Trump supporters organized the Capitol riot online
Supporters of President Trump mused openly on social media about the possibility of violence in the days leading up to the riot at the Capitol, using various mainstream and conservative-leaning sites to organize.
As tech platforms crack down on Trump in the wake of the attack, experts say increasingly popular right-wing sites could pose an even greater danger down the road as conspiracy theories breed real-life crises.
“Jan. 6 is an inflection point for how the United States and the world views conspiracy theories, and how conspiracy theories, ranging from election fraud and ‘Stop the Steal,’ can lead to real-world harm in a way that a lot of people never really kind of believed,” Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute, told The Hill.
“I think now, after seeing that happen on the 6th of January, I think this chapter of the book related to conspiracy theories has been written. And it is a national security threat,” he added.
Posts on websites including Parler, a Twitter-like platform with minimal content moderation, and TheDonald.win, a message forum that sprung up after Reddit banned a “subreddit” of the same name in June, were rife with posts about storming the Capitol in the days leading up to the deadly riot that prompted a lockdown and forced lawmakers to evacuate.
But posts on mainstream platforms, including Twitter, also mused about a potential attack coinciding with the day Congress was set to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s win, according to a report from Advance Democracy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that conducts public-interest research & investigations.
For five days leading up to the riot, when a mob forced its way into the Capitol, there were 1,480 posts on Twitter from QAnon-related accounts about the Jan. 6 date that contained “terms of violence,” according to the Advance Democracy report.
One account related to the QAnon conspiracy theory late Tuesday night tweeted, “WE are all done being the bigger person, no more MR. NICE PATRIOT! it’s Time for Patriots to Rise up, Kick The Tires and Light the Fires, and Kick Ass and Take Names!!,” according to the report.
Advance Democracy also identified four TikTok videos with between 1,900 views and 279,000 views that called for violence or rebellion during pro-Trump demonstrations scheduled for Jan. 6.
Thousands of Trump’s supporters had gathered in Washington, D.C., for a series of demonstrations aimed at protesting the election results, with the president addressing a crowd near the White House.
In his address, Trump continued to spread unsubstantiated claims about widespread election fraud and undermined Biden’s electoral win.
Hours later, the pro-Trump mob swarmed the Capitol, delaying the certification, forcing lawmakers and staff to shelter, and resulting in numerous violent clashes with police.
“There were explicit discussions of assaulting the Capitol in these far-right forums,” Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab in D.C., told the Hill.
“It’s unclear the extent to which the president understood sentiment in that crowd, but the fact that he — in his inciting speech on the 6th — didn’t back away from this stuff, anyone who showed up with the intention of attacking the Capitol was getting the all-clear sign from the commander-in-chief,” Brooking added.
The Capitol attack is far from the first time a far-right event that turned violent had spawned from online organizing. But Brooking said it’s the first time participants shifted to clashing with officers as opposed to counter-protestors.
“They would try to hold provocative events with the intent of fomenting a counter-protest so then they could engage those counter protesters in street violence,” he said, referencing events such as the deadly Charlottesville, Va., “Unite the Right” rally in 2017.
“But on Jan. 6 there were essentially no counter-protestors. This was entirely a mobilization of far-right extremists in support of the president, and in lieu of attacking counter-protesters they attacked Capitol Hill police officers, and federal buildings, and were successful in doing so,” he said.
After the riot, social media giants took unprecedented steps to limit Trump’s reach following his response to his supporters. A video in which Trump urged supporters to go home but continued to spread baseless claims of election fraud was removed by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Twitter later temporarily suspended — and then permanently banned — Trump’s account, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence.” Facebook also banned the president from its platform until at least Biden’s inauguration.
A permanent ban on Trump’s accounts, though, may be a fruitless attempt at mitigating the misinformation he’s spreading, said Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Even if he doesn’t have a public profile within Facebook, he can utilize it as a mechanism for ground swell support for people that are supporting him,” Lightman said.
“He could use other platforms to do this, and tell people to spread this message on different platforms, so it’s not a Trump profile but its Trumpism or Trumpian politics, or whatever you want to call it, that gets spread far and wide,” he added.
Bret Schafer, a fellow focusing on disinformation at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said efforts to mitigate a specific disinformation narrative have to be taken quickly, otherwise the theory “takes on a life of its own.”
Once a conspiracy theory stretches into a “conspiracy community,” challenging the false claims becomes akin to challenging a “religious belief,” Schafer said.
“If all we were dealing with here was the notion that the election was rigged that would be a very different thing to try to untangle than what we’re dealing with now,” Schafer said.
Trump supporters posting on TheDonald.win, for example, are even questioning the validity of Trump’s own video released Thursday ensuring a smooth transition to the Biden administration, despite it being released by the president’s verified account.
Numerous posts on the pro-Trump forum baselessly claimed that the video was a “deep fake.” A White House spokesperson was not immediately available for comment in response to such allegations.
Trump does not appear to have created his own account on Parler just yet, but Lightman said the president could quickly build a large following on that platform or other ones that are gaining popularity on the right. The rising popularity and minimal moderation of the site “absolutely” poses increased risks of real-world danger stemming from online conspiracies, he added, calling them “the Wild West.”
Both Google and Apple put pressure on Parler to update its content moderation policies in wake of the riot this week, with Google stating Friday it had suspended the app from its store until it makes updates and Apple reportedly threatening to do the same.
Already users are posting on Parler and other sites regarding plans for future in-person events, including some around Biden’s inauguration later this month.
Brooking said there may not be a great risk of another large-scale attack this month. He said some right-wing supporters on these platforms are “a bit taken aback by the public backlash” to the riot, and it would be harder to organize. He also noted there is now an even greater law enforcement presence in D.C. and state capitals.
The more dire concern, he said, is “the legacy of Jan. 6” — how images of rioters forcing Congress to adjourn and seizing the U.S. Capitol may be used as a recruitment tool across right-wing channels.
“You couldn’t ask for a better recruitment poster for future generations of right-wing extremists,” Brooking said. “I think we’re going to see those images again and again, and I think very quickly the romanticization of this attack. And we’re going to deal with those consequences for many years to come.”
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.