Extremism & Terrorism » ADL Blogs
March 25, 2016 1

What Tay Taught us When the Internet Taught Her Hate Speech

It’s tough being born as a teenager. Yes­ter­day, Microsoft launched its new arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) com­puter bot — named Tay and envi­sioned as a teenage girl – and she had a very rough first day.  She was imme­di­ately besieged by excited techies, the curi­ous and the haters. In a few hours, she was drawn into tens of thou­sands of exchanges. In the process, racists, anti-Semites, misog­y­nists and other haters manip­u­lated her into repeat­ing some highly offen­sive state­ments.  Microsoft may have taught Tay to con­verse and to retweet, but they failed to rec­og­nize that she would need to engage in some crit­i­cal think­ing, and to know how to rec­og­nize when some­one else was say­ing some­thing offensive. tay

Microsoft should have prob­a­bly antic­i­pated the prob­lems Tay might encounter. How­ever, Microsoft did not pro­gram Tay to spew hate.  It was clearly the Internet’s dark forces who came out to meet Tay and do their damage.

Microsoft and Tay  are not alone in fac­ing this type of prob­lem.  Every major Inter­net plat­form, inter­ac­tive app and online busi­ness has expe­ri­enced some­thing sim­i­lar at some time.  These hic­cups are all learn­ing expe­ri­ences. In this case, Tay taught Microsoft and all of us a les­son. We need to be bet­ter aware of how quickly things can get ugly on the Inter­net, how impor­tant crit­i­cal think­ing is to all tech users, and  how, despite our best efforts, the worst big­ots and haters online are never far from the surface.

Inno­va­tion, exper­i­men­ta­tion and adven­ture in tech­nol­ogy are nec­es­sary and impor­tant, and should never be dis­cour­aged. Tay’s first expo­sure to peo­ple didn’t go as well as it might have.  But we hope every­one has learned some­thing along the way. Tay 2.0 should be very interesting.

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March 21, 2016 4

Winston Shrout: The Rise and Fall of a Sovereign Citizen Guru

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Port­land, Ore­gon, obtained a 19-count grand jury indict­ment in mid-March against Win­ston Shrout, a Hills­boro, Ore­gon, res­i­dent and one of the most promi­nent sov­er­eign cit­i­zen gurus in the United States, a man whose videos and sem­i­nars have attracted thou­sands of peo­ple to the anti-government extrem­ist movement.

Winston Shrout

Win­ston Shrout

Shrout was charged with 13 counts of using fic­ti­tious finan­cial instru­ments in con­nec­tion with an alleged debt elim­i­na­tion scheme. Fic­ti­tious finan­cial instru­ments are bogus checks, money orders, or sim­i­lar doc­u­ments that pur­port to be pay­ments of money but are not in fact gen­uine. Since the early 1980s, sov­er­eign cit­i­zens have been fas­ci­nated with fic­ti­tious finan­cial instru­ments, using them for every­thing from escap­ing their own debts to per­pe­trat­ing major frauds and scams, espe­cially against indebted prop­erty own­ers. Pass­ing them became a fed­eral crime thanks to a law passed after the 1996 Mon­tana Freemen stand­off; the Freemen hav­ing been ener­getic pro­mot­ers of such bogus instruments.

Debt elim­i­na­tion schemes are also extremely com­mon within the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment; sov­er­eigns use their pseudo-legal lan­guage and con­cepts to con­vince vic­tims that, for a fee, their mort­gages or other debts can sim­ply be made to van­ish. Often, fic­ti­tious finan­cial instru­ments and debt elim­i­na­tion schemes go hand in hand.

The fed­eral indict­ment accuses Shrout of cre­at­ing and spread­ing more than 300 bogus “Inter­na­tional Bills of Exchange” and “Non-Negotiable Bills of Exchange,” instru­ments with a com­bined face value of over $100 tril­lion (but worth­less in fact). The indict­ment claims that Shrout used such instru­ments him­self and also mar­keted them as a way for oth­ers to pay off their debts. Shrout is also charged with 6 counts of will­ful fail­ure to file income tax returns.

The indict­ment is a super­sed­ing indict­ment, adding the fic­ti­tious instru­ment charges to the tax charges, which were orig­i­nally filed against Shrout in Decem­ber 2015. Since that orig­i­nal indict­ment, Shrout has declined to use an attorney—a com­mon tac­tic for sovereigns—and has defended him­self using sov­er­eign cit­i­zen fil­ings that, among other things, declare his refusal to con­sent to the juris­dic­tion of the fed­eral court or to be taxed by the IRS.

Shrout, 67, has been one of the most influ­en­tial lead­ers of the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment in the 21st cen­tury. Sov­er­eign cit­i­zens believe that, long ago, an evil con­spir­acy infil­trated and replaced the orig­i­nal “de jure” gov­ern­ment with an ille­git­i­mate, tyran­ni­cal “de facto” gov­ern­ment. They claim that the “de facto” gov­ern­ment has no author­ity or juris­dic­tion over them, which allows them to ratio­nal­ize ignor­ing or break­ing vir­tu­ally any tax, law, reg­u­la­tion, or court order. The move­ment is dom­i­nated by a coterie of gurus, the peo­ple who come up with the movement’s pseudo-legal theories—as well as its often-illegal tactics—and teach them to their followers.

Shrout grew up in Ken­tucky but resided in Utah for much of his life before finally mov­ing to Ore­gon. Shrout has said he is a col­lege grad­u­ate but worked var­i­ous blue-collar jobs such as car­pen­ter, welder, and con­struc­tion worker until 1998, when, as he put it, “as luck would have it I was able to retire.”

Fol­low­ing this early “retire­ment,” Shrout encoun­tered the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment at a time when it was enjoy­ing a burst of pop­u­lar­ity. This was due to a new com­pi­la­tion of sov­er­eign cit­i­zen the­o­ries and tac­tics, often referred to as “redemp­tion” or “straw man the­ory,” which swept through the move­ment in 1999 like a wild­fire and still remain quite pop­u­lar to this day. Long­time sov­er­eign cit­i­zen guru Roger Elvick came up with redemp­tion theory—acting on it would even­tu­ally land him in prison—and shared it with a group of dis­ci­ples who became gurus trav­el­ling the coun­try, hold­ing sem­i­nars and sell­ing man­u­als and videos explain­ing redemp­tion the­ory and its var­i­ous asso­ci­ated tac­tics. Many of those dis­ci­ples are now them­selves in fed­eral or state prison.

Shrout has at times seemed to imply that he learned redemp­tion the­ory from Roger Elvick, but Shrout’s ear­li­est sov­er­eign cit­i­zen fil­ings appear to date from 2000, by which time redemp­tion the­ory was already quite pop­u­lar in the move­ment. In August 2000, he filed a nota­rized doc­u­ment explaining—in sov­er­eign cit­i­zen pseudo-legalese—how he had refused to sign or accept a traf­fic cita­tion from a Wash­ing­ton County, Utah, sheriff’s deputy.

Two months later, Shrout filed his first bogus lien—a com­mon harass­ing tac­tic that sov­er­eigns use against per­ceived oppo­nents or ene­mies. Shrout filed a $1,340,000 lien dubbed an “Affi­davit of Oblig­a­tion” against Uni­fied Indus­tries, Inc., which is a cor­po­ra­tion that holds resources and busi­ness enter­prises asso­ci­ated with the Apos­tolic United Brethren (AUB), one of the major fun­da­men­tal­ist Mor­mon polyg­a­mist sects in Utah. The lien stemmed from some sort of dis­pute Shrout had with El Ran­cho Moto­qua, a sub­sidiary com­pany of Uni­fied Indus­tries estab­lished to cre­ate a polyg­a­mist com­mu­nity in south­ern Utah. In such com­mu­ni­ties, prop­er­ties are often not owned by indi­vid­ual busi­ness own­ers or res­i­dents but rather by a hold­ing com­pany or trust run by the sect. Shrout seems to have been per­mit­ted a res­i­dence in Moto­qua and came into con­flict with the polyg­a­mists run­ning the com­mu­nity. In the bogus lien, Shrout com­plained that he had been threat­ened with “removal” from his house and that he was “excluded from par­tic­i­pa­tion in the reli­gious cer­e­monies and usages” held inside a com­mu­nity building.

Was Shrout him­self an adher­ent of the polyg­a­mist AUB? It is not entirely clear from the lien doc­u­ment, though at one point Shrout refers to him­self “and sev­eral thou­sand other fun­da­men­tal­ist Mor­mons.” How­ever, non-adherents have some­times resided in AUB com­mu­ni­ties. Some adher­ents of polyg­a­mists sects have got­ten involved with the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment. Shrout’s step­daugh­ter, April Ramp­ton, was a res­i­dent of Moto­qua as late as 2012, before she her­self was con­victed in fed­eral court on nine counts of fil­ing false tax claims while engaged in a com­mon sov­er­eign cit­i­zen and tax protest scheme.

Before the end of 2000, Shrout filed a series of redemption-related doc­u­ments and he soon became a redemp­tion guru, teach­ing the the­ory to sov­er­eign audi­ences. In 2004, Shrout and Patri­cia Bekken formed an entity called Solu­tions in Com­merce to mar­ket sov­er­eign sem­i­nars and work­shops. Shrout proved to be a pop­u­lar speaker, with a folksy demeanor that he delib­er­ately played up, refer­ring to it once as “hill­billy shtick.” The debt elim­i­na­tion schemes that Shrout pro­moted were also pop­u­lar; one admir­ing extrem­ist in 2004 referred to Shrout as a “top dawg” among such promoters.

Shrout’s rep­u­ta­tion within the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment grew in the mid-2000s, but it was the social media rev­o­lu­tion that really helped pro­pel him to the top ranks of sov­er­eign gurus, as YouTube videos of some of his appear­ances and sem­i­nars began to cir­cu­late widely by 2008–2009, bring­ing him far greater atten­tion and pop­u­lar­ity. This same time period cor­re­sponded with the begin­nings of the great reces­sion and the mort­gage cri­sis, events that helped spawn a major resur­gence of the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment by cre­at­ing a large pool of angry and des­per­ate peo­ple who were poten­tial recruits.

Shrout held sem­i­nars across the coun­try but hardly lim­ited his activ­i­ties to the United States. In the 1990s, the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment had taken root in Canada, so Shrout spoke to atten­tive audi­ences in that nation—until Cana­dian author­i­ties finally pro­hib­ited him from enter­ing the coun­try. But Shrout found other inter­na­tional audi­ences, hold­ing sem­i­nars in Aus­tralia, New Zealand, and Great Britain, help­ing to bring the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment to all of those countries—to the dis­may of authorities.

More recently, Shrout expanded beyond strictly sov­er­eign notions to express him­self on UFOs and other “New Age” issues, claim­ing that in the early 2000s he and friends of his have been vis­ited by alien “Pleia­di­ans.” He’s made ref­er­ences to every­thing from incar­nated fairies to “Hol­low Earth” the­ory. Sev­eral years ago, Shrout set up a new web­site, dubbed Exo-Commerce, to pro­vide “insight from a uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive,” which appears to be an attempt to blend sov­er­eign cit­i­zen the­o­ries and tac­tics with “New Age” beliefs. It is dif­fi­cult to deter­mine whether these are sin­cerely held beliefs or merely a cyn­i­cal attempt on the part of Shrout to expand to another gullible audience.

The new fed­eral charges against Shrout could put an end to such oppor­tunism, cyn­i­cal or sin­cere. If con­victed on all charges, Shrout may face what could be an effec­tive life sentence.

 

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March 8, 2016 0

Shooting Investigation Vindicates Troopers, Raises Questions About FBI Actions

lavoyfinicumshootingOre­gon author­i­ties revealed today the results of their inves­ti­ga­tion into the fatal shoot­ing of anti-government extrem­ist Robert “LaVoy” Finicum by Ore­gon state troop­ers dur­ing an attempt by state and fed­eral author­i­ties to arrest many of the ring­lead­ers of the Jan­u­ary 2 armed occu­pa­tion of the Mal­heur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

The inves­ti­ga­tion vin­di­cated the actions of the state troop­ers who shot Finicum, but revealed that there is a sep­a­rate mis­con­duct inves­ti­ga­tion ongo­ing into some of the FBI agents’ actions at the scene.

On Jan­u­ary 26, sev­eral weeks into the refuge stand­off, Ore­gon state troop­ers and agents from the FBI’s Hostage Res­cue Team attempted to con­duct a planned traf­fic stop of two vehi­cles filled with occu­piers on their way to a meet­ing, so that they could arrest sev­eral of the extrem­ists.  Both vehi­cles ini­tially stopped but the one dri­ven by Finicum sub­se­quently sped off down the road until it crashed into a snow­bank after nar­rowly avoid­ing run­ning into a law enforce­ment roadblock.

As cap­tured on video taken by a police heli­copter cir­cu­lat­ing over­head, Finicum almost imme­di­ately jumped out of the vehi­cle.  As Ore­gon state troop­ers approached from two direc­tions, Finicum twice reached towards his jacket, as if to pull out a weapon (he did have a weapon there, it was deter­mined). At the sec­ond reach, the troop­ers opened fire on Finicum, fatally wound­ing him.

After any officer-involved shoot­ing, there is an inves­ti­ga­tion. In this case, the inves­ti­ga­tion took on added impor­tance because of the sen­si­tive nature of the sit­u­a­tion: anti-government extrem­ists believe that Finicum was delib­er­ately mur­dered and since his death have ener­get­i­cally tried to turn him into a mar­tyr for the “Patriot” move­ment cause, cre­at­ing a risk of future vio­lence.  Indeed, on the week­end before the inves­ti­ga­tion results were released, anti-government activists staged nearly 50 ral­lies across the coun­try to protest his death.

The Ore­gon inves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded that the two troop­ers who had fired shots at Finicum were jus­ti­fied in so doing, because the troop­ers believed Finicum was about to injure or kill some­one.  Another trooper, who had fired three shots at Finicum’s truck as it was about to hit the road­block, was also vindicated.

How­ever, in a sur­pris­ing rev­e­la­tion, author­i­ties announced that the Jus­tice Depart­ment is con­duct­ing a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion into the actions of five FBI agents present at the scene of the shoot­ing.  The state inves­ti­ga­tion uncov­ered that one FBI agent allegedly fired two shots dur­ing the inci­dent, then allegedly sub­se­quently denied to inves­ti­ga­tors that he had fired his weapon.  Nei­ther shot hit Finicum. The other agents under inves­ti­ga­tion report­edly may have helped cover for the first agent. It is not clear when this sec­ond inves­ti­ga­tion will be complete.

The FBI’s Hostage Res­cue Team was heav­ily crit­i­cized in the 1990s for actions and deci­sions its agents had taken at armed stand­offs in Idaho and Texas involv­ing extrem­ists or fringe groups, but it has not had any con­tro­ver­sies in recent years.

The admis­sion of pos­si­ble FBI mis­con­duct will unfor­tu­nately pro­vide more ammu­ni­tion for anti-government extrem­ists attempt­ing to use Finicum’s death to stoke anti-government anger.  This in turn may increase the risk that right-wing extrem­ists may engage in acts of vio­lence out of some sort of desire for ret­ri­bu­tion. Thus the news of pos­si­ble FBI misconduct—never wel­come under any circumstances—was par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing in this context.

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