As lawmakers and civil rights groups sound the alarm about civilian militias operating along the southern border, a new report reveals that several such groups are actively using Facebook to promote their activities, recruit volunteers for border “operations” and even solicit donations — in apparent violation of the platform’s policies.
The report, which was shared exclusively with Yahoo News ahead of its publication on Thursday, is part of a series of investigations by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), an industry watchdog that looks at misinformation targeting migrants on social media. Earlier reports in the series found that Facebook is a primary source for much of the harmful misinformation that migrants encounter along their journey to the U.S.
“Our new findings show that Facebook is creating even more dangers for migrants by hosting armed border militias driven by fringe conspiracies,” the new report concludes.
In an emailed statement to Yahoo News ahead of the report’s publication, a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said, “We will review this report as soon as we receive it and will remove any groups that we find to be in violation of our policies.”
In August 2020, Meta announced that it was updating its Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy to crack down on “Facebook Pages, Groups and Instagram accounts tied to offline anarchist groups that support violent acts amidst protests, U.S.-based militia organizations and QAnon.”
Since then, the social media giant says that as of Aug. 15, 2022, it had “identified over 1,151 militarized social movements to date and in total, removed about 4,200 Pages, 20,800 groups, 200 events, 59,800 Facebook profiles and 8,900 Instagram accounts.”
But researchers at TTP say they found dozens of border militias currently active on Facebook. Their report singles out three groups in particular whose activities, they argue, appear to clearly violate Facebook’s policy.
The findings raise questions about the limits of Facebook’s militia policy, and the company’s ability, or willingness, to enforce it.
The TTP report also comes after three Democratic senators, led by Ed Markey of Massachusetts, publicly called on the Biden administration to investigate potential illegal activity by militia groups on the southern border.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Troy Miller, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the senators warned that “Recently, many of these groups have stepped up their efforts, and some are even carrying out their missions in collaboration with, or with approval from, local, state, and federal law enforcement agents, creating an escalating crisis that must be a priority for both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).”
The letter focused on the activities of two militia groups in particular, Veterans on Patrol and Patriots for America, both of which are also highlighted in the TTP report.
Spokespeople for DHS and CBP did not respond to a request for comment on the letter, nor did a representative for the Justice Department.
Patriots for America is perhaps the most well known and organized of the civilian militia groups operating on the southern border. According to the Los Angeles Times, it was founded in 2015 to purportedly protect conservative protesters at Black Lives Matter events, including protests over the potential removal of a Confederate statue in North Texas, but in recent years the group has turned its focus to the southern border.
Since last fall, Patriots for America (PFA) has been deploying volunteers from all over Texas, and other parts of the country, to conduct armed patrols along Texas’s border with Mexico, in collaboration with local law enforcement, who allow militia members to stop and question migrants. Their activities have garnered a wide variety of national media attention. The group’s founder, Samuel Hall, declined to be interviewed by Yahoo News.
Though PFA does not appear to have an official Facebook group or page (according to the L.A. Times, it was taken down last summer), the Tech Transparency Project found that Hall and other militia members regularly post easily accessible photos and videos from their border “operations” with hashtags like #PFAStrong, as well as links to the militia’s website.
The group’s Facebook videos, such as one posted by Hall in December 2021, which depicts armed militia members clad in military-style tactical gear questioning a group of Spanish-speaking migrants before turning them over to local sheriff’s deputies, have drawn scrutiny from civil rights advocates like the ACLU, which characterizes Patriots for America as racist — a label Hall vociferously rejects.
The ACLU of Texas has repeatedly called on the Justice Department to investigate PFA’s activities at the southern border, citing such videos as evidence that militia members may be unlawfully detaining migrants — something only trained law enforcement agents are authorized to do.
In an email to Yahoo News, Hall explicitly denied that his group has ever detained migrants, writing, “We have been there simply as a presence.
“We also do not present ourselves as law enforcement nor have we ever presented ourselves as law enforcement,” Hall wrote.
The Tech Transparency Project also found a private Facebook group linked to Veterans on Patrol, an Arizona-based vigilante group that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated as an antigovernment militia.
According to the TTP report, the Facebook group “VOP and ALLIES” features updates on the group’s operations and solicitations for volunteers that appear to be passed along from the group’s founder, Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer. Meyer has been arrested multiple times for allegedly damaging water tanks belonging to humanitarian groups and trespassing on private property while searching for supposed child sex camps that, he says, are being run by cartels in the Arizona desert — a theory that has been repeatedly debunked by local officials.
According to the SPLC, Veterans on Patrol is part of a wave of antigovernment militia groups that have been driven to the border by a mix of anti-immigrant ideas and QAnon-inspired conspiracy theories, which paint migrants as predators and cartel members and blame billionaire George Soros and the Clintons for the recent influx of migrants.
Veterans on Patrol (VOP) was also named in the letter from Senate Democrats, who expressed concern about the group’s apparently cozy relationship with Border Patrol officers. The letter cites a video uploaded to Facebook in May 2021, which shows VOP members providing drone footage to a Border Patrol agent, who praises their work.
In an email to Yahoo News, Meyer pushed back against the “militia” label, writing that “The Southern Poverty Law Center has defamed us with outright lies.” Meyer did not respond to a request for comment on the letter from the Senate Democrats.
Freddy Cruz, a senior research analyst with the SPLC’s Intelligence Project who has reported extensively on border militias and their relationships with federal authorities, said “it is incredibly dangerous” for groups like Veterans on Patrol and Patriots for America to be allowed to promote their activities, and the misinformation motivating them, on platforms like Facebook.
He argued that these groups engage in the same kind of paramilitary activity, including firearms training, as other militia groups that have been banned from Facebook, such as the Oath Keepers. Like those groups, border militias have not been sanctioned by any government entity to perform law enforcement functions.
“They’re basically just out there spreading conspiracy theories,” he said.
According to Facebook’s public Community Standards, prohibited Militarized Social Movements include “Militia Communities, defined as non-state actors that use weapons as a part of their training, communication, or presence; and are structured or operate as unofficial military or security forces and ... Distribute information about the tactical use of weapons for combat.”
Facebook’s policy also prohibits pages, profiles and other entities associated with “Violence-Inducing Conspiracy Networks,” such as QAnon, which has been linked to numerous incidents of real-world violence and labeled a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI.
“Facebook I think still has a lot of work that they need to do in order to crack down on some of these groups,” Cruz said.
In a statement to Yahoo News, Sen. Markey said he is “concerned by new evidence that Facebook is failing to even live up to its meager, inadequate standards for countering toxic misinformation and hate on its platform.”
“Vigilante groups are using the platform as their soapbox to amplify white supremacist content and endanger the lives of migrants,” Markey’s statement continues. “Self-regulation has failed. Congress has an obligation to step in to stop Big Tech from putting profits over people and allowing social media sites to function as hotbeds of vile, dangerous content.”
TTP Director Katie Paul suggested that without congressional oversight or other potential consequences, Facebook and its parent company, Meta, have little incentive to invest in the kind of technology and staff needed to adequately police this kind of activity. She noted that misinformation researchers were among the 11,000 employees the company laid off in November.
“The platform has faced zero repercussions for facilitating any of this,” Paul said.
Instead, she said, Meta seems to take a “whack-a-mole” approach, often taking action only when prompted by media scrutiny.
Paramilitary groups have existed along the U.S.-Mexico border for the better part of the last two centuries. According to a 2006 report from the Congressional Research Service, since the early 1990s, civilian patrols have proliferated along the southern border, “partly due to the increasing numbers of aliens entering the country illegally.”
Per the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown Law, all 50 states — including Arizona and Texas — have laws prohibiting unauthorized paramilitary activity. ICAP, which brought a successful lawsuit on behalf of the city of Charlottesville, Va., against private militia groups that participated in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, defines unauthorized private militias as “groups of armed individuals that engage in paramilitary activity or law enforcement functions without being called forth by a governor or the federal government and without reporting to any government authority.”
In 2019, a viral Facebook video showing members of the United Constitutional Patriots militia holding migrants at gunpoint near the border in New Mexico led to the arrest and conviction of the group’s spokesperson for impersonating a federal Border Patrol agent, as well as that of the group’s leader on federal weapons charges.
The latest wave of militia activity at the border can clearly be attributed, at least in part, by record numbers of migrants attempting to cross the border in recent months. However, the groups highlighted in the TTP report seem to conflate the very real border apprehension numbers with dangerous conspiracy theories that don’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground. For example, while it’s true that unaccompanied migrant children are vulnerable to exploitation by criminals on both sides of the border, anti-trafficking organizations say children are rarely smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico as part of sex trafficking schemes.
Some advocates have voiced concerns that vigilantes professing to rescue children at the border may actually present additional dangers for vulnerable migrants, whose faces and, in some cases, personal information are often broadcast by these groups on social media.
“It tends to, I think, draw attention away from actual issues that might be happening at the border, if there are real cases of human trafficking or drug trafficking,” said Cruz, adding that “a lot of these people that are engaging in this militant vigilante activity don’t even speak like a basic level of Spanish.”
Especially alarming is the “invasion” rhetoric embraced by many of these groups. Such language echoes the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which has inspired a number of violent attacks, including the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that killed 23 people in 2019, and the white supremacist attack at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store that left 10 people dead last spring.
Among the most egregious pieces of content featured in the TTP report were a series of posts shared by members of a private Facebook group called Texas Border Patriots, which had 2,700 members as of Wednesday afternoon. Yahoo News made multiple attempts to connect with administrators for the Texas Border Patriots group, but they could not be reached.
As with Patriots for America and Veterans on Patrol, administrators of the lesser-known Texas Border Patriots group post photos and videos of themselves and other camouflage-wearing militia members engaging with migrants at the border, and encourage others to join their operations. Their rhetoric, however, often takes on a much more explicitly anti-immigrant and militant tone, regularly referring to migrants as “invaders” or “trash” and encouraging members to “arm up.”
Some members have even engaged in discussions of violence, TTP found. The report highlights a particular thread of posts from June 13, in which a member of the Texas Border Patriots group called for a “MASSIVE SHOW OF FORCE ON OUR BORDERS” to stop “the ILLEGAL ALIEN caravan making their way up through mexico.” In a response to that post, another member of the group wrote: “Are we talking about killing people to stop it? Because blood will fall on both sides!”
While the original poster responded, clarifying, “We ARE NOT talking about killing anyone! We are talking about taking a stand,” a third person chimed in, writing, “blood will spill its the only way.”
Notably, both the original poster and the commenter who asked about killing people both predicted that their posts would run afoul of Facebook’s policies, acknowledging that either they or their posts could soon be removed from the site.
However, as of Wednesday evening, the entire conversation remained visible to the group’s members, even after it had been flagged to Meta in a request for comment.
In their letter earlier this month, Democratic senators echoed concerns expressed by civil rights groups that the recent activities of border militias not only may be illegal, but could also inspire more vigilante activity and, possibly, violence.
“Absent federal action cracking down on their unauthorized behavior, vigilante groups will continue to operate and weaken the government’s ability to maintain migrant safety, protect human rights, and defend the rule of law at the border,” the senators wrote.