Inside the Boogaloos’ Facebook-to-Violence Pipeline
“Because this movement was born online, it lives online,” one expert said of men who thirst for civil war and keep latching onto protests for exposure.
Six men who were recently arrested across the United States had one thing in common: all were members of Facebook groups for the “Boogaloo” movement, and had allegedly used those groups to threaten or plan violence.
The Boogaloo is a meme-turned-ideology of loosely affiliated right-wing and libertarian types focused on explicit violence in the name of starting a second civil war. Over the past month, feds have busted six alleged members of the movement, charging three in a failed scheme to start violence at protests, two in the shooting of a pair of federal security officers, and one for an illegal steroid business. All six were members or moderators of Boogaloo Facebook groups, sometimes even posting on the same pages.
The arrests highlight the central role of Facebook groups in organizing the Boogaloo movement, a year after the company announced a new focus on promoting group pages. And despite vows in recent weeks to rein in extremist activity—including the Boogaloo in particular—a trawl of extremist enclaves and conversations with experts reveal a thriving culture of violence on Facebook even as the country faces a reckoning with racism and sprawling unrest.
The Boogaloo movement was born online, out of a fusion of 4chan types, gun activists, and followers of older extremist movements like the alt-right. Unlike some more organized far-right movements, Boogaloo groups appear more aware of Facebook moderation, and sometimes seem to take measures to avoid being flagged for valorizing violence on public pages.
“Because this movement was born online, it lives online,” Katie Paul, senior research associate at the Tech Transparency Project, an industry watchdog, told The Daily Beast. “You're not going to be able to find some cell of Boogaloo supporters holed up in a house somewhere. As a result, Facebook—with the largest reach of any social media platform—has really become a home for these supporters because they're able to use Facebook's tools, namely private Facebook groups, to organize, to coordinate, to create local chapters and state-level chapters, and to coordinate to meet in person.”
The Tech Transparency Project flagged Boogaloo Facebook groups as a potential inspiration for violence in April, after Boogaloo adherents began showing up to protests that demanded the re-opening of businesses from COVID-19 lockdowns.
Facebook said it deleted Boogaloo groups associated with the latest arrest, of two alleged Boogaloo followers in Oakland. “We designated these attacks as violating events and removed the accounts for the two perpetrators along with several groups,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “We will remove content that supports these attacks and continue to work with law enforcement in their investigation.”
Earlier this week, feds charged Steven Carrillo and Robert Justus with murder and attempted murder in the shooting of two federal security officers (one fatally) at Oakland’s Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building this month. The shooting was consistent with Boogaloo propaganda that urges the movement to take up arms against law enforcement, particularly federal agents.
Justus and Carrillo met on Facebook, according to a criminal complaint. The day before the pair allegedly drove to Oakland to shoot officers under the cover of a nearby Black Lives Matter protest, they spoke in a Boogaloo Facebook group.
“It’s on our coast now, this needs to be nationwide. It’s a great opportunity to target the specialty soup bois. Keep that energy going.” Carrillo wrote, according to the criminal complaint. He allegedly included links to footage of people damaging California Highway Patrol cars, presumably during the ongoing protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody. (Carrillo’s mention of “speciality soup bois” is a reference to federal agents.)
“Lets boogie,” Justus allegedly replied, an apparent reference to taking the violent action needed to kickstart the Boogaloo, or civil war. Carrillo later allegedly posted about using protests, like the Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland, to “go to the riots and support our own cause [...] We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.” When authorities pursued him to his home in Santa Cruz County, the active-duty Air Force sergeant allegedly ambushed them, killing one and injuring another with guns and explosives. As the Santa-Cruz Sentinel reported, Carrillo’s attorney has asked there be no “rush to judgment” on the charges.
Justus and Carrillo’s arrests follow those of three Nevada men who also organized on Facebook before allegedly making several plans to firebomb a ranger station, a power plant, and a Black Lives Matter protest. All three were part of a Facebook group for Boogalooers in Nevada, according to a criminal complaint. One of the men, Andrew Lynam, was actually a group moderator, according to screenshots flagged by the Tech Transparency Project.
He and at least one other member of the trio were highly active members of multiple Boogaloo groups. Alleged accomplice Stephen Parshall—whose attorney has said he will plead not guilty—joined the private “The Rhett E. Boogie Group" the day after it was created, suggesting he was familiar with the group’s moderator. Although many private Boogaloo groups have large membership rolls, those associations have accumulated over time, as people discover the group through linked pages and online acquaintances. According to a police report, Lynam apologized for his actions upon being detained.
Another member of that Facebook group, Philip Archibald, was arrested this month for allegedly selling steroids. Although his alleged Boogaloo tendencies did not appear in his criminal complaint, prosecutors cited them in court to argue that Archibald posed a threat to the community. On Facebook, Archibald advocated for “guerrilla warfare” against National Guardsmen at Black Lives Matter protests, and talked of “hunting Antifa” and killing looters, prosecutors claimed.
Followers of fringe ideologies have a buffet of social media sites to post from—but many still end up on Facebook, according to Peter Singer, author of the book LikeWar on social media weaponization.
“Malicious actors tend to forum-shop, depending on which they can exploit the most,” he told The Daily Beast. “The tradeoff is that when they get de-platformed or there’s greater content moderation, it’s harder for them to reach a wider audience.”
Facebook has been slow to moderate Boogaloo content, he argued. After the movement began generating media attention with appearances at re-open protests this spring, Facebook announced it would ban Boogaloo terms “when they accompany pictures of weapons and calls to action, such as preparing for conflict.” (This policy might have already been in line with Facebook’s policies against calls to violence.) Facebook later announced that it would stop algorithmically recommending Boogaloo groups, although plenty of groups evaded the policy by simply changing their names to “Boogaloo” sound-alikes like “big igloo.”
Boogaloo groups remain “fairly easy to find, as journalists and researchers repeatedly show, as long as you are trying to find it,” Singer said.
The revelation that multiple violent plots allegedly emerged from Facebook groups follows a Wall Street Journal report on an internal Facebook study on groups in 2016. Of the groups studied, “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” the internal report found, citing Facebook recommendation functions like “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover.”
“Our recommendation systems grow the problem,” the internal report concluded.
Nevertheless, Facebook announced a new emphasis on groups last spring, with founder Mark Zuckerberg writing a blog post calling groups part of “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking.” The move has met sustained criticism, as those groups, particularly private groups like many of the Boogaloo pages, were linked to extremism and coordinated disinformation. (“Facebook Groups Are Destroying America,” a Wired op-ed this week announced.)
In addition to recommendations, and easy discoverability via Facebook’s search function, Facebook’s groups have functions that even lesser-known (and less-moderated) platforms lack, Paul said.
“We've also seen them using the Files function of Facebook groups, which is something that you can't do on Telegram or 4chan or Discord,” she said. “These users are uploading instructions for bomb making. They're uploading the anarchic cookbook, tactical military manuals.”
The Boogaloo movement has grown since the beginning of the year, with members attaching themselves to various protest movements: first attending pro-gun rallies, then the re-open rallies, and now Black Lives Matter rallies. Attendees often share pictures of themselves at these demonstrations on Facebook, associating their movement with 2020’s fast-shifting, protest-heavy zeitgeist.
Although Paul’s organization flagged several Facebook groups which the arrested men were later revealed to have joined, the groups remained online through their arrests, with some remaining online this week.
“This is something that has been particularly concerning because we see how these individuals are using Facebook groups really as a ground zero for their coordination,” Paul said.