Expelled from mainstream social media, the supporters of President Trump, QAnon conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and armed agitators behind the deadly Capitol siege have burrowed into the darker reaches of the internet, where they are hatching plans to converge on state capitals and Washington, D.C., this weekend and Inauguration Day in smaller online forums and on encrypted messaging apps.
“Many of Us will return on January 19, 2021, carrying Our weapons, in support of Our nation's resolve, to which [sic] the world will never forget!!!" one QAnon supporter wrote on Parler, a right-leaning social media platform that was taken offline Monday when Amazon stopped hosting it. "We will come in numbers that no standing army or police agency can match.”
“There is a whole ecosystem, like an alternate reality, that many of these groups migrate to,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.
Facebook, which has been tracking this activity since banning it from its platform, says calls for violence and the risk of violence have been high since Jan. 6. The danger will peak on Jan. 20 when President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in.
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The removal of violent content from mainstream platforms and even some fringe platforms makes it more difficult, but not impossible, for these groups to plot their next steps on these new staging grounds, says Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy, a research organization that studies disinformation and extremism.
It also makes it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor. The FBI on Wednesday warned of potential violence ahead of the inauguration and urged police chiefs around the nation to be on high alert.
“Individuals already radicalized – and convinced of the conspiracy theories promoted by President Trump – remain a potential threat for additional violence," Jones said.
On Wednesday, Trump, who is now the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice, released a taped statement: "No true supporter of mine could ever threaten or harass their fellow Americans." He has been suspended by all of the nation's top social media platforms.
Threats to kill public officials, police officers
Much of the planning for the Capitol attacks took place in the open on Facebook, Twitter and Parler.
On Facebook, and Instagram, Trump supporters organized bus trips to Washington and rallied behind hashtags claiming election fraud such as #StopTheSteal and #FightForTrump. “Operation Occupy the Capitol,” promoted by the hashtag #1776Rebel, spread on Facebook before the Capitol attack, according to a screenshot from left-leaning group Media Matters.
A Twitter account, which has since been suspended, warned: “Nothing Can Stop What is Coming – NOTHING.” Another tweeted “I’ll be at the #Capitol on the 20th… Will you?”
Before Parler went dark, the platform teemed with exhortations to kill elected officials, police officers, leaders of Black Lives Matter and tech CEOs.
A “battle flag” was shared for a “Million Militia March” on Jan. 20, while other posts urged a “Million Martyr March” for the death of Ashli Babbitt, a military veteran who was fatally shot by Capitol Police as she tried to crawl through a broken window.
“They cannot kill unarmed Americans and not be held accountable," read one 4chan post. "On January 20th we need to be seen. We will not stop talking about this…If Ashley [sic] Babbitt isn't proof our government is illegitimate I don't know what is.”
Telegram, Signal draw millions of new users
Encrypted messaging apps Telegram and Signal report millions of new users since the attacks on the Capitol.
One channel dedicated to Trump gained 300,000 new subscribers in the week since Jan. 6, growing to more than half a million members. Another channel, dedicated to Proud Boys, doubled in size to 30,000 members over the same period.
"Now that they forced us off the main platforms it doesn't mean we go away, it just means we are going to go to places they don't see," one user posted.
NBC News reported this week that some extremists were sharing tips on how to make, conceal and use homemade guns and bombs on Telegram, which on Wednesday began removing dozens of channels promoting violence, white supremacy, and far-right extremism.
Channels on Telegram dedicated to white nationalism, libertarian views and second amendment rights, the right-wing Proud Boys group and conspiracies like QAnon have all seen steep increases in membership where calls for "civil war" are common.
In the last week, many Telegram conversations touched on the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol as well as plans for the next rally, according to data reviewed by USA TODAY collected by researchers at the University of Zurich.
The messages were mixed. Some called for organizers to stand down while others sought to incite more violence in the days ahead.
"The only way to win a war is to fight fire with fire, the only way you lose is by giving up or slowing down," wrote one user on Jan. 10. Others shared the opposite sentiment: "The FBI is saying that armed protests are being planned for every state capitol, we urge all of our brothers to stay home," wrote one user on Jan. 11. Another wrote: "This is going to be a lousy hill to die on... you are going to waste your life for something that is going to amount to a historical joke."
"Our moderators are reviewing an increased number of reports related to public posts with calls to violence, which are expressly forbidden by our Terms of Service," Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn told CNN. "In the past 24 hours we have blocked dozens of public channels that posted calls to violence for thousands of subscribers."
'Dangerous, unsettled period' with extremists 'doubling down'
“We remain in a very dangerous, unsettled period. It is evident that some influencers and many casual members of the far-right extremism community have been shaken by the popular backlash against the attack on the U.S. Capitol,” said Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media." “Other extremists, however, see little to lose in doubling down.”
Advance Democracy says as Twitter began to purge 70,000 QAnon accounts on Friday, mentions of Parler and Gab, a social media platform favored by conservatives and the far right, began to spike.
The influx of new users strained the servers at Gab, which recruited the disaffected with messages like the social media takedowns are a "digital holocaust” and that America needs “a new Red Scare.”
The most popular tweet from QAnon accounts on Friday mentioning Gab came from Ron Watkins, the administrator of 8kun, which hosts posts from “Q.” He posted that his alternative account was Gab.
Though Twitter purge took out a swath of QAnon extremists making threats following the Capitol attacks, ominous threats remain.
One Twitter account shared an image, “Military Option: INCOMING.” And posts are proliferating about a coming “Red Dawn,” a reference to a 1984 movie starring Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen that imagines a ragtag group of teenagers in America’s heartland rising up against a Soviet invasion.
On Facebook, public and private groups are still aggressively promoting debunked claims of voter fraud and election rigging, according to human rights group Avaaz. In total, its team found 90 groups with 166,000 total members. Of these, 50 are public groups that have received 200,572 total interactions in the last week alone, according to Avaaz.
“Although much of the content explicitly promoting violence has been removed from online platforms, sediments of anger persist,” Jones said.