Accused mosque arsonist favored Facebook for spreading hate

Prosecutors in trial of man accused of attacking South Texas mosque offer 3,000 pages from his social-media page, spewing hate and organizing militias.

When Marq Vincent Perez wanted to spread his hatred of Muslims, there was one place he knew he could always reliably turn: Facebook. There, he found, he could share fake news stories and vicious fearmongering about them freely.

When he decided to organize a militia devoted to “operations” against Texas mosques, he opened a secret Facebook group devoted to the plan. Then these “Three Percenter” militiamen began meeting in real life, making plans and shooting up cars to prepare themselves. He talked about lobbing bombs into cars driven by Muslims.

Eventually, prosecutors say, it all culminated the early morning of January 28, 2017, when Perez burglarized a mosque in Victoria, Texas, and set it afire. He was arrested in early March 2017 for a car bombing and eventually charged with the arson when informants linked him to the crime and a search of his home turned up items taken in the burglary. His trial in Houston began this week.

In their opening statements, prosecutors presented some 3,000 pages of online content generated by a search of Perez’s Facebook account. It included his comments and messages to fellow militiamen, such as: “I’ll burn every motherfucker with a towel on his head.”

According to witnesses, Perez commonly used anti-Muslim slurs at work — such as “sand niggers” and “ragheads” — and in social situations. However, it was on Facebook that he devoted most of his anti-Muslim energy, sharing stories and posts from a variety of anti-Muslim hate groups and other organizations, as well as from other activists.

Discussing a piece about internal resistance to immigration in Germany, Perez wrote: “Let the war begin and let the Germans have their way. They’ll stop the Muslims cold and kill any that try anything that doesn’t involve leaving Germany. May no God stand between them and what’s coming to the Muslims.”

In December 2016, according to lead prosecutor Sharad Sushil Khandelwal, Perez became involved with an antigovernment “Three Percenter” group on Facebook, and had soon formed a secret Facebook group of his own dedicated to organizing local militias to “combat Islam.”

His postings and private messages included plans to create a “rogue unit” to monitor and possibly confront Muslims in Victoria: “Local response squad is ready. Patrols are set around local mosques and centers,” he wrote in a post to an unidentified correspondent.

He dubbed this group his “Six Delta” team. In mid-January 2017, Perez and a group of team members attacked a car parked at a Victoria family’s home, riddling it with shotgun blasts and then finishing the job with homemade explosives improvised from fireworks. Perez considered that attack a “training mission.”

It also proved to be his undoing, however. Investigators eventually traced a shotgun shell left at the scene to Perez, and then found fireworks similar to those used in the explosion in his attic. He was arrested and charged with the vandalism; while in prison, he became linked to the January 27 mosque arson, and further investigation produced more evidence linking him to the crime.

Facebook officials have introduced measures intended to reduce hate speech on their platform, including algorithms that are designed to check facts and reduce vitriol. It also announced new rules that would result in content being taken down if found in violation. However, it’s not clear whether any of these measures would have stopped someone like Marq Perez from spreading hatred of Muslims and organizing to take violent action against them.

Moreover, Facebook has become a home for anti-Muslim hate in recent years, in large part because its standards are not rigorously or consistently applied. In particular, antigovernment Three Percenters have been permitted to openly publish material that clearly violates the platform’s community standards, as well as to organize their anti-Muslim activities using the platform.

The community standards for Facebook groups include prohibitions against credible suggestions of violence, as well as coordinating harm against others, and Perez’s militia group may have been in violation of those rules as well.

Perez’s hateful comments on his boards were never taken down before they were retrieved by prosecutors. And what was presented in court this week makes clear that they fell well into Facebook’s own definition of hate speech “as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disability or disease.”

A February 2018 study found a direct correlation between hateful rhetoric against refugees on the Facebook page of the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland and incidents against refugees. They further found that during times of country-wide Facebook outages, the “effect of refugee posts on hate crimes vanishes” within weeks. “Our results suggest that social media can act as a propagation mechanism between online hate speech and real-life incidents,” the study, published by the German University of Warwick, concluded.