19th January 2021
The January 6 occupation of the US Capitol by far-right extremists shocked the world, representing a high water mark of the existential challenge that these threats pose to the safety, security and cohesion of our society, as well as the very fabric of liberal democratic civic culture.
But these events came as no surprise to those of us who have been studying this emerging extremist ecosystem. The events of January 6 represent the inevitable consequence of a long-range campaign by a constellation of actors – from white supremacists to identitarians, anti-Muslim groups to conspiracy theorists – to exploit the rising cultural, economic and identity anxieties of our time. These efforts have been hyper-charged and amplified by sophisticated digital propaganda machineries, enabled by patchy and reactive responses from the online platforms on which they run riot.
The themes of disinformation and extremism through 2020
Voter fraud disinformation
Throughout the last year, ISD analysts have tracked a long-seeded campaign of disinformation which laid the groundwork for the events at the Capitol building. Our research published in October 2020, which analysed online activity in the months preceding the election, revealed a now widely recognised trend: a small but influential cluster of social media accounts belonging to right-wing activists and media figures were responsible for promoting narratives claiming voter fraud was widespread in the US. What is interesting, however, is the way in which this narrative dovetailed with a campaign laying the ground-work for violence.
The favoured tactic in promoting this disinformation narrative involved highlighting local reports of alleged voter fraud and framing them as indicative of large-scale corruption in the national voting process. Reports highlighting President Trump’s comments encouraging voters to submit a mail-in ballot in addition to voting in person were numerous in the discussion around voter fraud. In the wake of the election, the ‘Stop the Steal’ narrative proved resilient to the sporadic efforts of tech companies to stifle its growth, as demonstrated by ISD’s continual identification of groups, pages and communication hubs for the disinformation campaign to undermine the democratic process.
Violent white supremacist communications
In parallel to watching these narratives evolve online, ISD researchers tracked an existing, active alternative digital ecosystem of violent white supremacist communications, hosted in permissive online environments like Telegram, Parler and 4Chan/8Kun. In June 2020, ISD researchers analysed over a million posts across more than two hundred white supremacist channels on Telegram, and found overt support for terrorists and terrorist organisations in nearly two thirds (60%) of them.
It is in these channels that online disinformation narratives hold the potential to lead to deadly offline consequences. Beyond sharing propaganda of terrorist groups and the celebration of terrorists, some groups also actively called for violence. Content included the glorification of terrorist attacks and explicit calls for violence against minority communities and other groups deemed to be enemies, such as police officers, journalists, drug dealers and paedophiles. References to “boogaloo” – an extreme right-wing meme referring to an impending civil war – were made in 117 (56.3%) of the channels identified. Our research shows that the mobilisation to violence began well before the election itself, having been nurtured in these types of online environment for many months and even years.
Online hostility toward politicians
Laying the mood music for the assault on the Capitol, our research found an increasingly hostile environment against politicians across a range of mainstream online platforms. An October report measured the scale of online abuse targeting a variety of Congressional candidates in the 2020 US election on Facebook and Twitter. Female political candidates across the ideological spectrum were notably more at risk of being targeted by online abuse than their male counterparts. Our research showed language related to ‘treason’ was being used to refer to candidates across political parties, and that this became a common feature of US political debate on Twitter throughout 2020.
Mainstreaming of disinformation & conspiracy theories
Conservative and far-right media outlets have attempted to label the events of 6th January as the work of ‘Antifa’, turning once again to disinformation as a weapon with which to defend the real perpetrators of these violent acts. In the lead up to the election last year, these same actors sowed ongoing and plentiful disinformation about the so-called violence of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protestors. ISD researchers tracked claims about these groups being involved in ‘false flag’ attacks and disinformation about their role as ‘domestic terrorists’, tracing back these disinformation narratives to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that it catalysed in the US and across the globe. This disinformation flourished on online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube throughout the year. Research showed that Facebook ads were used to target and amplify these types of disinformation.
The online communities in which the 6th January events were organised, promoted and lauded emerged out of months of disinformation, conspiracy and extremist mobilisation on these platforms. ISD’s analysis saw how platforms allowed COVID-19 disinformation and political disinformation to emerge in tandem, as far-right groups and individuals opportunistically used the ongoing pandemic to advance their movements and ideologies. COVID-19 was used as a ‘wedge issue’ to promote conspiracy theories, target minority communities, and call for extreme violence, as well as being used to advance calls for the ‘boogaloo’. Antisemitic hate speech and tropes were adapted to incorporate COVID-19 narratives, and proponents of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory began advancing a wide range of different narratives off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the idea that the pandemic was being orchestrated to manipulate US politics. ISD analysis of accelerationist discourse online shows it was increasingly dominated by discussion of the virus.
Growth of anti-government movements
At the same time, we also saw how opposition to contact tracers and a proto-anti lockdown movement early in 2020 transitioned into broader anti-government sentiment which transcended COVID-19. Contact-tracing efforts became the focus of significant suspicion, hostility and opposition within some social media communities, particularly among pro-gun and conspiracy-theory groups. Videos containing disinformation and conspiracy theories relevant to contact-tracing were receiving more than 300,000 views each on YouTube and being shared tens of thousands of times across public Facebook pages and groups. The key conspiratorial narratives referenced, including that contact tracers would force people (especially children) into quarantine and/or FEMA camps, framed contact-tracing as a deep state, Satanic or elite conspiracy. A multitude of conspiratorial strands linked contact-tracing to figures such as George Soros, Bill Gates, the Clintons, the Obamas and others, or framed COVID-19 mitigation efforts as a Democratic effort to interfere with the US 2020 elections. These narratives show the dynamic evolution of the conspiracy landscape which helped to precipitate the narratives underpinning the events at the Capitol in January.
This is the first 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.
In Part 2 of this series, we look at the key players in the extremist mobilisation and how they emerged in 2020. Read Part 2 here.