Dana Coester, editor-in-chief at 100 Days in Appalachia, shares best practices for reporting on extremist activity at the local level. Bruce Hoffman, Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis senior fellow on counterterrorism and homeland security at CFR, provides context and background on domestic terrorism and extremist groups. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists webinar. Today we will discuss best practices for reporting on extremist activity with Dana Coester, Bruce Hoffman, and our host, Carla Anne Robbins. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at the Council on Foreign Relations. As you may know, CFR is an independent, nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy. This webinar is part of CFR's Local Journalists initiative created to help you connect the local issues you cover in your communities to national and international dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on issues of global interests and provides a forum for sharing best practices. So, thank you all for taking the time to join us. This webinar is on the record. The video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists.
So now to introduce our speakers. Dana Coester is the editor in chief of 100 Days in Appalachia. She's also the creative director of West Virginia University's Media Innovation Center and leads the center's Innovators-in-Residence program. She is presently directing a documentary film, Raised by Wolves, about youth and online hate in Appalachia. Bruce Hoffman is a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at CFR and a professor at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He was previously the corporate chair in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency at the RAND Corporation, and he was appointed by Congress to serve as a commissioner on the FBI's 9/11 Review Commission and was lead author of the final report. And last but not least, Carla Anne Robbins. She's an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She is faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. So welcome to you all. I'm going to turn it over to Carla to have this conversation, and then we'll come back to all of you for your questions and comments. So Carla, over to you.
ROBBINS: Thank you, Irina, so much. Thank you, Dana and Bruce, for joining us. And thank you to everybody for joining us today. We know you have many choices of Zoom conversations as well as deadlines to deal with. This is a very important topic obviously for the survival of our democracy as well as the challenges of reporting. So I very much appreciate everybody being here and very much appreciate what my colleagues are doing out there in coverage every day under very challenging circumstances. So we watched Charlottesville and the January 6 attack on the Capitol unfold with horror, and I am eager to hear from Dana and all of our colleagues because this is going to be a conversation among all of us today about what's going on in our communities. But I'd like to start today's discussion with some sense of the national scale and the nature of the problem of domestic extremism—what we know and what we don't and why we don't know more.
So in March, FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate committee that domestic terrorism was quote “metastasizing across the country,” and he said the number of domestic terrorism investigations at the FBI had risen to two thousand since 2017 when he took over the Bureau. But he didn't provide any more precision about it. The New York Times has reported that the Bureau opened more than four hundred domestic terrorism investigations in 2020 and forty cases into possible adherence of far-left groups that are known collectively as antifa. I can never say it without thinking about Trump going “an-ti-fa.” And another forty into the Boogaloo, a far-right movement seeking to incite a civil war. Meanwhile, in mid-May, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told the Senate that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States came from what they called quote “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.” So with that context, which I think is very important interpretively but sort of weak on data, Bruce, if I may begin with you, do we have any more granularity on the scale, location, strength, and threat posed by domestic extremist groups? And why isn't Wray telling us more?
HOFFMAN: The short answer is no. And I think one reason that Director Wray [inaudible] and one reason [inaudible] no more is that the federal government really doesn't collect statistics on what we naturally call domestic terrorism but also all sorts of other phrases and terms. We rely basically, or at least in my research, I rely on the Anti-Defamation League that has followed this for decades. I think it has very solid collection figures—Southern Poverty Law Center. There's any number of other research institutions in the Pacific Northwest, for example, that monitor this. And they all have different means of collection. They all have different definitions, so we have no clear picture. And that's, I find, very frustrating and, of course, very different compared to international terrorism where we often do have that precision.
ROBBINS: And scale? I mean, those two numbers that Wray used, I mean, and does scale perhaps not matter? I mean, you know, all those years of the Journal, I like numbers.
HOFFMAN: Well, the New York Times last September, I think authoritatively, put the figure of members of militias, which is only one dimension of this. And that's the other problem. Let me answer your first question. We're not talking about something that's either homogeneous or that's monolithic. We're talking about something that's very disparate and very diffused and often quite amorphous. And in an era of social media, it creeps behind the scenes. But the New York Times put the number of armed militiamen at twenty-five thousand. My colleague at American University who I think is one of the best researchers in this field, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, in a recent book, Hate in the Homeland, put the figure of white supremacists, militia members, anti-government extremists willing or at least expressing interest in committing violence at upwards of seventy-five thousand. We don't know. I'll throw one thing out that worries me, which is more anecdotal, and you've asked for hard evidence. But I have found in multiple states now, you know, in gun stores and sporting goods stores, they're cleaned out of assault rifles, semi-automatic pistols, and especially of factory-manufactured ammunition. This has been the case since March. But when I throw out numbers of militiamen or members of violent extremists, one has to assume that there's plenty of, unfortunately, weaponry and ammunition available that I think exceeds what might normally be associated with either hunting or sportsmen or home defense.
ROBBINS: So, that's scary. So, we'll come back to more about that. But why does the FBI not track the numbers?
HOFFMAN: Well, there's no domestic terrorism statute, and this is a source of controversy. You could have multiple terrorism experts and civil liberties advocates who's going to disagree profoundly about this and fear that a domestic terrorism statute might be used as past excesses of surveillance and monitoring of the civil rights movement of the anti-war protesters in the 1960s and '70s. It could be used to demonize and to target legitimate expressions of discontent or of opposition. It's a real problem. It's not to say that the FBI doesn't follow domestic terrorism. Certainly when I was a commissioner and we worked for fifteen months in the Hoover Building and back then everything was ISIS or al-Qaeda, but really ISIS all the time, every minute, I never once in any of my interactions saw anybody in the FBI in the counterterrorism division dismiss, denigrate, or ignore domestic terrorism whether right or left. It was a lower priority; they were focused on it. They probably have their own internal figures, but of course, you know, as Jill Sanborn, who was the former assistant director for counterterrorism, she's now an executive assistant for national security at the FBI, when she testified on the Hill back in January, she said quite rightly the FBI doesn't monitor social media—the First Amendment rights. So, you know, even if the FBI has figures on what they're investigating, that's when there's been a clear predicate and when the line has been crossed in terms of either the incitement to violence leading to conspiratorial planning for an actual act of violence or violence is being committed. So even they did provide the statistics it would only be, you know, one slice of what we see is a much larger movement with sometimes uncertain intentions. I mean, how much of it is boasting or hot-air rhetoric over social media? But we know and everybody who's listening to this or tuning into this webinar knows words matter, and words can be weaponized as we've seen in the wrong hands for nefarious purposes.
ROBBINS: Thanks. So Dana, you play a dual role as a researcher and reporter and editor and have a lot of experience on this topic for quite a while. But can you talk to us, you know, first about what you're seeing in your own community and how it has been evolving over the last year or so and, with that I suppose, what definition are you using? I mean, Bruce talked about a variety of different definitions and, you know, what's your baseline?
COESTER: Well, that one is a tough one to answer for all the reasons that he also said. But we actually from a scholarly perspective, as a media scholar and tech scholar, we were already starting to document, you know, back in the 2012-2014 era things that were happening in digital spaces and gaming spaces and really starting to think about the platform role in that. So that was a sort of digital landscape that we were looking at. But at the same time, we were aware of, as journalists and members of a community in Appalachia, how there was increasing populist rhetoric and groups beginning to be more vocal and organized in real-world spaces. Well, I actually don't want to say real world because obviously what's happening online is quite real as well. So really, it was looking at those spaces separately and then seeing how they started to increasingly overlap and collide. And I think we saw, you know, a sort of six- or seven-year collision in the making happen last summer when you started to really see the QAnon, Boogaloo militia groups organized globally, frankly, but that also have regional roots, organized white supremacist groups, really began to coalesce into a much more cohesive threat that we've been seeing the results of that since.
ROBBINS: So, in your own can you talk a little bit about your own community? You wrote a piece for Nieman Reports, I think, three or four years ago, which I recommend. We're going to push out to everybody a variety of different readings that we very much recommend. Dana has been educating me in the last thirty-six hours, which I very much appreciate. But can you talk a little bit more recently about what you're seeing and your reporting on that?
COESTER: Sure. And we've got several, sort of, active investigation so I'm a little bit careful. But historically, this area has actually been targeted by external groups such as Patriot Front, Patriots of Appalachia. There's a number of other groups that pretty early on were doing the, you know, sort of the papering of flyers in the region. And that's been, sort of, an intermittent thing that has happened, honestly, generationally. But what we saw was a more coordinated relationship between language that was being used and global networks and now language that was being used in local networks, which spoke to us of a more coordinated organization at scale for these groups. For example, in 2015, very early on in the Proud Boys movement, there was local Proud Boys activity here that was prevalent in some of the gym culture here. And then we also see a lot of things filter through local Facebook groups where it's, you know, trad-mom kinds of activities that, at first glance, don't seem to be of concern but you start to see the infiltration and manipulation of those groups by external actors—
ROBBINS: Trad mom? Can you explain trad mom?
COESTER: Oh, sorry. All right. Yes, so traditional mom, so trad mom is what that stands for. There's other—trad cap. There's some other sort of communities that are not, you know, I don't want to suggest that any individuals that are in or adjacent to those communities are on the cusp of becoming a violent extremist, but we do have enough data and longevity looking at sort of the evolution of these groups and the manipulation of these groups that the risk for extremist violence by even a few gets increasingly higher, which is why we have to pay attention to those.
ROBBINS: And I want to come back a little bit more about not just the [inaudible]—
COESTER: I'm sorry, because you're asking about the region that there's manipulation of values and concerns in the region that are also not on surface organized white supremacist activity but are rooted in that. And that's why it can very much be a hiding-in-plain-sight kind of manipulation. For example, one of the groups released a PDF about, you know, back to nature, healthy living that if you're not really aware of the coded language and sort of what's underneath that, you know, looks like pretty damn good advice for, you know, for healthy lifestyle, or it'll be something that's rooted in concern for the environment or to the working poor. And so there are values that are inherent to a region that are, especially a distressed region, that are quite ripe for manipulation but on surface may not seem to be what it is.
ROBBINS: So now you've completely intrigued me. Tell me about how healthy living is manipulated or is used as a cover for either recruitment or for promulgation of extremist or white supremacist views?
COESTER: Well, it may—
ROBBINS: I'm never eating granola again. I just wanted to [laughs]—
COESTER: Well, it's about self-reliance and resilience and growing your own food and organic food. I mean, now that all of these things get coalesced, now you'll have also anti-vax stuff that will come into there. It'll be things that are rooted in racial superiority, but that's like after you get ten layers deep. And at first, you're just reading recipes for canning, you know, your homegrown tomatoes. And so it's subtle in that kind of manipulation. And by the time you're sort of part of that community, if you're naive to that, which I think a lot of people are, then I mean, that's how the grooming works. That's how radicalization works. It starts to make sense to you. And that happens over a long period of time. It's not something that happens, you know, in one social media post or in one, you know, engagement.
ROBBINS: So, Bruce, can you assess—be a media critic for a minute. I mean, you pay your money for your subscriptions, so you get the right to be a media critic. Can you assess the quality of the coverage of domestic extremism that you're reading and the good and the bad? You know, are you getting the right information? Is it being shaped in the right way? You know, give us a read right now.
HOFFMAN: Well, it depends what media sources one consults. There are some media forces that—
ROBBINS: I can take it if you criticize my former employers.
HOFFMAN: Well, look, I mean, I'm a dinosaur. I get three hardcopy newspapers delivered every day: the New York Times, the Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and then whatever else I get from the internet. You know, I'll make a broader criticism about terrorism. I mean, generally, I find the coverage is incredibly important—and then I get to the criticism—and often very illuminating. Actually now more than ever, we depend on the media for this kind of information, especially depending which administration might be in office and maybe hearing the message or putting their thumb on the scale. So I find most of it has been illuminating and useful. I'd make a more general criticism about coverage of terrorism. There's a discomforting, I mean, for me, at least as a specialist, sensational element to it is that it seems where the media reporting I don't think is helpful, but I understand completely why it's done. It's more in the feature route, it's why persons have become extremists and then dissecting their background. I mean, firstly, I think there's a moral issue about giving attention to these people. And sometimes that information is posed to the victims, let's say, and sometimes that information, these people become heroes inadvertently. The media isn't setting them up as heroes, but just the attention on them.
In my view—I've studied terrorism now literally for forty-six years since I first went to graduate school. What we fail to realize is that terrorism doesn't occur in a vacuum. And it reflects the divisions and the polarizations and the political currents in society. And that is to say that the people who commit—this will sound very odd and I'm not lionizing or defending them, but it's easier for us and it's easier for them to be portrayed as monsters. And they're not. I mean, they've come out of society. They are a reflection, as I said, of the divisions. And I sometimes feel that some of the reporting is trying to find the holy grail of what was the trigger that led to this person committing these acts, which had inadvertently give so much attention to exactly what Dana was talking about the, sort of, you know, the progression of radicalization from very anodyne messages. I mean, this is something that has been prevalent especially in the white supremacist movement or far-right wing extremism for forty years now. It's what Leonard Zeskind many years ago called the “conveyor belt philosophy,” is you hook people on something that seems completely innocent and then pull them down that conveyor belt of progressive radicalization, which may be on one end religious dicta. And we've seen that in the “Identity Church” movement, for example, where Christianity and the New Testament becomes a justification. But we've also seen that as something, you know, both you and Dana have been talking about, this whole conceptualization, which is fascinating to me, that the New World Order is back. And the idea is that everything is glocal, that even local problems are now refracted through this global lens and it's the New World Order whether it's UN domination or control of the United States by elites. And by the way, these are the exact same elites that were invade against in the late 1970s, early 1980s. You could even, in fact, go back to the 1920s in the Ku Klux Klan. It was more of a Northern than a Southern phenomenon, although a few people know that. And there was this tremendous disdain for science, which, of course, we've seen in the past fifteen months, and also of any kind of East Coast elitism or expertise, which, of course, this is what people are campaigning on now.
ROBBINS: Yes, and that is a—although you go in, and I want to pair that thought with what Dana has shared with me a set of tips that underplays the seriousness of the recommendations about how you report on these people and report on this phenomenon. I want to throw this open to the group, so I'm going to ask Dana to go through questions about a few of these. But I also want you to listen to this and as a consumer, you know, please do not hesitate to jump in and ask questions as well of this. So we're going to share these, Dana, and I wanted to throw this open. So, everybody who's with us as well, please get your questions ready and your comments ready because it's enough of me asking questions. But you have sent a group of very interesting suggestions. I'm going to curate them, the ones that intrigued me the most, and we'll come back to other ones. Of course, you can answer any question you want with any way you want.
You talked about, you know, understanding the media manipulation lifecycle and particularly this question of amplification. You know, it seems to be of particular concern. You know, not reporting on the mindset of extremists, you know, if we don't report on the mindset of extremists, don't we run the danger of underestimating the political sources and of a potency of the threat? How do you balance that? One of your colleagues wrote that we have to understand that news outlets provide a vital bridge between fringe ideologies and the public that can intentionally or not normalize these views and allow them to influence public discourse and define the narrative surrounding political events. I understand that. That's the, you know, that's the amplification. But, you know, if we don't report on the mindset of extremists, there is this danger that we can both underestimate the potency of the threat but also not understand the society that created this, you know, and there are some problems that have to be fixed if this is so appealing. So how do you deal with this, you know, the manipulation lifecycle without, you know, underreporting the problem?
COESTER: Well, I don't think we need to report on the mindset at the point at which the extremists have taken action and tragic action over the last years. What we can report on and what we need to report on is the systems that gave rise to that, the messaging that gave rise to that, the actors in that space that gave rise to that. That's the sort of the unpacking and the education that we can do at the community level. Although I will say, I mean, so we have an internal policy, you know, we don't do lone-wolf reporting. We don't do feature pieces. We really are trying to focus on systems, watchdog roles, accountability roles, and I would say that we have to look at who are influential people in the network. So, for instance, you know, there is an elected official from West Virginia who participated in the January 6 insurrection. And so, locally, we need to understand that an elected official participated in this, but we also need to look at what are the formal and informal networks of this individual. So now I'm less focused on the individual, and I'm more focused on what are those networks of influence that gave rise to that because those are still threats. Those are still threats that are in the region. And so I don't struggle with that anymore. We don't do it, but we feel confident that the work that we are publishing is getting people information they need.
I will say broadcast news is really a sort of, local broadcast news, I will say—not national, I have my critics about that—but I think local broadcast news really has an important role to play in this as well. I don't want to just focus on local, digital, and news outlets. And there was an example of—and this is a simple thing. This was an example of something that was beneficial that never would have been meaningful at a national level but was meaningful at a local level where an individual had come into an apartment complex wearing, you know, the red, you know, MAGA hat, and was asking where local synagogues and mosques were. The person at the desk immediately started sharing that on social media, and broadcast did a very balanced, credible, non-inflammatory, just information to the community that helped put community members and targeted community members on alert. And that wasn't dramatic, and it also helps set some context for why in the, sort of, post-January 6, post-Tree of Life, post-Christ Church environment, that that was important local information. And it was just a simple piece, but I thought it was really well done and quite balanced. And that was just a local broadcast station. And another one was some flyers had been posted, I don't recommend doing anything about flyers or when people, you know, drop things in parking lots or people's driveways, but West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Dave Mistich, a reporter, who has also worked with us at 100 Days in Appalachia, did a sort of an explainer piece for the community about the rhetoric that the flyers were using. So it wasn't, you know, “far-right groups post flyers,” you know, which is just amplifying their message, and also you never sort of show websites or phone numbers or any of that, but it's saying, “Community members, they are targeting you. Here's the language they're using and why.” And that's useful, that's valuable.
ROBBINS: This, you know, the First Draft News you shared, the [inaudible] says that reporters should ask whether or not a story has extended beyond the community being discussed, and that that's a tipping point that, you know, that once it has extended further than it becomes newsworthy. But you don't want to amplify something that's just within the echo chamber itself. Now knowing that, how you know that is an interesting question. And then, I think, your examples are really good. You don't just write a straight news story that says, “The flyer said this.” You want to assess what the, you know, the language, you want to deconstruct it, you want to explain it. But you also open yourself up to the charge that you're censoring the views, don't you? You've made your peace with that.
COESTER: Well, I will also say, and I've said this in other conversations like this, reporting and publishing, I think, are two different acts. And we report information. I think that journalists get caught up in the idea that it has to be at an above-the-fold thing, and you're going to win an award or any of that kind of nonsense. Whereas journalists doing good investigative work and then reporting that information to communities that are targeted is a form of reporting without amplifying. For example, we've done briefings for teachers who are in positions where they're, you know, so that they can take actions when they see youth who are susceptible or who are participating in rhetoric or actual, you know, more dangerous activities. And we've talked to mental health, you know, professionals about, you know, cues and things that we're seeing like when we're seeing a sort of a trend happen in an online space. So, that's reporting. We're reporting data to community members that can take action. And other times it's publishing, but yes, I've made my peace with that.
ROBBINS: So I want to, Irina, I'm going to take the prerogative here just to read a question from the Q&A because I want to pair it because I want Bruce to respond on the amplification question. But there's a question here in the Q&A that's also, I think, quite relevant to both of you, but I'll start with Bruce because your specific experience with the commission. On the amplification question, how do we make a decision like that? How much do you worry about, you know, reporting amplifying this? And then the specific question in the Q&A, “How do we cover law enforcement agencies' role in shaping extremism? And how do you analyze the motives of the FBI?” And that is from Ashley Nerbovig who hasn't identified where she’s from? So—
FASKIANOS: Ashley is a freelance journalist reporting on extremism in Montana and Michigan.
ROBBINS: Okay, thank you, Ashley. You have a lot of work, I suspect, to do. So Bruce, over to you with both questions.
HOFFMAN: An answer to the first question, I think, [inaudible] I'm not a journalist. So maybe this is just a little simplistic but you report the news [inaudible]. And you always make sure that whatever you're reporting is not communicating—I mean, terrorism is an act of violent communication. And that's also something we forget. Terrorism always has a purpose, and the purpose is to attract attention to the perpetrators into their cause. So it's reporting on something but not giving them that platform, and that's what they're seeking from that violence. I mean, this may be, again, my naivete about how newsrooms work, but is why the editing function, I think, is so important. I mean, this is the great thing about journalists is that, as opposed to, let's say, social media is there is a screening process to make sure that it's objective or hopefully, at least my naivete, I assume this is what editors do—
ROBBINS: We try.
HOFFMAN: —so that it's not serving the purposes of the terrorists. I mean, this was something internationally that was very common in the '60s and '70s, and then, fortunately, is much, much better. Also, if I could just leverage off of something that Dana was saying that's so important, the one thing that I haven't seen a lot of coverage about, which I think is so important, and she was explicit about it but I just want to second it, is that these extremist movements are actively recruiting youth. And I haven't seen very much reported about that. There is a lot of reporting about the former [inaudible] people indicted on January 6, about the leaders of these groups that we recognize, but I don't see that much being done in these communities that, as Dana described, that have had faced severe economic issues that sometimes have been caught up in the opioid mess that we see now, you know, sort of litigated in courts in the national news but, in fact, has had such a profoundly corrosive impact on rural communities where, especially, youth become very targeted, become very susceptible. And there, it's not just flyers, but again, something I haven't seen a lot of report about. Stickers, I mean, this is a big thing with youth, sometimes t-shirts and clothing, too, but stickers that are put on the back of stop signs, that are put outside of synagogues, churches, and mosques, for example. I mean, that indicates, and it goes exactly to Dana's point about global things becoming local, I mean, that indicates that somehow a global dialectic has seeped into the local milieu and that it's usually kids that are manufacturing or ordering these stickers and putting them up and serving a group that they may have absolutely no contact with.
But one reason that this is important is that last year the leader of one of the SIEGE groups, and the SIEGE is one of the worst manifestations, at least in my view, of extremism. I mean, it's pretty horrific violence. They venerate Hitler and Charles Manson. But it turned out that the leader of a cell that was egging on—and this was in Lithuania and in Europe, basically, not the United States—but was egging on and sort of directing cells of people throughout Europe. Firstly, it was these very mundane things but then escalating to violence. It was a 13-year-old. And it's kind of like that famous New Yorker cartoon from the 1990s, you know, with a dog sitting in front of a computer and says, “On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.” Well, no one knew that they're taking orders from a 13-year-old that was, you know, this was the worst kind of video gaming, in a sense, that had real-life consequences.
But the question, you know, this is, you know, the question about the FBI, I mean, this, I think, is a huge problem, law enforcement writ large because law enforcement is both far and away, year in, year out, government officials and law enforcement, not persons of color, not Jewish persons, not necessarily Muslims, not Asian Americans, when you look, at least at the ADL statistic going back a decade, it's often law enforcement and government officials that are targeted most by these extremists. At the same time, as we know from the January 6 events, members of law enforcement in the military, some active, some retired, have been involved in these kinds of activities. And I think it's very important, I mean, in theory, the FBI, because persons have security clearances and have security clearances at the highest levels. I mean, they've gone through lie detectors. They have to be completely forthcoming on their SF-86s, which is what you put down all your material to get access to classified material every five years. I mean, that should pick up a lot of it. But, of course, there aren't security clearances in many cases for local and state law enforcement, and it may be harder to identify people that may not only be sympathizers, but may indeed and there's, of course, an historical legacy, especially during the civil rights movement, of local law enforcement being in league with whether it's the Ku Klux Klan or other extremist groups. This is a very important question to ask.
In my experience, I also in previous years had spent two years at the CIA as a scholar in residence and that to me a completely different experience from the FBI because it was international orientation and basically you look for intelligence wherever you could get it. What impressed me the most at the FBI and it was something I was never aware of, it's just the role that lawyers for the Department of Justice play in almost everything that they do that there has to be a predicate, that there's oversight that, I suspect, again, I'm not a specialist in law enforcement, but there's more oversight, one would hope, at the federal level than there tends to be at the local or state just because of the different orientations, different levels of clearance. Although, I have to say one big change that is happening in the past year plus, more and more, of course, local and state law enforcement officers are wearing body cameras. And the attorney general has now released guidance that federal law enforcement agencies when they're arresting fugitives or any kind of operation have to wear those cameras, too, which hadn't been the case in the past.
ROBBINS: So, Irina, over to you.
FASKIANOS: I'm going to Phillip Martin, who wrote his question but also raised its hand. And, Phillip, if you want to just ask it, he's a senior investigative reporter at WGBH in Boston.
Q: Yes, thank you, both of you. Thank you for this illuminating panel discussion, Carla, Dana, and Bruce. I'm wondering if you can comment on the funding sources for right-wing extremists that include the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys, and Three Percenters, among others. And oftentimes, I found the concomitant funding source from certain Republican politicians. Marjorie, I know her name is used all the time. I can't remember right now—
COESTER: Taylor Greene.
Q: That's right. So I'm wondering if you could comment on those funding sources, which seem to be an extraordinary issue in the context of the proliferation of extremist groups in the United States? Thank you,
COESTER: Well, that's a great question because that's actually one of things I advocate for. That is the thing local journalism can and should do. I mean, old-fashioned, follow-the-money among these networks and really understanding how they're operating because I just wanted to add, you know, when we were talking about maybe complicity among law enforcement, that the thing that local news has to recognize is that there are individuals who are affiliated with or sympathetic to extremist ideology who are on college campuses, who are IT workers in major businesses, who are board members of influential institutions, who are, as we see, elected officials. That is a local problem that has to be—first responders. I mean, so that's where that sort of interception and understanding of those networks has to happen. I will say on the funding sources, we're actually working on something right now that's looking at some of that happening in—it's happening in cryptocurrency. It's harder actually to follow the funding sources unless you managed to become very close to or part of or have access to one of these groups. And so that's just to say, yes, that's a problem. It's even harder to follow but connecting all of those dots is exactly what local investigative and regional investigative reporting can and should do. Although, of course, we're all underresourced.
FASKIANOS: All right. Let's go next to Elise Schmelzer in Denver, “What are the best practices for covering extremism on a local level as a continuous problem as opposed to episodic coverage when there are highly public uprisings? What should local journalists be tracking and writing about between those movements?”
COESTER: So, the first thing that I would do is make—I mean, oftentimes, just the reality in our society and why we're having this problem is most local newsrooms are majority white newsrooms. Reporters and editors in those newsrooms are likely unaware of what local threats even are that have probably been generational because they're not engaging with targeted community members. So that's the first place to start is to build those relationships, to understand. You know, we know from our research on youth, youth aren't even reporting half the hate instances, most of the hate instances that they're experiencing. Muslim community members are not reporting. It's just sort of part of the backdrop of their life. And so, you know, if you're a reporter coming into that, you sort of have to make room for understanding what that generational activity is before you can really engage with it. And then I would say we don't want to do, I mean, we don't want to focus on the episodic incidences, we want to be in a position to see before there's a threat because we're already monitoring, following, and connecting the dots on those networks. I mean, last year, last summer, when we sort of saw the coalescing of a lot of these groups, we were immediately, you know, raising the alarm. And we were, as Bruce mentioned, you know, we were doing local reporting on what the, you know, sales of guns and ammunition. And so when you're already doing that work you see, and if you're already in, you know, you already have access to the Telegram group or now the group's left Telegram and they're, you know, meeting in, you know, the local Denny's and you have access to that, then you know before it's episodic, and that's where there's an opportunity for disruption, especially with our work on youth, you know, trying to disrupt that before, you know, we have another Dylann Roof or a horrible situation.
ROBBINS: Irina, can I ask Bruce to address that because some of this is, you know, you talked about one measurement, which was purchases of guns, but this sort of, as law enforcement, you know, academics and journalists are all looking for different ways to look into what appears to be a classic community before something explodes. What are the indicators you think we should be following in local communities?
HOFFMAN: Well, all terrorism, not least with these groups, it's a constant search for new constituencies. They're trying to broaden their base and appeal to new recruits. I mean, they're kind of like the archetypal shark in the water that has to move forward to survive. So, I think it's all the sides. I mean, the stickering, for instance, is something that I don't think a lot of attention has necessarily been paid to. We drive by these things and don't notice them. But at least for young people, they become kind of a code that you look for them, and it gives a disproportionate impression that there may be more, let's say, a white supremacist in a community. There might be, but that's part of the ideas is to mainstream these kinds of beliefs and also constantly pull new people in. I think it's also monitoring of, you know, currents across the country that nongovernmental organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, for instance, which isn't only about anti-Semitism, but it's about all kinds of racism and hate crimes, which gives a window to what might be happening in one community because they're ADL regional reports. But usually, that's not confined to one community. These groups to survive have to learn from one another. And that's, in fact, they learn if there are going to survive, they learn faster, unfortunately, than often the government and law enforcement does. So I think it's monitoring the overall trends. And again, going back to my earlier point, I think at the risk of a truism is that all of this doesn't occur in a vacuum. I mean, it needs a context. We've seen the context, arguably, in the past year much more sharply. But, of course, that context you can go back further than Charlottesville in 2017. But that was a clear indication of where we were headed at. But how many people looked at that as just an aberration or a one-off?
ROBBINS: Irina, sorry. Thanks.
FASKIANOS: That's okay. I was just going to say Elise is with the Denver Post, just to give context to that question. So Maria Alvarez has raised her hand. So, please unmute yourself and say your affiliation, please.
Q: Thank you very much for this webinar. It's really informative and important. I teach journalism here at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City and also a veteran New York City reporter for several decades. I covered 9/11, and I'm just interested in knowing has there been any research or data gathering about local police departments' protocol or policies in trying to ferret out or have applicants out themselves if they've been involved in any type of white supremacy group or have been involved in any type of racial conflict or been arrested for something like that in the past? Has anybody been researching that because it's very difficult to get a police department to talk about those policy or discussion of those policy changes because they're very secretive? And, of course, there was at least half a dozen police officers from the NYPD that were outed when they attended the January 6 insurrection. Thank you.
ROBBINS: It's a great question, and we can tag team that, Irina, with the Steve Walsh question from KPBS in San Diego. Steve Walsh writes, “I also covered military and veteran issues in collaboration with NPR. We've reported on the Department of Defense stand down on extremism. Now that they've highlighted the issue, the question we're trying to get at now is what does the DOD need to do to actually track and target extremism? They still seem quite reluctant to take concrete action.” So I think these are similar questions, which is how do you know when somebody is being recruited or applying and have in addition to having you root out people in your ranks? Is there any serious conversation about how to do that?
HOFFMAN: Well, certainly since January 6 there has been. [Inaudible] a long time before that but certainly both in terms of the U.S. military and also with police departments that has become much more of an issue. You know, this is the problem with terrorism generally is when terrorism is in the news there's a lot of interest and a lot of attention, and then there's a lot of governmental response to pressure from citizens and also the investigative reporting and illuminations that the news media does. But then when it's a period of quiescence, it completely dies down. I mean, in the 1980s and 1990s, law enforcement but even more so the military had to deal with this on a very serious basis. One was finding all sorts of military ordnance, things that you could not have gotten unless they were stolen from military stockpiles—anti-tank missiles, C-4 plastic explosives, bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades. All kinds of things like that were turning up in white supremacist survivalists' compounds and elsewhere during that period.
And the military crackdown very intently, in fact, Secretary Austin, the secretary of defense, has talked about when he was lieutenant colonel at Fort Bragg in 1995 and had to weed out the same types of elements. But yet in the reporting after Charlottesville in 2017, there were accounts of Marines from Camp Lejeune or from Parris Island coming up to Charlottesville. I think there were also people from Fort Bragg as well. So we're back to reinventing the wheel. From my observation, I know much less about the police than the Defense Department. I think the Defense Department is taking it very seriously. The change in administration has clearly helped. The new secretary of defense from the time he was confirmed has zeroed in on this issue, and it is one that he's familiar with. I think that, you know, Walsh's frustration is that DOD is, you know, moving very quickly to do things but is not really publicizing it, and I'm not sure has actually settled on—they know this is a problem. Let me point out, this is a problem for U.S. national security and defense because our enemies point to this and believe the United States, the military is being hollowed out by these searches for miscreants. I mean, I don't think that's true, but it's in the sense that they are that prevalent. But the point is I think that's another reason why the DOD is quiet on what they are doing. I think on the one hand it's relatively new that they're focusing on this since the change in administration. They're not quite entirely set on what practical measures they will take apart from the ones we've read about. But I know for a fact there's lots of discussion about this. I'm less clear about law enforcement. Certainly the chief of police in Houston has been the most outspoken, at least what I've read from media reports on this issue. I've heard similar things from NYPD, but as Maria Alvarez's question notes, I mean, this is a systemic problem that is not new. And it's not just recruits and people in the academy but what law enforcement agencies will do to, you know, basically monitor their own ranks. And this is why I think federal law enforcement will be immensely useful in helping them, but I don't know of any programs or implementation, you know, that sort of synergy yet.
ROBBINS: Thanks, Bruce. That's really helpful, and I want to talk to you about the DOD offline after this. Dana, what are you seeing where you are? I mean, is there anything of a conversation among local law enforcement of, you know, of goodwill to how they're grappling with this problem? Or are they just in denial?
COESTER: No, I mean, it's inconsistent. There have been some gestures, I will say, very locally here in Morgantown. There's been some vocal efforts. But again, I think sort of January 6 kind of drove people into, you know, either doubling down on ideology or saying, “Oh, shit, that's not what I thought I was getting into.” And especially we see this with some young people who are, which is the point where you can pull them back when they're starting to realize and get fully educated about what's happening. But I think, to Bruce's point, it's less being aware of what law enforcement or other people who have power and local communities are saying and more about what they're doing, what are their networks, and there's good digital forensic investigation that local journalists are doing that is helping uncover—and also veterans' groups and military. There are also some actually, right now I'm seeing a lot of really active and I'll send the link afterwards of veterans' groups and military groups who are sort of doing this work independently and trying to identify and disrupt that in their own ranks, too.
FASKIANOS: Okay, so we'll take the next question, it's a written question from Chris Joyner, who's with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Prior to January 6, there was a lot of in-network communication that showed an intent toward violence, including plans to assault the Capitol. Knowing that, at what point is there a journalistic responsibility to report on the rhetoric of extremism, rather than worrying about amplifying that message. The same might be asked about reporting on smaller accelerationist groups, which have a smaller reach by the nature of their organization?”
HOFFMAN: Well, as a nonjournalist, I mean, I think the element or the need to provide warning is not amplification. And I think that's where the media can play an immensely useful role. Everything we're reading about January 6, including an article that'll be in the hardcopy of the Washington Post tomorrow where, you know, the Senate investigation has concluded that this was being, this was a quote from one of the senators being planned in plain sight. I mean, that's very different from the impression we had on January 6, 7, 8, and so on. And that's why I think the warning is absolutely essential. I think the public good that that does outweighs the risk. And again, it has to be balanced and not alarmist, but this is why, at least, unlike social media, in traditional media, editors, you know, play a very important function.
COESTER: Yes, I mean, 100 percent agree with that. I mean, it's a clear distinction, and when you're in it, you know it. And we were in it last spring and last summer, and I actually had, I would preface, before we wrote something or oftentimes we were doing sort of closed-door briefings with different groups, you know, “I don't mean to be alarmist, but this is what we're seeing. And this is what we think may happen if there's not an intervention.” And so, yes, I think that that, and that is quite different from just sort of repeating what a particular group says. But if you're in a position and you have your hands around network and you're really understanding coded language and the rhetoric, then you see when something flares. That's reporting. That's intelligence that you bring to what's happening, and I don't see that as amplification at all.
ROBBINS: So I am going to, actually we've got a minute left, so we're going to do thirty-second responses—this is Final Jeopardy. Dana, I'm going to ask you very quickly, one of the tips from your people is prepare for harassment after reporting critically on far right and white nationalist extremism in your community. How do you prepare for harassment? How do you protect your people?
COESTER: Well, there are really, really good programs out there that help newsrooms do that, and I'll provide some links for that, too. I would say that's something that you have to take profoundly seriously. It's the job of an editor to protect not just the reporter, but their entire staff. When you're local, those risks are quite amplified because you're literally there and accessible. And also, you have to protect sources because they can be targeted as well. And I will say that in other conversations with folks when I let them know how serious and sharing, you know, some personal experiences, how serious those risks can be, they kind of back away like I'm exaggerating. I'm not exaggerating. So you have to just know that going into it.
ROBBINS: So we will share this TrollBusters training program about digital harassment, the Columbia Journalism School's Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. So we're going to share this because we want you guys to be safe and to be aware of the need to be safe. So we'll push that out to you. Dana, thanks for sharing that. And Bruce, last question to you. So I was on a panel last week. This is what we all do, we do panels, and asking this question, why scientists blew it and journalists blew it in the reporting on the sources of the COVID pandemic. We all rushed to judgment saying hands down we absolutely knew that it was an animal-to-human transmission. There was no chance at all of a lab leak, and now we are reexamining this. We don't know what it was, but we did call the balls and strikes on that very quickly. And this raises a very interesting question, which is if you were reporting on and you have to get the message out at some point about the message of extremists, we're going to be calling balls and strikes. We're going to say, we know the election wasn't stolen. That's absolutely not true. We made the mistake in 2016 of not calling out disinformation. How do we find this balance out here or when it comes to extremism not even a problem?
HOFFMAN: No, I think it's a huge problem. There's a lot of parallels to COVID. I think, I've always believed this, and I've worked in government but you can't rely on just your government sources. And I think that's absolutely key is reaching out to people whether they're scholars or people in non-governmental organizations but who track things differently, who think about them differently, and have a different agenda. That's absolutely essential, and that can avoid the kind of, you know, the group thing because in the domestic terrorism realm, as with that Clint Eastwood film about Richard Jewell, and I remember very clearly that FBI was saying it's the quote unquote [inaudible], which sounded great. And many journalists who I knew were top journalists covering terrorism. I mean, the FBI was saying this. They went with it. And as we've seen with the film, it ruined someone's life. So I think it's going beyond the official sources. I mean, just an ordinary story and trying to get the much broader context and the depth.
And I'm going to say one other thing just to follow on what Dana said. I mean, this is a huge issue in covering especially for-right extremism but to an extent far-left extremism as well because they're the ones who invented doxxing. But this is, well, actually it's even worse. The far right was doing the doxxing first, but journalists and scholars, I mean, this is what's changed completely. In the past terrorists or extremists liked the media because we did tend to amplify their message or even if it was unintentional, it was giving them attention. We're in a very different era where last year, Atomwaffen, which is not a domestic extremist group, it's an international terrorist group, targeted six journalists. I mean for harassment but having been subject to that kind of harassment from the same types of people, it upends your life. So journalists really covering the story have to scrub their presence on the internet and all their personal details. And be very careful, especially if you're a woman because they will come after you.
ROBBINS: I will turn this back to Irina, but I just wanted to say thank you to Dana and thank you to Bruce for an extraordinary conversation. And thank you to all for the extraordinary questions. We're sorry we didn't get to all of them. But this has really been—and we're going to share more information. And we're going to push the questions that remain to Dana and Bruce, so we can share some of the answers as well. Back to Irina.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. And I just want to encourage you all to follow on Twitter, Carla's at @robbinscarla, Dana Coester's at @poetabook, and Bruce's is at @hoffman_bruce. So you can follow them there. Please visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and events and how they're affecting the United States. And please do reach out to us to share suggestions for future webinars. You can email us at [email protected]. So thank you all again. And thanks to all of you for being with us today.