The Long Road to the Capitol: A Constellation of Actors
21st January 2021
The thousands of protesters who turned out in DC on January 6 firmly believed President Trump’s claims that the election was rigged and this was their last chance to take action and, in their eyes, protect the legitimate result and prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.
However, voter fraud disinformation was not only pushed by the Conspirator-in-Chief before and after the November 3 vote, but by various online influencers active in fostering pro-Trump conspiracies in QAnon communities, far-right communities and conservative circles also. The results of their sustained efforts over the past few months led to the furious, frenzied anger of thousands who descended upon DC on January 6.
Key players and their emergence throughout 2020
ISD research, conducted for Politico in October 2020, analysed millions of posts around voter fraud conversations online and found that a small but influential cluster of accounts belonging to conservative activists and media figures were responsible for promoting the bulk of narratives claiming voter fraud was widespread in the US. This research found that figures like Charlie Kirk, James O’Keeffe, Tomi Lahren and Dan Bongino played an early role in supporting Trump’s claims of voter fraud. When November 3 did not result in a victory for Trump, other right-wing influencers took on the mantle of organising and mobilising pro-Trump communities.
The Stop the Steal movement quickly emerged as the vehicle for these frustrations, led by activists Ali Alexander, Scott Presler and Amy Kremer (of Women for America First and the Tea Party), among others, who organised online support, caravans and protests in DC. Yet, the movement also allowed more extreme actors and conspiracy theorists to capitalise on the frustrations of angry Trump supporters.
ISD’s weekly Lens on Hate newsletter noted in November how Nick Fuentes, leader of the white nationalist Groyper movement, and Alex Jones, host of Infowars, appeared at Stop the Steal events in Georgia to boost Trump’s voter fraud claims. Fuentes and Jones spoke of their anger at those within the GOP “working to sabotage President Trump.” Both continued to ferment right-wing distrust of the Republican Party and participated in protests in DC on January 6 where large swathes of the crowd raged against “traitors” in the GOP as well as the Democrat Party.
Claims of a rigged election motivated groups more traditionally disposed towards offline mobilisation too. The far-right Proud Boys group were always supportive of Trump, yet the group seized upon numerous pro-Trump protests in DC to participate in their preferred activity – threatening groups and engaging in violence against counter protesters. The Proud Boys benefited from the rise of the social media platform Parler, using it to issue threats of violence against possible counter protesters on January 6 and celebrate deliberate acts of destruction without repercussion from the platform. The group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested as he traveled to DC on January 4, but other leading Proud Boys figures took part in the violent events in the capital and have since been arrested.
The QAnon community
The role of the QAnon community in the events of January 6 cannot be overstated. How did belief in the QAnon conspiracy spread so rapidly in the months prior to this? ISD research found that membership of QAnon Facebook groups skyrocketed in 2020 while polling carried out by ISD partners in the second half of 2020 showed that about one-in-five Americans recognised and believed in at least one of four conspiracy theories that originated from QAnon. ISD and Newsguard tracked the spread of QAnon on Facebook in 2020 and found that, despite the platform’s October 6 ban on QAnon groups and pages, the conspiracy continued to spread through individual “superspreader” profiles who serve as important vectors for the spread of QAnon content, particularly pro-Trump political disinformation.
Since November 3 “Q” has largely been silent, yet a number of key QAnon influencers have stepped into the void. Ron Watkins, the former administrator of 8kun, became a leading voice for QAnon followers after November and used Twitter to float illusory, outlandish theories related to Dominion Voting Systems. Watkins also organised 24/7 surveillance of Dominion buildings in Georgia which led to the targeted harassment of polling workers and encouraged people to attend protests in DC.
Pro-Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood were also embraced by QAnon communities as the two attempted to build legal cases for Trump’s voter fraud claims. Powell’s “Kraken” lawsuit acted as fodder for the QAnon movement, while Wood’s descent into the depths of the conspiracy world came to a head on January 1. Days before crowds in DC would call for Mike Pence to be hanged, Wood’s suggestion that Pence should face trial for treason and death by firing squad was openly supported among QAnon communities, where threats of violence were always a core feature of their online discourse.
This is the second in a three-part Digital Dispatches series that looks back at how a year of online extremist mobilisation precipitated a violent assault on the heart of American democracy on January 6th 2021. Read Part 1 here.
In Part 3 of this series, we examine the emergence of a hybrid threat landscape that looks to profit from disinformation. Read Part 3 here.