17 February 2023
By: Isabel Jones and Milo Comerford
Two years on, January 6 stands out as perhaps the most concrete example of the interconnectedness of ideologies, influences and digital spaces that make up the modern-day extremist threat. From election deniers propagating the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theory to militia members who are facing charges of sedition over their involvement in the Capitol riot, there exists a strongly symbiotic relationship among the range of actors that catalyzed the events of January 6. Crucially, this has mutated into a blueprint for extremist mobilization and violence around the world.
In this installment of ISD’s January 6 series, we break down the spectrum of movements and ideologies related to the attack, how they reinforce each other and how this landscape has evolved in the last two years.
Introduction: The hybridization of extremism
ISD research has highlighted fundamental shifts in the organizing principles of violent extremism. While this threat has traditionally been driven by highly organized and coordinated groups, recent years have seen the growth of “post-organizational” manifestations of extremism, driven by individuals and loose communities with little connection to formal organizations. George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found that only 69 of the 940 defendants charged over their actions on January 6 were affiliated with an organized extremist group.
Instead, extremist actors are more likely to be mobilized by more amorphous ideological convictions, political grievances and shared hatred and hostility toward specific groups and institutions. This fractured landscape is being fueled by a range of issues that extend beyond extremism: conspiracy theories, disinformation and polarized information spaces. Extremism is, in short, becoming ‘hybridized’ with these other threats, further contributing to polarization and driving distrust.
Adding to this conceptual blurriness is the fact that fringe, conspiracy-driven subcultures have grown closer to the political mainstream in the US. Since Donald Trump’s 2016 election, violent and hateful rhetoric has been increasingly normalized in public discourse and media. This gained momentum following Trump’s 2020 defeat, with the 2022 midterm election cycle seeing many candidates running on hate-based and conspiracy-driven platforms. Right-wing media figures are actively adopting the talking points of their far-right counterparts, while fringe media has embraced ever more conspiratorial claims.
Two years and one congressional investigation later, the longer-term implications of January 6 are coming into focus. But to grasp the significance of these events as a turning point in how we conceptualize the impacts of mainstreamed extremism, we first need to understand how diverse ideological groups can serve to reinforce each other.
The “headliners” of January 6 have been well established: extremist and militia groups including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, QAnon and other conspiracy theory adherents, as well as a wider group galvanized by weaponized disinformation around a so-called “stolen election.” A broad constellation of other actors, including the groypers and Christian nationalists, were also influential. Each of the conspiracy or extremist movements involved in the insurrection ultimately served to reinforce one another.
Previous ISD analysis on the events leading up to January 6 shows that “mobilization to violence began well before the election itself” and was “nurtured” in both mainstream and fringe online spaces, as extremist actors capitalized on COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories to expand their audiences and influence. In parallel, it has also been documented how relationships between niche communities and broader conspiracy movements— such as that between the yoga and wellness community and QAnon— have been further fueled by anti-vaccination disinformation. In this way, opposition to mandates and other public health measures created a mutual link between those embracing COVID-19 disinformation and anti-government groups, from Sovereign Citizen-style groups to militia movements like the Oath Keepers. Such narratives were in turn amplified by leading figures within these movements, reaching far right and eventually mainstream conservative audiences.
These movements often capitalize on latent prejudices and hateful opinions— including racism, misogyny, xenophobia and anti-LGBTQ+ hate— which are then swept up in broader conspiratorial worldviews that offer clear figures and communities to blame for complex challenges. The ability of such movements to take elements of other conspiracy theories or extremist viewpoints and adapt them to their own needs makes them more resilient and furthers their appeal to a broad audience.
Understanding the impact of January 6 on ‘hybridized’ extremism
How has the legacy of January 6 manifested over the past two years? Extremism experts have documented the impact of accountability efforts in pushing extremist actors to communicate and organize with increased paranoia. Many have migrated to more fringe platforms (although extremist and disinformation-based content remains accessible on mainstream platforms). Other extremist actors have further decentralized their movements and adopted an increasingly local (rather than national) focus. Additionally, right-wing influencers, both fringe and mainstream, have engaged in revisionist narratives that re-frame the January 6 attack as an act of patriotism rather than an attack on American democracy. From ISD’s work around the 2022 midterms, we identified three major trends showing the long-term fallout from Jan 6: the increased legitimization of election-denying claims; the further formalization and solidification of ties between previously diverse extremist and conspiracy theory-based movements; and the normalization of calls to violence against elected and public officials and institutions.
Increased legitimization of election-denying claims
The midterm election cycle saw a record-breaking number of “election-denying” candidates take part in various races. Candidates for offices ranging from secretary of state to US Senate seats ran on election-denialist platforms, reiterating claims that Trump won the 2020 election (or at least that the 2020 election warranted investigating). Some candidates were even January 6 attendees themselves. Prominent examples of election-denying candidates include former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R) who continues to dispute her loss and former Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate (and sitting state senator) Doug Mastriano (R) who has ties to Gab, an extremist platform, and was a “point person” in Trump’s fake electors scheme. Both candidates lost their 2022 elections; however, not without substantial gains. Mastriano garnered almost 42% of Pennsylvania’s vote, with over 2.2 million votes. Election-denying candidates who won their 2022 races include Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R), Sen. Rand Paul (R), and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R). CBS reported that “over half of all Republican midterm candidates running for federal and state-wide office raised unfounded doubts about the integrity of the 2020 election results.”
Grassroots mobilization before and after elections was also prominent amongst election-deniers. Election-denying and so-called “patriot” groups organized thousands of volunteers to serve as poll workers and watchers, keeping an eye out for what they perceived as rampant election fraud. Efforts to audit or overturn election results were launched in places like Pennsylvania, where hand recount petitions were filed across the state. Many of these requests were dismissed; however, recounts were granted in a handful of counties. While these recounts did not find substantial changes in vote tallies or evidence of fraud, they emboldened election-denying actors to continue interacting with— and overwhelming— local county offices with things like Right-to-Know requests. Local Republican parties have in some cases led the charge for challenging 2022 election results; the Berks County Republican Committee in Pennsylvania filed hand recount petitions in 30 Berks County precincts. Ultimately, election denialism failed to gain the same traction in the wake of 2022 midterm elections that it garnered in 2020, but the local focus and mobilizing abilities of election-denying groups warrants close monitoring as 2024 approaches.
Increased solidification of ties between movements
ISD observed the increased “solidification” of relationships between figures from various conspiracy or extremist movements, ranging from informal mutual promotion to formal participation in shared events.
Mastriano, the aforementioned gubernatorial candidate from Pennsylvania, used militia-affiliated individuals as security during a campaign event. True the Vote, an election-denying advocacy organization, partnered with vocal promoters of the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, seamlessly blending unfounded concerns of election fraud with anti-government, Sovereign Citizen-style ideals. True the Vote also worked closely with a QAnon-affiliated initiative to monitor ballot drop boxes called Clean Elections USA.
When it comes to formal ties between movements, the ReAwaken America Tour serves as a prime example. The October 2022 national tour was hosted by Clay Clark, a right-wing podcaster who was sued by a former Dominion Voting Systems executive for defamation. The tour was held in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and united a broad range of constituents including: MAGA affiliates, election-deniers, COVID-19 conspiracists, militia-linked groups, and QAnon adherents. Alongside Mastriano, who was slated to speak but pulled out at the last minute, other headliners included Eric Trump, Gen. Michael Flynn and Mike Lindell. Iterations of the tour have concluded in calls to action on topics ranging from COVID-19 conspiracy theories to false claims of election fraud, bringing these communities together.
Increased normalization of calls to violence against officials and institutions
Since Jan 6, ISD researchers have mapped the increased normalization of violent rhetoric targeting public officials, ranging from governors to members of county boards of elections and commissioners, as well as institutions. ISD also observed violent calls for action that target election infrastructure, such as ballot drop boxes. These calls for action were often based on conspiracy theories.
For example, claims that mail-in voting was a significant vector for fraud were prominent in both the aftermath of 2020 and 2022 elections. Fringe and mainstream users made numerous false claims about mail-in voting, which were amplified by conservative pundits and extremist actors. Some theories boiled down to the belief that global elites manufactured the COVID-19 pandemic so that they could enact mass mail-in voting in 2020, through which they ‘stole’ the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump. ISD observed numerous calls to action regarding drop boxes, including commenters urging others to throw Molotov cocktails into them, drag them with trucks and set them aflame. Ultimately, disinformation about mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes influenced armed individuals to show up at drop boxes in Arizona and intimidate voters.
ISD research around the 2022 midterm elections and their aftermath found that the relationship between election denialism, COVID-19 denialism and anti-government sentiment remains strong across many groups, a legacy of the key mobilizing concepts underpinning January 6. Online channels on fringe and mainstream platforms regularly pivot focus from unfounded claims of election fraud to disinformation about vaccines, conspiracy theories about global elites, and hateful and exclusionary sentiments, typically following the drumbeat of right-wing media, fringe online influencers and politicians. For example, in the absence of strong claims of election fraud, analysts also observed a heightened focus on anti-vaccine disinformation or anti-LGBTQ+ hate, such as outrage against Drag Queen Story Hours. With such flexible points of focus, groups can maintain a broad base that is angry, engaged and primed to accept the next talking point that fits within their conspiratorial frame.
Compared to engagement with formalized extremist groups and organizations, these more hybridized threats significantly lower the barrier to participation for individuals into a potentially radicalizing environment. As January 6 exemplifies, rather than reducing the overall risks of mobilization to violence, we have instead seen a dramatic decentralization of activity, with critical implications for law enforcement, platforms and policymakers’ responses. In this context, extremist mobilisation must be understood in the context of an increasingly hybrid, multidimensional, and rapidly shifting threat landscape, capable of considerable adaptability. The existence of this threat within a national context characterized by the increased normalization of violence – on- and offline – provides continued cause for concern, even two years on from the storming of the Capitol.