White House strategy on countering domestic terrorism promises cooperation with tech sector

Justin Hendrix / Jun 15, 2021

The White House today released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, a 32-page document produced by the National Security Council. Referencing recent examples of right wing terrorism, including the massacres at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and at a Walmart in El Paso, President Joe Biden said the strategy is "a comprehensive approach to addressing the threat while safeguarding bedrock American civil rights and civil liberties," and that it is "narrowly tailored to focus specifically on addressing violence and the factors that lead to violence that violates the law, threatens public safety, and infringes on the free expression of ideas."

The strategy document in many ways reads as an effort at problem definition rather than as a set of specific interventions.

"This is not intended to be a document replete with insights, it is a snapshot of their thinking as part of a process. The US Government's approach to domestic extremism has until recently been a dereliction of duty," said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. "What we are seeing now is a real effort to put the US government's analytical prowess on this problem. There is a huge array of questions that will come out of that analysis about what the threats are and how they are configured."

The document connects the present day problem of domestic terrorism to a history of "hatred and bigotry" in the United States, as well as anti-government fervor. But, it suggests these motivations have combined with modern digital media and communications technology to present a new challenge:

  • The strategy notes that "communications platforms such as social media, file-upload sites, and end-to-end encrypted platforms" are where "these elements can combine and amplify threats to public safety."
  • It repeats the conclusion of a March 2021 joint threat assessment by the intelligence community, which stated that domestic violent extremists "exploit a variety of popular social media platforms, smaller websites with targeted audiences, and encrypted chat applications to recruit new adherents, plan and rally support for in person actions, and disseminate materials that contribute to radicalization and mobilization to violence."
  • It promises to address online recruitment and mobilization to violence as "a national security threat whose front lines are overwhelmingly private sector online platforms," and says the government is "committed to informing more effectively the escalating efforts by those platforms to secure those front lines." An aspect of this effort is to "foster and cultivate digital literacy" including creating educational materials and "skills-enhancing online games."
  • It lauds the efforts of the Christchurch Call, a global coalition of governments and tech companies to counter extremism, and promises more collaboration with tech platforms to assist them "with their own initiatives to enforce their own terms of service that prohibit the use of their platforms for domestic terrorist activities."

The document frames a key challenge in dealing with domestic violent extremists as how to do so without infringing on free speech. It offers multiple assurances that the government intends to preserve freedom of expression in its effort to reduce violence- but it also signals an understanding that right wing violence- and indeed the threat of right wing violence- itself "infringes on the free expression of ideas."

Since January 6, when a white supremacist attack on the US Capitol incited by the former President sought to interrupt the transfer of power, social media platforms have made additional commitments to work with law enforcement and government officials on the problem of domestic extremism. Facebook, for instance, has vaunted its reduction in the incidence of hate speech on its platform. And, the federal government has taken various steps to better organize itself around the threat. This spring, the Department of Homeland Security announced it had opened a new office "in its intelligence branch focusing on domestic extremism and a new center to facilitate 'local prevention frameworks' that, according to a statement, can better identify people 'who may be radicalizing, or have radicalized, to violence,'" according to the Associated Press.

The report "correctly identifies the phenomenon of individuals and small cells of extremists becoming radicalized and inspired to action by material they consume on the internet, and acknowledges the role that misinformation-fueled extreme polarization plays in that phenomenon," said Jared Holt, a resident fellow who focuses on domestic extremism at the Atlantic Council's DFRLab. "Some of the language surrounding what the administration hopes to do in the online space matches what experts on the topic have emphasized as priorities, particularly where it concerns prevention and public health, though the path for getting there is fairly vague."

It is as yet unknown whether efforts by the tech sector to curb extremism online are commensurate with the scale of the broader problem. Since January 6, for instance, false claims about the 2020 election and support for violent insurrection have continued to circulate on social media. Americans are dangerously divided on the legitimacy of the election and the facts around the attack on the Capitol. According to one poll conducted two months after the events of January 6, 28% of Republicans "agree that because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence." Whether the response by social media platforms is substantial enough is unknown. Facebook's own internal assessment found the company failed to mitigate extremist activity on its platform that contributed to the violence on January 6.

So, while the report promises the government will strengthen its communications with tech platforms, there is reason for skepticism. "That is working off a premise that I feel unfortunately hasn't always been true," said Holt, "that platforms are widely invested in countering extremist content on their services."

The White House strategy does not call for any specific new legislation, but suggests the Department of Justice is considering what new authorities may be necessary counter domestic extremism and that the administration will carefully consider any new laws in light of concerns over abuse and overreach. That may assuage concerns that efforts to counter a problem that is largely rooted in white nationalist and white supremacist motivations could, perversely, negatively impact minorities who have born the brunt of domestic law enforcement and intelligence overreach and abuses.

In February, 135 civil rights groups issued a letter opposing new legislation to address domestic extremism, arguing the government has the tools it needs to do the job and that new authorities may simply be used to further oppress minority groups. “The government’s inadequate response to rising white nationalism is a disgraceful policy failure. The problem is hardly new, and prosecutors have long had a multitude of criminal statutes at their disposal to confront white supremacist violence,” said Wade J. Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in the letter. Experts at the George Washington University Program on Extremism made a similar argument in the Washington Post.

Overall, the White House strategy is a step in the right direction, says Ahmed. "You can see the whirring of the gears, but it is going to take time for federal agencies to recover from the loss of time that the Trumpian dereliction of duty caused."

But, there is some concern that what the document does not contend with is the role of political elites in stoking domestic extremism, such as the former President and the more than one hundred members of Congress who advanced false claims about the 2020 election before January 6. Some members of Congress glorified the violence that day.

"I appreciate the principles, but a whole-of-society approach requires all-of-society to be on board with reforming the country, filling its fissures, and healing its wounds. America is just not there right now," wrote former FBI counterterrorism official Clint Watts in his assessment of the strategy.

Jared Holt agrees. "What the report fails to mention is the role that elected officials and arbiters of political power in the country have played in exacerbating domestic extremist ideology and sentiment, and what, if any, reaction to that fact is important."


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...