The son of a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge. A masonry worker from Des Moines, Iowa. A one-time Cleveland educator who said a day after the siege that she was “switching paths” to expose the “global evil of human trafficking and pedophilia.” A guy wearing a knit cap bearing the logo of the Chicago Fire Department, known on Twitter only as #extinguisherman for the footage showing him wielding an extinguisher near the steps where Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick was beaten to death. These are the new anti-heroes of American democracy’s violent convulsions.
There are hundreds more pro-Trump supporters implicated in the political violence at the Capitol building last week. Authorities have reportedly charged at least 70 people and opened investigative files on 170 others. Many of the leads have come from crowdsourced clues in a deluge of social media posts on Twitter, Facebook and, before it was taken down, Parler, the social media network popular with the far right. Given the dire warnings from the FBI about forthcoming planned armed marches in Washington and in state capitals across the country, we may soon be drowning in details of the virtual lives of thousands of more radicalized Americans by Inauguration Day next week, and probably beyond.
The question every American citizen now faces is: Are you prepared to see the country you grew up in, pledged allegiance to and call home, descend into a slow-motion civil war? Almost 160 years have passed since Abraham Lincoln invoked the “better angels of our nature” during his first inauguration, and America still seems to be struggling to even find a set of clip-on wings. As I wrote this column this week, one politician after another was trooping up to the podium in the House of Representatives to debate whether President Donald Trump was fit for office, before the House impeached the reality TV star turned wannabe autocrat for the second time.
Yet a handful of Trump’s loyalists still appeared set to defend the indefensible Wednesday, even as it became clear from a tsunami of leaked Parler data that Trump’s violent rhetoric had whipped up frenzied cries of bloodlust from his followers and other hard-right extremists. With threats of more violence looming, open-source investigators, data nerds and tech researchers had all moved aggressively to try to make sense of the huge cache of posts, photos and videos before Amazon knocked Parler off its servers Sunday.
In the absence of any coherent policy baselines from Silicon Valley, there are risks to the whack-a-mole approach that Facebook, Twitter and others are taking right now.
What they’ve found so far is chilling, including evidence that threats of hanging politicians went viral as Trump turned up the volume on his lies about electoral fraud. As others apparently race to plot the virtual map of the movements of scores of Parler users that can be pieced together from this metadata, it is also becoming clear that the platform’s shutdown may have had the unintended consequence of driving its most extreme elements onto even less moderated platforms, such as Gab and Rumble.
Signs of this migration reportedly began to manifest months ago, as Twitter and Facebook became more aggressive about taking down users hopped up on #StoptheSteal, anti-vaccine paranoia and cultish QAnon conspiracies around November’s elections. Some might view shrinking the virtual public square for radicals inspired by a mix of White supremacism and anti-science, evangelical conservatism as a good thing. Deplatforming and takedowns can and seemingly have done a lot to short-circuit some of the plotting and planning by Trump’s most virulent hard-right followers that appeared to be taking place on Parler. But there is still plenty of chatter on Telegram channels by the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters—adherents of a peculiarly American brand of militia cultism around the Second Amendment—that has fused with “Lost Cause” Confederate revivalism, racism and ethnonationalist ideology.
In the absence of any coherent policy baselines from Silicon Valley, there are also risks and real downsides to the seemingly random whack-a-mole approach that Facebook, Twitter and others are taking right now. What I know from working with my colleagues to track the online behavior of far-right extremist groups with transnational ties, spanning North America, Europe, Russia and beyond, is that those exiled from popular platforms often wash up on Russian ones, as well as servers hosted in Russia and elsewhere.
We saw that, for instance, after Justice Department officials lodged conspiracy charges in February 2020 against American and Canadian members of the Atomwaffen Division, a White supremacist, neo-Nazi group whose members featured prominently in the notorious Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, which Trump said had “very fine people, on both sides.” Within days of those charges and the subsequent exposure of a massive data leak of White supremacist and hard-right extremist posts from the now defunct Iron March forum, which was popular with neo-Nazis, we noted an exodus to VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. We also saw that when QAnon-inspired violence and rhetoric ultimately led to the deplatforming of 8chan, it turned up not long afterward on Russian-based servers as 8kun. We fully expect to see more traffic from partisans of the Capitol siege moving eastward soon enough.
This is not to say that Russia is responsible for what happened this past week in Washington, and what will happen over the next several weeks and months, as Trump’s impeachment trial and the start of Biden’s presidency converge. To be sure, American tech platforms that prioritize profit over democracy have allowed Russia and other states to promote propaganda that RAND calls the “firehose of falsehood” for years now. But the internet is as vast as the dark web is deep. America’s far-right extremists never needed much of a push from outside or inside the United States to take a dive underground.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.