Feds, tech fall short on watching extremists, Senate says

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are failing to adequately monitor domestic extremists, according to a new Senate report that also faulted social media platforms for encouraging the spread of violent and antigovernment content.

The report, issued Wednesday by the Senate Homeland Security panel, called on federal law enforcement to reassess its overall response to the threat of homegrown terrorism and extremism.

The report recommends creating new definitions for extremism that are shared between agencies, improved reporting on crimes linked to white supremacy and antigovernment groups, and better use of social media in an effort to prevent violence, said Sen. Gary Peters, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee.

Growing domestic extremism has been linked to the country's widening political divide and a rise in distrust of institutions. Critics of social media's role in radicalizing extremists say that misinformation and hate speech spread online is fueling the problem, and in some cases encouraging acts of real-world violence like the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Participants in that effort to illegally stop the certification of the presidential election openly discussed online their plans to come to Washington for weeks ahead of time, with some discussing the possibility of using force, Peters noted.

“Folks who were looking at what was happening on social media should have known that something very bad could potentially go down on Jan. 6 here at the Capitol,” Peters said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters.

The FBI emailed a statement to The Associated Press defending its handling of domestic terrorism in response to the report. The agency has provided comprehensive reports to Congress on the threat of domestic extremism motivated by racism or antigovernment views and tracks it carefully, the agency said.

“They are among the FBI’s top threat priorities,” the agency said.

A DHS spokesperson responded similarly Wednesday, saying the agency uses a “community-based approach to prevent terrorism and targeted violence, and does so in ways that protect privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.”

The leaders of both agencies are scheduled to testify before Peters' committee on Thursday, part of its annual hearing on domestic threats.

Both agencies have previously defended their work to combat domestic terrorism, as FBI Director Christopher Wray did last year when he told Congress that violent extremists pose a mounting threat.

Efforts by federal law enforcement to use social media to track domestic extremism have prompted questions about civil liberties and the targeting of communities of color. Republicans have accused tech platforms, meanwhile, of using content moderation to censor conservative opinions.

Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube were all singled out in the report for encouraging harmful content by using algorithms designed to increase user engagement. Those algorithms often prioritize clicks over quality, potentially sending users down a rabbit hole of increasingly provocative material.

The report noted that tech companies often use content moderation tools to remove or flag extremist content after it's already spread. They should change their algorithms and products to ensure they aren't encouraging the content in the first place, the report recommended.

“The rise in domestic terrorism can be partially attributed to the proliferation of extremist content on social media platforms and the failure of companies to effectively limit it in favor of action that increase engagement on their platforms,” the report concluded.

David Klepper, The Associated Press