Jan 6 series: The key to fighting extremism is accountability

By Jared Holt and Eric Levai 

24 January 2022  

This Dispatch is part of ISD’s series marking the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection. Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring themes including accountability for big tech, extremists’ digital footprints, and the landscape of election denialism going forward. 

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Accountability remains the most effective solution to domestic extremism. While historically, bringing extremist groups to justice has taken different forms, the most effective solutions to curbing domestic extremism in the United States enforce unmistakable legal and social accountability.   

Consistency is Key: No One Should Be Above Consequences 

Domestic extremist movements remain an existential threat to democracy, just as they did on January 6th, when thousands of former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol to try to thwart the peaceful transition of power after the 2020 presidential election. 

Since that attack, attempts to bring to justice those responsible have significantly varied. 

US prosecutors are pursuing seditious conspiracy convictions against five members of the Proud Boys, including the neofascist hate group’s leader Enrique Tarrio, and four members of the Oath Keepers. Last year, a jury found Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Kelly Meggs, who led the anti-government group’s Florida chapter, guilty of seditious conspiracy (with co-defendants Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson, and Jessica Watkins found not guilty on that charge). Rhodes and Meggs face up to 20 years in jail: clear consequences for their actions. Hundreds more have been charged with crimes related to the attack. Many cases are still ongoing. 

Compare that to the accountability for those at the very top. 

The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol ended its tenure recommending the Department of Justice prosecute Trump for four criminal acts allegedly committed during the Capitol attack. Though the DOJ has sought convictions against hundreds of riot participants, it’s unclear whether the agency has any intention of doing the same for the former President or his top confidants — despite the irrefutable evidence amassed by the Committee.  

Inconsistencies exist beyond the realm of law enforcement, including on social media platforms. Though most platforms have refined their policies around extremism over the last decade with actor-based approaches targeting dangerous and violent organizations, platform policies against overt hate speech still seem to fold when it comes time to apply those rules to high-profile users (some platforms, like Twitter, have retreated on this front to varying degrees). 

For example, overt hate speech is forbidden on Facebook, as it is on many other major social media platforms, but the company has allowed high-profile conservative politicians and media who have promoted a white supremacist conspiracy theory known as “The Great Replacement,” which has inspired mass shooters again, and again, and again, to do so without consequence. Tech platforms also repeatedly failed to act on election conspiracy theorists ahead of the Capitol riot, even giving Trump extra leeway to break the rules. Additionally, many tech platforms guard their data, evading accountability for the accuracy of their claims about such content moderation. 

The Committee’s reported reluctancy to scrutinize tech companies for fear of offending Republicans, even after investigators turned up troves of evidence illustrating that tech failed to act on red flags before the attack, is disappointing in this same respect. Reluctance to enforce accountability evenly sends mixed messages about whether the policies put in place to counter extremism have that goal as their sole and genuine priority. If the rules don’t apply to every user, then one may naturally wonder who they are for to begin with. 

 

Act Early: Consequences Can Deter Escalation  

Early intervention is key. 

After conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza made a discredited film called “2000 Mules,” popularizing false claims that unknown “ballot mules” flipped the 2020 election to give Joe Biden an illegitimate victory, an Oklahoma-based Trump supporter named Melody Jennings founded “Clean Elections USA” – allegedly to surveil ballot boxes. 

During the 2022 midterm election, activists around the country began showing up at ballot boxes, some of them armed. 

Two subsequent lawsuits resulted in a temporary restraining order on those activities within Arizona. After that ruling, Jennings’ Clean Elections USA all but disappeared.  

 

Figure 1: Melody Jennings, who posts on Truth Social as ”TrumperMel,” corrects election misinformation she spread as part of an agreement following lawsuits against her and other vigilante ballot drop box monitors. 

Figure 1: Melody Jennings, who posts on Truth Social as ”TrumperMel,” corrects election misinformation she spread as part of an agreement following lawsuits against her and other vigilante ballot drop box monitors.

An Oath Keepers group called Yavapai County Preparedness Team (YCPT) and an affiliated group called Lions of Liberty were implicated in the same lawsuits. Afterward, they halted their own engagement with ballot box monitoring efforts, going so far as to issue a “stand down order” to their volunteers. 

The deterrent effect that consequences have on bad actors is irrefutable. After voting machine companies threatened and sued high-profile outlets like Newsmax and Fox News for falsely targeting them in conspiracy theories about elections, many of them backtracked, or even retracted their claims.  

Explorations of early intervention strategies have shown promise in their ability to defuse attitudes supporting political violence and anti-democratic movements without involving law enforcement or legal systems. Though more research is needed on the factors that lead a person to support political violence (even if they themselves do not intend to act on that support), researchers and practitioners have identified many promising strategies for intervening before people act in ways that warrant stronger, punitive accountability measures. 

 

Self-Enforce: Partisan Leaders Must Hold Their Own Accountable 

A crucial lane of accountability is currently mostly ignored: accountability for partisan leaders. Instead, influential figures and extensions of the Republican Party continue to welcome and celebrate far-right activists, while proclaiming their adoration for authoritarian governments elsewhere in the world (e.g. Hungary and Brazil). 

Trump, who continues to endanger democracy by falsely claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him in a far-reaching conspiracy, remains the de-facto leader of the party. Meanwhile leading conservative youth organization Turning Point USA romanticizes figures like Kyle Rittenhouse, who was legally acquitted for killing two people and injuring one other at a 2020 racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. They’ve also put forward far-right conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, who collaborated with extremists in his rise to fame, as models for the next generation of the GOP. 

Figure 2: Former President Donald Trump continues to use his online presence to assert myriad conspiracy theories and wrongly insist the 2020 election was rigged against him. 

Figure 2: Former President Donald Trump continues to use his online presence to assert myriad conspiracy theories and wrongly insist the 2020 election was rigged against him.

Leaders in the Republican Party have declined to meaningfully discipline members who encouraged and stoked the Capitol attack, and who continue to engage the party’s most extreme elements. Some have been rewarded with access to power, like Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Republicans’ condemnations of the Capitol attack have considerably softened — replaced with subtle acknowledgements of conspiracy theories promoted by right-wing media. 

A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that nearly a third of Republican respondents said they had at least a “somewhat” favorable view of the Capitol attack: double the percentage of Republican respondents who held that position in 2021. Moreover, 16 percent of Democratic respondents said they strongly, or somewhat, approved of the attack this year, as opposed to 3 percent in 2021 – a sharper increase. 

To be indifferent to the rise of extremism and to discount tolerance for it is an abdication of leadership. To mitigate threats, partisan leaders must send a clear message: anything other than complete opposition to extremism will not be tolerated. 

 

Anticipate Change: As Threats Morph, So Must Strategies 

Waves of post-January 6 arrests, national security agencies’ public statements, and renewed public scrutiny affecting far-right movements, have caused many to become paranoid. Calls for national-scale actions in service of extremist causes have largely collapsed; far-right communities are full of fears that infiltrators and law enforcement informants lurk among them. 

Domestic extremist movements are currently less likely to comprise organized groups, though some do still exist. The threat landscape today is more nebulous, comprised of conspiracy theorists, online influencers, and media personalities whose fandoms form loose networks around their worldviews that sprawl across both mainstream and fringe platforms. Leaders in these networks call the tune which extremists follow, expressing their hate in local spaces, such as all-age drag shows and other LGBTQ+ events. 

As extremist activity increasingly focuses on localized targets rather than national ones, it is crucial to ensure resources and up-to-date subject matter knowledge are readily available in these smaller communities so that accountability can be applied consistently. Legal frameworks and law enforcement must be evenly applied across ideological contexts – something we have not seen in the US, particularly in recent years. And threats posed by domestic violent extremists should be understood in the same sense as those emanating from foreign terrorist groups (though that’s not to say a new domestic “war on terrorism” would be anything short of a civil rights nightmare, nor would it be necessary to enforce accountability against extremist groups). 

Mechanisms to ensure predictable enforcement are as important as ever to preventing harm and mitigating risks. As it stands today, extremists are less likely to encounter resistance from local investigators compared to federal agencies. In some places, police display noticeable bias towards extremists – some directly affiliate with them.  

The makeup of the hundreds charged for varying degrees of participation in the Capitol riot make clear that today’s threat landscape exists beyond clusters of clearly defined groups. It also shows how strategies meant to mitigate harms from extremist movements require experimentation and imagination beyond a group-movement framework. 

According to a count by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, only 69 of the 940 defendants (roughly 7 percent) charged with crimes for their actions on Jan 6 are assessed to have collaborated with an organized domestic violent extremist group. That disparity illustrates the larger problem: the same anti-democratic beliefs held by extremist groups are held by a portion of ordinary Americans.

 

Popular answers to what drove the rest of the crowd into the Capitol remain overly simplistic, falling short of understanding why an ordinary person could become an insurrectionist. There remain ambiguous and less easily defined steps between exposure to extreme rhetoric and acting upon it; not every person who is exposed to extremist content will be convinced by it, let alone driven to violence. Solutions for the future must seek to understand the in-between steps with more granularity and treat them with the same severity as we treat the result of radicalization.

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