Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal federal funds are being used by the Department of Homeland Security to target Christian groups, conservatives and Republicans.
In one case, the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Heritage Foundation, and Blue Lives Matter pro-police movement were mentioned by a recipient of the funding as being on par with neo-Nazis.
The DHS program was meant to target violence and terrorism but is now being misused, according to Dan Schneider, vice president of the non-profit Media Research Center (MRC) who made the FOIA requests.
When created, the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program was supposed to provide funding to counter targeted violence such as large gang violence and terrorism. Entities receiving the funding included universities, local, state and tribal governments, and non-profits according to DHS.
The non-profit is known for documenting and publicizing misinformation in both government and media.
Schneider says the scope of the funding is very vague, including funding for “media literacy.”
For instance, Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville received a 2022 grant to fund the development of “media literacy and online critical thinking skills among local college students so they are better equipped to combat an ever-increasing volume of extremist content in the online/digital space,“ stated a DHS website.
The description of the project also includes training sessions for local community organizations, the website stated.
The University of Rhode Island would use the grant from DHS received in 2022 to counter disinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and domestic extremism in local communities, according to DHS.
The applications are so fuzzy, so it is very difficult to find out how DHS evaluates them when it comes to information, misinformation, and disinformation, Schneider said. Therefore his organization reached out to grantees to find out “what the grantees are actually doing.”
Media Research Center obtained documents related to the program participation from six or seven out of about 80 grantees, Schneider said. “Actions speak louder than words … [t]hese documents are shocking.”
What DHS founded through its violence and terrorism prevention program was “training on how to create dummy social media accounts, [how] to create fake infighting among conservatives and to disrupt the work of these conservative organizations—not just conservative, but Christian and faith-based organizations,” Schneider said.
In 2022 the DHS program awarded 43 grants, totaling $20 million, to ”state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, nonprofits, and institutions of higher education,” according to a DHS statement.
The funds are supposed to be used “to help prevent incidents of domestic violent extremism, as well as to bolster efforts to counter online radicalization and mobilization to violence, “and DHS provides technical, financial, and educational assistance to its grantees, the statement said.
The MRC report analyzed the project PREVENTS-OH funded within the DHS program, carried out by the University of Dayton, a private Catholic university in Ohio.
The University received a grant of $350 million in September 2022 to implement a training and networking project also focused on “media literacy,” according to the DHS website.
The objective of project PREVENTS-OH, funded by DHS, is to “develop a network of regional organizations to help prevent domestic violent extremism in southwest Ohio and beyond,” according to a statement by the University.
The university promised to draw on the expertise of its faculty “who research extremism and radicalization” in implementing the project, the statement said.
In December 2021, the University of Dayton organized a Social Practice of Human Rights conference. which featured a roundtable on “Extremism, Rhetoric, and Democratic Precarity.” One of the participants, Michael Loadenthal, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cincinnati, presented at his lecture a chart that he claimed depicts the “modern far-right” and extremism in America.
The chart equates mainstream Christian and conservative groups with militant neo-nazis. Among the conservative groups pictured in the chart are The Heritage Foundation, Fox News, the National Rifle Association, Breitbart News, Prager University, Turning Point USA, the Christian Broadcasting Network, the American Conservative Union Foundation, the Republican National Committee, and the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement.
Among the roundtable speakers was DHS Agent Joseph “J.R.” Masztalics –a regional coordinator at a center created in May 2021 to “combat domestic violent extremism”–who appeared in his official capacity at the event.
This chart was among enclosures included in the original grant application submitted by the University of Dayton to DHS to secure funding under the program successfully, the MRC report said.
Loadenthal also participated in the “White Nationalism Workshop” at the same conference. He explained in his presentation how to create dummy accounts on social media platforms like Telegram, Gab, and Rumble in order to destabilize political movements.
The tactic is often quite common, with some pointing out this week that members of leftist organizations posed as “neo-Nazis” and held packards to support Ron DeSantis at a recent event. The photos were widely circulated, without verification, on mainstream media outlets.
“We want to make these groups disjointed, less effective … I would like them to be less able to mobilize,” said Loadenthal, who described himself in the workshop as an Antifa member.
One effective method to destabilize right-wing groups is to “manufacture a lot of infighting,” Loadenthal said.
He also told the audience that they could pressure online financial services like GoFundMe, Patreon, PayPal, Venmo, online retailers, and other online service providers to expel people from their networks.
Loadenthal advised collecting information and intelligence on social media accounts of right-wing groups or activists, which he also called “fascists,” so it can be “used for the strategic purpose of de-platforming.” De-platforming means “denying far-right fascist folk any sort of public sphere access, denying them the ability to speak,” Loadenthal explained, with a goal “to o shut down their websites, to close their meetings, to physically prevent them from assembling in public.”
“A lot of things we’re doing are illegal,” Loadenthal admitted. “A lot of it involves breaking the law,” he added.