft. Hood in Texas. All of the people behind these terrorist acts were radicalized on the internet.

A study on Terrorist Use of the Internet shows in 61-percent of cases, the attack was fueled by on-line radicalization.

And, that’s what the FBI says happened in the plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The group recruited on Facebook, joined together thanks to social media.

“I hope that lawmakers are looking into some of these, too. You know, as we go into the future, these are big issues for us as a society that we have to confront,” she added.

Professor Susarla suggested schools require a media literacy class to help people understand fact from fiction; but, she said, social media companies could also be better about providing a verified or unverified label to articles shared on their platform.

So what should you do if someone you know appears to be escalating online?

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said don’t ignore it.

“I think law enforcement wants you to come forward,” he explained. “I think police officers and prosecutors want you to come forward and say hey look, you know, I don’t know if there’s anything to this but I saw this I read this and it’s alarming to me it’s of concern to me. I think you should know about it.”

And while there is a report button on many social media sites, Leyton said going a step farther and getting police involved is important. He said that way, law enforcement can make the decision, whether it should be investigated further or not.

Copyright 2020 WJRT. All rights reserved.