Tech companies under pressure to ban far-right forum used for militia organizing

MyMilitia users have posted threats against protesters and lawmakers, and experts say it’s a dangerous recruitment tool

Armed protesters at an ‘American Patriot Rally,’ on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, 30 April 2020. MyMilitia had at least 20,000 users as of early October.
Armed protesters at an ‘American Patriot Rally,’ on the steps of the Michigan state capitol in Lansing, 30 April 2020. MyMilitia had at least 20,000 users as of early October. Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images
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Pressure is mounting on tech companies to ban MyMilitia, a website used by far-right extremists and armed groups to organize, after it was linked to threats of violence against US protesters and lawmakers this week.

On Tuesday, police arrested Brian Maiorana after he allegedly posted online threats targeting Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the US Senate, and threatened to “blow up” the FBI. Maiorana is also alleged to have used MyMilitia, as well as an unnamed mainstream social media platform, to make threats to kill protesters and discussed building his own weapons, according to the complaint. Maiorana, a registered sex offender, is barred from legally purchasing firearms.

The arrest has put more pressure on internet companies that control the infrastructure supporting MyMilitia, including GoDaddy and Cloudflare to ban the platform from their services.

“This is a very dangerous game they are playing, giving people the ability to recruit extremist militias during a perilous political time in our country,” said Matt Rivitz, the co-founder of the online activism and anti-bigotry group Sleeping Giants. “It is shocking to see these companies not only supporting but actively monetizing themselves off of it.”

MyMilitia was first registered with GoDaddy in 2016 by Ohio conservative Chad Embrey, according to internet hosting records reviewed by the Guardian. The website is one of several domains Embrey has bought related to the militia movement. Embrey’s expressed goals for the website include changing the “negative perception” of militias and assisting communities “from all threats foreign or domestic”.

The site further rose to prominence after a man named Michael Hari and other members of his Illinois-based militia allegedly bombed a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota, and appealed on MyMilitia for others around the country to rally to their defense.

As of early October, the site had at least 20,000 users organizing more than 530 militia groups in the US, according to a report from Vice. It’s also becoming more popular. The site totaled 69,461 visits in October 2020, up 322.6% from October 2019 at 16,437, according to web traffic analytics firm SimilarWeb.

Embrey did not respond to a request for comment. Josh Ellis, whom Embrey sold the site to in April, told the Guardian that MyMilitia has aims of “helping American citizens to create strong organized constitutional militias in every town throughout the USA”.

“Anyone who is against that idea and is requesting to have MyMilitia removed from the internet is an enemy of the USA, an enemy of freedom, and an enemy of every patriotic American citizen,” he said.

The site is particularly dangerous because its explicit purpose is to recruit members and move their activities offline, said Talia Lavin, the author of Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. MyMilitia has a feature, for example, called “area code militias”, which recruits for hyper-local groups by area code. The website has grown in popularity after Facebook began to crack down more forcefully on militia activity in recent weeks, she added.

“It is very useful to the movement to have websites like this feeding into offline activity,” Lavin said. “These groups are explicitly used to recruit militias, calling for people to be armed, and fomenting civil unrest in their communities.”

In addition to forums for organizing militias, the website has an extensive library of pdfs purporting to be manuals from US army forces on sniper training and other gun operations, and a treatise outlining justifications and strategies for an insurgency in the US. Recent posts include examinations of the short-term prospect of civil war and discussions of election fraud.

PayPal and Venmo banned MyMilitia this week from using their services to raise money, after an outcry online accused tech companies of facilitating violence through their platforms. The website is now raising funds using an account on CashApp, which is owned by Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, as well as self-described Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. GiveSendGo said the militia does not violate its terms of service and it plans to continue hosting MyMilitia fundraising. CashApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The domain name for MyMilitia is registered with GoDaddy, and the site itself is hosted through FluidHosting, a Pennsylvania-based cloud server. Neither company responded to request for comment. GoDaddy’s terms of service explicitly ban activity that “promotes encourages or engages in terrorism, violence against people, animals, or property”, but the company has yet to remove the page despite many cited examples of such conduct.

Rivitz pointed out the site runs ads through a partnership with Google Ads, meaning Google is profiting from MyMilitia and companies advertising with Google may be unwittingly advertising their products next to controversial or violent content.

“This is a case of Google going against its own terms of service in and putting their advertisers at risk,” he said. A spokeswoman from Google told the Guardian the company is reviewing the site to see if it violates policies.

“We do not allow ads to run on content that incites violence or hatred,” she said. “This is a longstanding policy, which we enforce vigorously.”.

Cloudflare, which is providing online security to the site, did not respond to request for comment. In 2019, the company cut off services to the far-right message board 8chan, following a public outcry after it was used to post the manifesto of the attacker behind the El Paso mass shooting.

Nandini Jammi, who co-founded the activism group Sleeping Giants and now runs a service that monitors brand safety online, said in the absence of action from host sites like these, she is pursuing other ways to pressure MyMilitia offline. She said users on the site are “extremely violent”.

“The companies need to do everything in their power to remedy the situation,” Jammi said.

MyMilitia’s website runs on a software licensed to them by a company called Invision. Following pressure from Jammi and others, the creator of Invision revoked MyMilitia’s permissions to use the software. But the site is still up, and still using it. Jammi and others are now pressuring the owner of Invision to take legal action to force MyMilitia offline for violating their contract.

Activists have attempted to take MyMilitia offline by going after its financial base, such as PayPal, its infrastructure such as GoDaddy and Cloudflare, and its software. These efforts show just how many actors are involved in keeping the forum online – and how many tech companies are complicit in its existence, Lavin said.

“If you are enabling these websites, you are enabling civil war,” she said. “These tech companies need to decide where they stand, and by not acting, they already have.”