The narratives surrounding Trump’s verdict are strikingly familiar and dangerous

31 May 2024

By: Jared Holt, Cody Zoschak and Katherine Keneally 


While much of the mainstream reporting has been focused on the violent and incendiary posts shared on alt-tech platforms in response to the guilty verdict against former President Donald Trump, a potentially more concerning trend has been pushed aside.

Following the verdict’s announcement, ISD has been monitoring ideological movements active on mainstream and alt-tech platforms. While analysts have observed violent rhetoric, to date, these statements mirror those observed following the execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in August 2022. Though this rhetoric is concerning, reporting on this language alone fails to recognize the larger threat emanating from reactions to this legal development: anti-government and related conspiracy theories – which have proven dangerous over and over again – surrounding the verdict are being amplified into the mainstream, potentially radicalizing and influencing individuals who were not “true believers” but have been on the fringes of these beliefs. Additionally, false and misleading narratives surrounding the verdict have the potential to serve as a catalyst for individual acts of violence and other illegal activity, while also continuing to increase distrust in our democratic institutions.

Overview

An analysis of reactions to the May 30, 2024, verdict against former President Donald Trump largely mirrored those observed in August 2022, following the execution of a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. ISD analysts observed violent rhetoric, conspiratorial narratives, and debates among mainstream, fringe, and extremist communities following the verdict’s announcement. ISD did not observe content that would suggest plans to engage in mass mobilization and observed a limited number of specific threats. Notable reactions included mainstream figures attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the verdict, veiled calls to action by Proud Boys chapters, and several threats against Justice Merchan, his daughter, and the jurors. Overall, an ISD analysis revealed a similar number of calls for violence or civil unrest as observed following the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022. While mass mobilization is unlikely at this time, conspiracy theories encircling this development have the potential to serve as a catalyst for individual acts of violence (which occurred after the Mar-a-Lago search warrant), while also radicalizing those on the fringes of these conspiratorial belief systems.

Since the verdict’s announcement, analysts identified the following trends:

  • Sporadic Calls for Violence: The verdict has generated calls for violence including threats to the judge and jurors, fantasies of overthrowing the government, and violent rhetoric targeted at vaguely described “Democrats” and other perceived enemies. No indications of specific plans to engage in violence were found.
  • Mixed Reactions from Domestic Extremist Groups: Many domestic extremist groups, including neo-Nazis, accelerationists, and those affiliated with the Active Club network did not react to the news, signaling their ongoing displeasure with Trump as well as their general distaste for politics. However, several Proud Boys chapters did react, with many reposting Trump’s 2020 call for the group to “stand back and stand by.” It should be noted the Proud Boys have shrunk both in influence and number of members since 2021.
  • Continued Mainstreaming of Conspiracy Theories: High-profile figures are using the verdict to push claims seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the judicial system and US government institutions to large audiences online.

Call for violence from unaffiliated social media users

Analysts identified hundreds of calls for violence and open fantasies about a violent overthrow of the government. An ISD analysis of keywords specifically related to violence or unrest suggests that these types of reactions were similar to those observed after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago. Most of these posts were non-specific, though a small number were deemed actionable. Notable threats came from two Proud Boys chapters, who posted veiled calls for their members to act. While most violent posts were identified on alt-tech platforms, analysts did observe posts in mainstream spaces as well – some with significant reach. A post shared by the antisemitic conspiracy theorist Stew Peters, who posted an image of a noose and called for “extreme accountability” (likely for those involved in the case and elected officials), received over 148.3K views on X.[1]

Figure 1: Volume over time surrounding unrest-related keywords. Data sources include X (Twitter), blogs, and forums for users/sites in the United States. Keywords included: Rubicon, “Civil War”, 1776, “Tree of Liberty”, “Martial law”, and “Trust the Plan.”

Figure 2: Volume of mentions surrounding unrest-related keywords on particularly relevant days for President Trump. As May 31, 2024, includes incomplete data, mentions were collected for each day until 11am, to allow comparability. Data sources include X (Twitter), blogs, and forums for users/sites in the United States. Keywords included: Rubicon, “Civil War”, 1776, “Tree of Liberty”, “Martial law”, and “Trust the Plan.”

Some Proud Boys chapters responded to the verdict with veiled calls to action on their Telegram accounts. In Ohio, the Proud Boys chapter, which claimed to previously advise against violence, posted: “Today? You can take it however the fuck you want. Your move.” The post was subsequently shared by other Proud Boys chapters on Telegram. A post by the New Jersey Proud Boys similarly appeared to advocate for violence.

Threats to jurors and Justice Merchan

Judge Juan Merchan and the jurors have been the subjects of violent rhetoric, though analysts have not observed specific threats against Merchan (and names of jurors have not been publicized). Trump and others denigrated Merchan after the verdict was read, eliciting violent rhetoric from followers. After the verdict was released, Trump posted on Truth Social that Merchan was “a conflicted judge who is corrupt.” Others posted messages directing vitriol toward Merchan and his daughter.  While these posts did not explicitly call for violence, analysts observed violent rhetoric in the comments. For example, one Gab user who replied to an aggregated Trump post from Truth Social called for the hanging of “everyone of those assholes…day 1.”

Relatedly, users on Patriots.win, Gab, and WimKin called for violence against the jurors in the trial, with calls for the names of the jurors to be leaked by Trump’s legal team; threats to “take up arms” against the jurors, District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and Justice Merchan and his family; hopes that jurors are murdered.

Some extremists remained uninterested, others see opportunity

Analysts observed minimal reaction from accelerationist groups and Active Clubs. The reasoning for this more restrained reaction varies. Some have already disavowed Trump after feeling abandoned following January 6th, while others are concerned about being arrested for protesting or other activity (in response to January 6th arrests). Despite these reactions so far, there is a substantial risk the verdict will be used by anti-government and other extremists to radicalize those on the fringes of the movement. A comment in response to a post in a Proud Boys chapter Telegram channel suggests there is an interest in using the event to spread their “message” and recruit using the verdict. Notably, the Proud Boys have decreased in influence and membership since their involvement in, and subsequent arrests for, January 6th.

Mainstream figures seek to undermine legitimacy of verdict

Allegations that the trial was “rigged” are not new; a variety of conspiratorial figures in support of Trump have been targeting the trial for months – the same figures who have peddled disproven claims of election fraud since the 2020 presidential election. These same figures have responded to the guilty verdict by amplifying similar conspiratorial claims within both the fringe and mainstream, intended to discredit the trial and US institutions more broadly.

Many figures reiterated claims the criminal trials against Trump amounted to “election interference” and were meant to undermine Trump’s 2024 campaign. Drawing on talking points popularized by Trump and his 2024 campaign, supporters pushed claims of a broad-reaching conspiracy to persecute Trump and his supporters ahead of 2024 elections.

Other evoked comparisons to “banana republics” and dictatorial regimes throughout history, arguing the verdict marked a dark turning point in America’s history. High-profile figures compared the United States to Venezuela, the Soviet Union, and dictatorships throughout history to argue the integrity of the justice system was proven to be compromised by Trump’s trial, evoking images of gulags. Several mainstream figures shared images of upside-down American and “An Appeal to Heaven” flags. They framed the 2024 election as a final chance to “seize back control.”

Figure 3: Post to Telegram shared in response to verdict. The post received more than 40.6K views on the platform.

Some pro-Trump media figures forecasted civil unrest and social strife resulting from the verdict – even claiming Democrats are purposely trying to start a war. However, many conspiracy-minded figures discouraged Trump supporters from engaging in violence related to the verdict; one wrote, “That’s exactly what the regime wants.” Other commentators also attempted to fearmonger by suggesting Trump will be killed or assassinated.

Conclusion

The full scope of the impact and threats associated with the verdict and later sentencing are yet to be seen. However, by comparing analysis to that of previous events – and lessons learned – we can assess that it is not the event itself that poses the greatest threat, but the false and misleading narratives spreading about the verdict. These narratives are likely to aid as catalysts to individual acts of violence, influence continued distrust in our democratic institutions, and illustrate the danger of conspiracy theories as individuals are further radicalized into the fringes of conspiratorial movements. While November is too far out to know just how much this will impact the election, we do know that the manipulation of this recent decision is likely to have reverberating impacts throughout the year.

End notes 

[1] According to X’s own analytics. While Peters later posted that his post was not a call for violence, the use of the image of the noose, combined with the language used (as well as other posts shared within the same time period) is suggestive of a call for violence, despite Peters’ claim.

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