Understanding Gray Networks

Gray networks are semi-clandestine and have an organizational structure that is only partially known. They may have some secrecy to their membership, use aliases, have initiation rituals, engage in illicit behavior, and so on, but they aren’t classified as strictly a criminal enterprise like a traditional “dark” network.

Gray networks are somewhat understudied in the social networks and dark networks literature.

In this paper, I use publicly available social media trace data from Venmo and Facebook to explore the structure of the Proud Boys as a “gray network”.

The Proud Boys Venmo network as it grew between October 2016 and April 2019

My main research questions were around whether we can predict the leadership of the group solely from the features of the network, and what can we learn about the way the real world group is organized by looking at the online social network and comparing that to the actual leaders of the group, for example as revealed by their un-redacted Bylaws document.

Proud Boys financial network on Venmo, as of April 2019. Black nodes represent 5 of the 8 “Elders” who were also using Venmo.

Findings of this paper include:

  • Proud Boys social network data confirms their geographically-oriented structure. In addition, the network predicts that 8 leaders (“Elders”) were probably chosen to represent 8 main geographical areas.
  • Social media trace data reveals that real-world events (e.g. TexFest, WestFest, various rallies) are a main driver of membership, payments, and leadership.
  • Proud Boys social network data reveals both bridges and hubs in the structure, as well as small world features. The presence of these different structures can indicate their preferences for how Proud Boys chose to address the communication-versus-security tradeoff characteristic of clandestine networks.
  • Two of the cells appear to operate largely independently of the larger nationwide structure.
  • Although only 5 of 8 Elders appeared in the financial network, 4 of these 5 were predictable as leaders based on network metrics alone.
  • 1 of the 5 Venmo Elders was not able to be predicted from the social media trace data.
  • 4 additional “leader” nodes (2 hubs, 2 bridges) occupy influential positions even though they are not known to be Elders.

This paper has been accepted for presentation and publication at the 11th International Conference on Social Informatics, to be held in Doha, Qatar November 18-21, 2019. (double-blind refereed, 24% accept rate)

Read the pre-print of the full paper (PDF). Abstract: