The mob violence that descended on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was the culmination of weeks of incendiary rhetoric and increasingly feverish planning – much of which took place openly on websites popular with far-right conspiracy theorists.
Jared Holt spends a lot of time on those websites. He’s a visiting research fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, where he has been focused on extremist online activity.
Since November’s election, Holt has seen websites like Parler, Gab, TheDonald and MeWe fill with torrents of “conspiracy theories, disinformation and outright lies about the results of the election,” he says. “And those lies often came from the top arbiters of power in the Republican Party, notably President Donald Trump himself.”
The events of Jan. 6 brought unprecedented traffic to some niche sites. The CEO of Gab, Andrew Torba, said that the site’s traffic was up 40% on Wednesday.
More than 80% of the top posts on TheDonald on Wednesday about the Electoral College certification featured calls for violence in the top five responses, according to research from Advance Democracy, an independent, nonpartisan organization.
And it wasn’t just fringe websites. On Twitter, Advance Democracy found more than 1,480 posts from QAnon-related accounts about Jan. 6 that contained terms of violence since Jan. 1. On TikTok, videos promoting violence garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
On sites both fringe and mainstream, plans for violence
Trump’s claims have fueled increasingly heated rhetoric since the election, Holt says — spiking in the last couple of weeks as Trump doubled down on conspiracy theories like the false and unfounded notion that a company that makes electronic voting systems had deleted votes for Trump.
“Then it really, really went nuts,” Holt says. After Trump promoted a Jan. 6 protest in D.C., “a lot of his extremist supporters interpreted this as a call to action for them.”
Holt and his colleagues saw fringe social media sites fill with messages organizing logistics for that date, as well as activation of anti-government extremists like militia groups, conspiracy theorists and white nationalist activists “on a scale and volume that we haven’t seen at any other point during the electoral process this cycle.”
As it became clear over the last week that Vice President Pence was unlikely to try to overturn the results of the election, Holt says the discussion on the right-wing extremist sites turned to taking matters into their own hands.
On forum boards like TheDonald and antigovernment and militia movement group chats, those conversations included plans to surround the Capitol on all sides, alongside maps of the U.S. Capitol complex marked with locations of tunnels and entry points. “And there was discussion specifically of overwhelming police with large crowds and doing that in order to violate laws against carrying weapons and against entering federal buildings,” Holt says.
There wasn’t a specific time or a formal plan, “but the discussions to do exactly what we saw [Wednesday] … this was an idea that was fomenting and spreading and shared approvingly between users in these extremist communities that we’ve been watching.”
There was also much discussion on such forums about ways to find and attack Black Lives Matter and antifascist protesters, Holt says. But on Wednesday, those groups largely stayed home. That may have shifted Trump supporters’ focus to its eventual target, Holt suggests: “Perhaps the lack of a counterprotest to receive the violence that all these supporters were so ready to unleash meant that that energy instead was directed at the federal government.”
“Maybe it’ll happen — probably not. And then it all happened”
Holt says that even though he was closely monitoring the conversations happening on fringe right-wing sites, he was still taken aback when the overheated rhetoric turned into violent reality.
“I was surprised,” he says. “One of the challenges of doing the line of work that I do is these are extremist communities and the rhetoric is extreme just all the time. It got really, really intense running up to the protest, but oftentimes the ratio of extreme rhetoric to extreme action — there is a little bit of difference there.”
But this time, that rhetoric translated into violent action.
Holt says that in the preceding days, he had spoken with others about what he was seeing being planned on these extremist sites. “I was like, ‘Well, they’re talking about doing X, Y, Z. And, you know, maybe it’ll happen — probably not.’ And then it all happened.”
So what was different this time — why did the bluster turn into a violent attack?
Holt believes the key factor was the remarks from President Trump and his allies when they addressed the rally on Wednesday.
When Trump told his supporters to head to the Capitol, Holt says, “I think the levee just broke.”
“If Trump had not told people to go to the Capitol, I don’t know that it would have happened. Because people on the ground were engaged in some pretty extreme rhetoric about coming back with guns if things don’t go their way, and stuff like that. But there wasn’t any real sort of significant action happening on the ground until Trump finished his speech.”
A conspiracy narrative, fomented for years
Whitney Phillips researches misinformation and disinformation at Syracuse University. On Wednesday, “I saw what I have been expecting to see for the last several months, even several years,” she says.
In the march toward the 2020 election, “at every turn Trump and his enablers in Congress and in the media ecosystem were parroting some version of the ‘deep state’ narrative,” she says.
Trump avoided using the term for years even as he promoted its ideas, laying the groundwork for what is happening now, Phillips says — and when he lost the election, he then used that narrative “as a bludgeon against the American people.”
Those who have believed in QAnon or “deep state” theories have had those ideas reinforced for years by the conspiracy-driven media they consume, as well as by elected officials who repeat them.
The result is that now, amid election results contested by Trump, “this is a well-established narrative way of being in the world. It’s not even a conspiracy theory — it is an identity,” Phillips says.
“So what happened in the Capitol is really the culmination of months and in some cases years of belief in the sort of paradigmatic world in which you have a very clear set of bad guys who are out to get Trump, and you have a very clear set of good guys who are fighting that battle.”
In the coming weeks, the niche platforms that have provided safe haven for extremist movements will come under increased scrutiny, Holt predicts. “And these companies, which don’t have the same legal defenses or resources or infrastructure that a major site like Facebook or Twitter has, may falter under that pressure. But that remains to be seen.”
Holt says Wednesday’s events show that the current approach to combating disinformation and extremism online isn’t working. That approach is often reactive, rather than proactive.
“Oftentimes, by the time a Facebook or a Twitter cracks down on certain pieces of misinformation, it is far too late to halt its spread,” he says. “I think as a society and as a nation, we are beyond the point of overdue for a serious comprehensive examination and discussion about how we’re going to fix this problem. Because if we don’t, the next time could be worse.”
And Phillips says that reckoning must not only concern platform moderation, or only Trump and his enablers – but also recognize these events as the culmination of decades-old forces and beliefs.
“What we need to reckon with is not what happened yesterday, but everything that led us to yesterday,” she says. “And until we’re really willing and able to look back that far and take inventory of what’s happened, then we’re only ever going to be slapping Band-Aids on grotesquely broken arms.”