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The radicalization of an alleged domestic terrorist

Cesar Sayoc's social media accounts read like a blueprint for the radicalization of an alleged domestic terr...

Posted: Oct 31, 2018 6:11 AM
Updated: Oct 31, 2018 6:11 AM

Cesar Sayoc's social media accounts read like a blueprint for the radicalization of an alleged domestic terrorist.

A CNN KFile analysis of thousands of tweets sent from Sayoc's accounts found the 56-year-old shared conspiracy theories, false news articles, and graphic memes for years. Some of his tweets appeared to be directly parroting President Trump.

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He tweeted about a wide array of baseless conspiracy theories, including "Pizzagate;" "chemtrails;" birtherism, and a number of posts regarding billionaire and liberal philanthropist George Soros.

Sayoc occasionally seemed to copy the president's rhetoric. In February 2017, three days after the first time President Trump called the news media the "enemy of the people," Sayoc, in a tweet directed at Fox News' Chris Wallace wrote, "The Press is enemy."

In April 2018, six months before he allegedly sent mail bombs to Soros, prominent Democrats and the offices of CNN, Sayoc moved from just tweeting about conspiracy theories to regularly threatening people.

In all, CNN's analysis found, Sayoc tweeted more than 240 threats directed to at least 50 public officials, news organizations and media personalities.

The threats, and Twitter's apparent inaction regarding them, raise new questions regarding social media and radicalization. Social media platforms like Twitter are "radicalization machines," Jonathon Morgan, the CEO of New Knowledge, told CNN. Morgan's company tracks online disinformation, and he has studied online radicalization for years.

In this instance, Twitter may well have provided Sayoc with the material that radicalized him, and then it stood idly by as that radicalization led to hundreds of threats.

"Your Time is coming," "Your days are over," "your (sic) next," and "Hug your loved ones real close everytime U leave your home," were some of Sayoc's refrains. Sometimes he attached photos to his threats, including pictures of decapitated goats, photos of the homes and families of those he was threatening and a tarot card of a skeleton on horseback over the caption "death." He frequently suggested that the people he was tweeting at would vanish in the Everglades, not far from where he lived in Florida.

Sayoc would repeatedly tweet about the subjects of his threats often sending the same threat a dozen times in a row. He tweeted 50 times about Parkland shooting survivors in 2018, including spreading the false conspiracy theories that shooting survivor David Hogg was a crisis actor working with Soros and that he wasn't in school at the time of the shooting, and also tweeted digitally altered pictures of Hogg in a Nazi uniform. Sayoc sent at least four threats to at Hogg.

In May he tweeted pictures of Soros' home and with the address typed over the photo nine times in a row. The following month he posted pictures of Rep. Maxine Waters' home and wrote, "See you soon." Both were eventually mailed suspicious packages allegedly tied to Sayoc.

That same month on May 18th, in response to a tweet from parody site The Onion, he tweeted a threat saying every media building needed to be set on fire. "More flipped garbage bye liberal left media everyone of their building needs to be eliminated torched.." Sayoc preceded to tweet four threats at the satirical outlet.

By August Sayoc was tweeting a threat every day or two, usually tweeting several threats in a row at his targets. His threats got even darker.

On September 22, 2018 he tweeted a photo at Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of her home along with photos of her family. "A Promise we will see you real soon. Hug loved one everytime you leave your home." Sayoc tweeted. He proceeded to tweet six more threats at Warren.

Numerous targets of threats from Sayoc on Twitter said they either didn't see the threats or that they get so many threats on Twitter they no longer report them.

Comedian Kathy Griffin, who was threatened by Sayoc, told CNN she didn't even see his tweets because she gets so many threats online. She said she had been visited by the FBI in California this week and that they told her Sayoc "was trying to find a way to get to me."

CNN anchor Don Lemon and CNN contributor Ana Navarro both said that Twitter is so bad with dealing with reports of threats made against them, that they rarely report it.

One person who Sayoc threatened, political analyst Rochelle Ritchie, did report it. Twitter apologized last week after Ritchie disclosed that Twitter took no measures against Sayoc after she reported the threat.

The company told CNN on Tuesday that it only received two user reports about Sayoc's account before he was identified as the suspect.

In a lengthy statement, a Twitter spokesperson told CNN on Tuesday, "The account in question was permanently suspended from Twitter, and our teams are actively engaged with law enforcement to support their investigation. Let us be clear: violent threats, targeted abuse, and hateful conduct are against our rules. This type of content does not enable or empower speech and has no place on our service. We are moving forward in two ways: 1) significantly improving our appeals process to address errors in our enforcement decisions and 2) using new technology to detect abusive content without requiring someone to report it first. We know we have to take more of the burden off the shoulders of victims of harassment and threats. We must do better and we will do better. As our CEO, Jack Dorsey, stated in front of Congress last month, serving healthy public conversations is our singular mission as a company and overrides all other considerations."

Benjamin T. Decker, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, told CNN that Sayoc's Twitter account showed clearly that the company can't appropriately moderate its own platform.

Decker, who has studied both foreign and domestic extremist groups, said platforms need to start working together more closely to identify users sharing hate across their sites. But he warned that kicking a user off one network, sometimes called "deplatforming," often means that they will go to more fringe forums, where there is far less content to counter many of the false conspiracy claims that people being radicalized are likely to see.

Morgan, the New Knowledge CEO, said the mainstream platforms make it too easy for people to become immersed in "some fringe online community without access to any other points of view."

"It is one thing to see this radical content as part of your wider information diet, but if it is all you see you begin to believe it is the norm," he said.

Morgan said that while the vast majority of people consuming conspiratorial, extremist content online will never commit a violent act, for those prone to violence it could inspire them to act.

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