Online Extremists And Law Enforcement: Lessons From The Capitol Hill Insurrection

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Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

Right-wing extremists plotted their Capitol insurrection openly on social media. What are they saying they'll do next? And this time, will law enforcement pay attention?


David Ignatius, columnist covering foreign affairs at the Washington Post. (@IgnatiusPost)

Alexandra Levine, reporter for Politico, covering the intersection of technology, government and public policy. Author of Politico's Morning Tech newsletter. (@Ali_Lev)

Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy, Inc. Former FBI analyst and Senate investigator. (@DanielJJonesUS)

Interview Highlights

How far back should we be looking to see the first inklings of the planning for a violent attack on the Capitol?

Alexandra Levine: “Extremism researchers would say that this was years in the making, but I think for the purposes of this conversation, let's look back at the November presidential election. That is really where you started seeing the ‘stop the steal’ narrative that was questioning the legitimacy of the election. And, of course, there were many … disinformation narratives around the 2020 election and the races that would follow.

"But what researchers were warning then is that eventually all of these many misinformation [and disinformation] narratives would converge into just one or two and that those would then become stronger and stronger. They would pick up speed and then well after the election was called, and even well after Inauguration Day, those narratives would drive conspiracy theories and disinformation across the Internet for years or even decades. And the ‘stop the steal’ narrative is the one that emerged and stayed loud even after the election results were called.

"And I think that there might have been an underestimation of just how powerful and dangerous it was after the election had been called. Given that for the most part … there was a departure in the 2020 election from what we had seen in 2016, in terms of meddling, the undermining of the election. And so I think that once the results were called, and once we were almost across the finish line with the congressional races, there was a little bit less attention paid to that, even though this is something that researchers had been warning of for quite a while.

"So what these researchers had said back in November was the threats to violence were more aspirational. They were a little bit more cryptic. They were more vague. They were very much still out there in these weeks following the election. And what happened in the lead up to January 6th, in the days and weeks ahead of the riots at the Capitol, is they moved from becoming aspirational and a little bit more cryptic to very specific.”

"Extremism researchers would say that this was years in the making."

Has online rhetoric escalated since January 6th?

Daniel J. Jones: “There is a degree of people feeling emboldened, feeling that this was a success, that they are taking back their government. And there's also a performative aspect of this. You know, during the actual insurrection of the Capitol itself that day, we were watching discussions online. And we saw this in the Christchurch shooting and so many other violent events, where there's an online community encouraging real life action and it feeds off each other.

"There was a ‘Patriots watch party’ on ‘,’ a website that is obviously pro-Donald Trump. We saw commands to ‘start shooting, patriots’ and ‘kill these … traitors.’ This is the type of encouragement that we're seeing again online, while people are actually engaging in violent behavior offline. To think that we're not going to see this over the next coming days and weeks, to see another repeat of violence, whether that's in Washington, D.C. or other state capitals, I think is false. I think we are going to see additional violence.”

"We saw this in the Christchurch shooting and so many other violent events, where there's an online community encouraging real life action and it feeds off each other."

As a former FBI analyst, historically, how closely do federal agencies monitor this kind of online chatter?

Daniel J. Jones: “It is the FBI's job. They have a domestic terrorism unit and obviously post 9/11, the FBI has a lot of experience doing counterterrorism work. I arrived at the FBI shortly after the attacks of September 11th and I worked al-Qaida. And one of the things we were very concerned about was recruitment of al-Qaida online. The lies al-Qaida was pushing out about the Western world and about the need to attack. There's a lot of similarities there. And I think the bureau is going to be tracking this. Obviously, this may be the No. 1 priority for the bureau for the next three to five years.”

Is this insurgency an inflection point?

David Ignatius: “I share the view that this should be an inflection point, and I think at least based on initial evidence that it is. I wrote the other day that if you do a net assessment after the battle, as it were, looking at the effects on both sides, it seems to me the insurgency comes out a clear loser enough in the following ways. In the simple sense, it didn't achieve its objective. Biden's election by the Electoral College was confirmed. The process went ahead despite seizure of the building, apparently an attempt to disrupt that process. I think the movement itself has been discredited with a lot of Americans. Sure, among super-extremists, the group of people who focus on these insurgency groups through social media, there may be a new sense of status. … But I think that many Americans, many conservative Americans feel a sense of revulsion.

“Maybe most important, I think law enforcement at the federal, state and local level has been aroused to this threat. We see that the FBI really wasn't for some reason organized to monitor, penetrate, understand these groups. It clearly did that in Michigan. The insurgents that planned to kidnap ... Governor Whitmer in Michigan were stopped because those groups had been infiltrated by the FBI. There had been a months-long, super discreet investigation and they caught the collaborators. That didn't happen in this case. But I'll bet it's happening now. I’ll bet the FBI is now in full ‘gather intelligence, get inside these groups, know what they're doing’ mode. So I think in all those ways, we're going to be better protected now, better able to fight.

“What I think, honestly, is a long-term problem: there is an insurgency in the United States. It's serious. You just look at the faces that you see in the videos, those angry people mean it. And they're not going to go away. In those crowds, there's the next Timothy McVeigh. We remember, tragically bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. I mean folks are not going to vanish. But what we need is a serious commitment by law enforcement, not by the U.S. military. We don't want the military fighting at home. But we do need law enforcement, the FBI, various agencies to take this much more seriously and work with the state and local cops. I think they'll do that now.”

"Many Americans, many conservative Americans feel a sense of revulsion."

On what accountability looks like

David Ignatius: “Above all, we need to have the systems in place to make sure we have a secure transition of power on the 20th. Where and how that should take place, we don't know all the details yet. But as I said earlier, I think there'll be a significant show of force. I think there will be command and control that was lacking on January 6th. Getting through that transition is crucial. But this is a long game and it's important, I think, that officials act wisely in ways that don't make the long-term struggle more difficult for short-term benefit.

"I think that's one of the interesting puzzles about impeachment and whether impeachment makes sense. We're playing a long game, which you want to separate the most extreme, the people who truly are seditious, who want to overthrow our democratic government from people who may be Trump supporters, or upset. … 74 million people out there who voted for him. You don't want to push those people towards the most extreme wing. And so I hope people keep that in the back of their minds as we move toward the swearing in of a new president.”

Daniel J. Jones: “We need to have a lot more pressure on our elected officials. It's the elected officials in the House and the Senate that have legitimized the president's baseless claims, and they've done so for purely political purposes. We can maybe excuse the online behavior and the conspiracy theories of unelected Americans who may have been sucked into the president's lies and the falsehoods that are being pushed out by things like The Daily Caller and The Epoch Times and what they're seeing on TikTok and ‘TheDonald.’

"But when elected officials who know better, I mean, we had elected officials who were reelected in November who were … calling their own election unfair because the president was doing so. I mean, this is an inflection point for accountability. Are we going to engage in accountability now for what has happened over the last four years, or what has happened in the last few weeks? ... I think this is a moment that we either take action and hold people accountable or things never return to how they were.”

"This is a moment that we either take action and hold people accountable or things never return to how they were.”

From The Reading List

Washington Post: "What Went Wrong With The Protection Of The U.S. Capitol." — "The storming of the U.S. Capitol offers a reminder that the most devastating attacks often aren’t the ones that take us by surprise but those we see coming and don’t take adequate steps to avoid."

Politico: "Capitol violence ups pressure on mainstream, fringe social media alike" — "As debate escalates over whether mainstream social media platforms have done too much or too little by suspending President Donald Trump, some experts are warning Congress to focus instead on reining in fringe sites like those used to organize the violence at the Capitol this week."

Vox: "How Trump’s internet built and broadcast the Capitol insurrection" — "Ali Alexander, a far-right activist and conspiracy theorist, posted a video to YouTube on Christmas Day, urging people to come to Washington, DC, on the day that Congress would finalize Joe Biden’s election to the US presidency."

Politico: "'This Is Going To Come Back And Bite ’Em’: Capitol Breach Inflames Democrats’ Ire At Silicon Valley" — "Social media is poised to pay a price for President Donald Trump’s supporters’ rampage through the Capitol."

NBC News: "Violent Threats Ripple Through Far-Right Internet Forums Ahead Of Protest" — "'In regards to the protests planned for January 6th, the violent rhetoric we're seeing online is at a new level,' said Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy Inc., a global research organization that studies disinformation and extremism. 'There are endorsements of violence across all of the platforms.'"

Politico: "‘Hashtags Come To Life’: How Online Extremists Fueled Wednesday’s Capitol Hill Insurrection" — "Far-right groups have increasingly used fringe social media platforms and online message boards to coordinate their offline activities, with both the recent presidential election and ongoing Covid-19 pandemic used to galvanize support and try out new online tactics to bolster extremist views, according to multiple disinformation experts."

NPR: "On Far-Right Websites, Plans To Storm Capitol Were Made In Plain Sight" — "The mob violence that descended on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was the culmination of weeks of incendiary rhetoric and increasingly feverish planning – much of which took place openly on websites popular with far-right conspiracy theorists."

This program aired on January 11, 2021.


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Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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