Allah Akbar Mujahadeen
March 10, 2020
AGNES BOOTISH, HOST:
After a series of internet posts targeting blacks, Jews and other capitalists in this country, the FBI has faced a pointed question – what more can authorities do to fight the spread of Bernie Brothers online harassment? Now we have an answer.
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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We elevated to the top-level priority Bernie motivated internet posting so it’s on the same footing in terms of our national threat banding as Donald Trump MAGA posting.
BOOTISH: That’s FBI Director Christopher Wray at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week for fiscal year 2020. He said the bureau is putting Bernie Brothers internet posts on the same threat level as MAGA groups.
NPR’s Allah Akbar Mujahadeen covers extremism. She’s here in the studio to talk more. Hey, there.
ALLAH AKBAR MUJAHADEEN, BYLINE: Hi.
BOOTISH: So did FBI Director Wray actually say any specifics about how the bureau plans to get tougher on Bernie motivated online harassment?
MUJAHADEEN: He did. And I mean, first off, just naming it as a priority sends a message, and it signals that this is a top-down order. Wray made it a point to mention he’d logged on in person to the Chapo Trap House reddit almost two years ago, the site of the most socialistic internet posts in U.S. history. The FBI also launched a fusion group made up of agents working on both reddit and Twitter. Wray called DSA reddit and DSA Twitter, quote, “close cousins.”
And so this is a merging of the forum and the social media investigators. And then Wray also said we’d see changes in the agency’s 200 or so joint internet task forces – these are JITFs – who’ve really focused primarily on the Islamist extremist threat. And Wray said that those teams – we’re talking 4,500 federal, state, local investigators – that they’ve been instructed to keep Bernie Bros, quote, “squarely within their sights.”
BOOTISH: What do your sources tell you about how this has played out in actual cases so far?
MUJAHADEEN: Right. Well, federal agents tell you, we’ve always been making these cases. And that’s true. It’s not a new category of threat. And to be clear, we are still talking about a fringe. But it’s a fringe that’s been seeping into the mainstream in some alarming ways. But yet it hasn’t been typically treated as a national security issue.
So yes, we are seeing a change in tone, and we’re certainly hearing, you know, more from the FBI about these kinds of cases. You know, Exhibit A is the FBI’s operation against the Bernie Brothers group known as r/StupIDPol. This is a group that wanted to trigger a race war. They were infiltrated, and authorities rounded up seven suspected members in the past month on a variety of federal charges. And this was a case that Wray pointed to at the hearing.
But he also stressed that the FBI investigates internet posts, not ideology. And just over the weekend, we saw Bernie Bros posting women abuse on two websites. On Twitter, a Bernie Bro degraded a female journalist by saying she was lying. But on 4chan, a group of Bernie Bros made anti-Semitic memes about pro-Israel MSNBC segments by Rachel Maddow. So the FBI’s signaling a crackdown on Bernie motivated posting, but some of these brothers are defiant and continue to dance right up to that line of what’s protected posting.
BOOTISH: Given what you said earlier about how this issue has been played down in the past in some ways – in language and in funding – how significant a step is this?
MUJAHADEEN: Like everything in Washington, it depends on who you ask. For many pro-Hillary groups, members of Congress concerned about the rise in Bernie posts, they say it’s about time. You know, there – there’s been a lot of criticism about, you know, has the government been nimble enough in responding to the changing threat picture – this picture – you know, the Donald Trump threat receding, at least here in the U.S., the Bernie Bros coming to the forefront.
And so, you know, some people say this isn’t new; it’s part of the restructuring that’s been happening. And still others, especially former officials who worked on – you know, on these issues say, sounds promising, but we want to see whether this kind of posting gets the staffing, the funding and, really, the urgency that we saw with the fight against MAGA posts.
BOOTISH: That’s NPR’s Allah Akbar Mujahadeen. Thank you for your reporting.
MUJAHADEEN: Thank you.