With the threat of future political violence looming, a surge in online extremist chatter is increasingly taking place in private groups and encrypted messaging apps with little, if any, rules about what is posted.
Law enforcement nationwide is on high alert after last week’s riot at the Capitol, with reports suggesting that several extremist groups have planned armed demonstrations across the country to protest the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.
But the severity of the threat is increasingly hard to ascertain, in part because of the crackdown that authorities have already put in place on message boards. That crackdown has driven would-be insurrectionists further underground and scattered their activity across innumerable platforms, including one — TikTok — that’s best known as a hub for teens to share videos.
The diffuse, chaotic nature of the online chatter has fed into a climate of fear. Ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, the FBI has reportedly warned law enforcement agencies across the country to be on high alert for potentially violent protests in all 50 states over the next few weeks, and has gathered intelligence about an armed group planning to travel to D.C. to stage an uprising on the day of the inauguration. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has authorized up to 15,000 National Guardsmen from around the country to deploy to D.C. to support local law enforcement ahead of and on January 20.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) said on Tuesday morning that he and other lawmakers have been briefed about potential plots surrounding the inauguration. “They were talking about 4,000 armed ‘patriots’ to surround the Capitol and prevent any Democrat from going in,” he said. “They have published rules of engagement, meaning when you shoot and when you don’t. So this is an organized group that has a plan. They are committed to doing what they’re doing because I think in their minds, you know, they are patriots and they’re talking about 1776 and so this is now a contest of wills.”
Complicating efforts to tamp down on the extremism is the decentralized and chaotic nature in which it is spreading. Countless posters — few of which are directly linked to publicly-known extremist groups — have proliferated through extremist channels and social media, listing dates, times, and specific locations for people to gather in violent protest against the so-called “stolen” election, primarily at state capitols and federal landmarks.
TikTok videos from influencers bearing the Three Percenters logo as their avatar, referring to the anti-government militia movement, are hyping up future protests — even going so far as to publish videos of them collecting ammunition and guns, while playing doctored audio suggesting that Trump wants them to target his vice president, Mike Pence.
On Gab and Telegram, two fringe networks frequented by white nationalist and other extremist groups, mysteriously-originated videos of military personnel walking around American cities have also gone viral, with social media users either questioning if such activity was part of support for Donald Trump’s presidency or efforts by the government to clamp down on people’s constitutional rights.
In this milieu several different movements have emerged: the Million Militia March, with a flag sanctifying the QAnon supporter who died while storming the Capitol last week; Patriot Action for America, which called for tens of thousands of “patriots” to stop Democrat lawmakers from entering the Capitol on the 16th and 17th; or just simply a generic march to take back America, with attendees free to fill in the blanks as they wish. The concern among extremism monitors is that much like the Stop the Steal rally became a magnet for militia members and conspiracy theorist groups — even without the explicit encouragement of the event’s organizers in the professional MAGA activist class — so too will these events.
The promotion of the events has come to the attention of prominent, pro-Trump conservative outlets and figures, who have offered a range of responses, including skepticism that they might be false flag operations organized by antifa and other leftists groups.
Much of the online confusion has been driven by large social networks clamping down on the most extreme of material appearing on their sites. Along with banning Donald Trump, Facebook and Twitter have both stopped far-right hashtags from trending and have removed scores of posts promoting potential violence ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Without the largest social media networks to rely on, far-right campaigners initially turned to Parler, the conservative app, to vent their anger and frustration and potentially plan for further action. The digital platform was used to organize some of the violence associated with the Capitol Hill riots on Jan. 6 and became a central rallying place for Trump supporters who still believed in debunked voter fraud claims stemming from the November election, based on a review of online posts by POLITICO.
But in the wake of last week’s violence, Google and Apple quickly banned Parler from appearing in their app stores, and Amazon — whose cloud computing business underpins how many digital services work — kicked the company from its servers. Parler subsequently filed an antitrust lawsuit against Amazon.
In this void, many fringe groups have turned to TikTok.
Since the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots, pro-militia groups have flooded the Chinese-owned video-sharing service, promoting voter fraud conspiracy theories and accusing Pence of betraying Trump by overseeing the certification of the Electoral College vote, according to Ciaran O’Connor, a disinformation researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that tracks online hate speech.
Multiple TikTok users posted audio clips of Trump speaking that were doctored to make it appear that he was criticizing the current vice president. Often, the posts were labeled: “Mike Pence is Traitor.” Viral images of the recent Capitol Hill riots, including incendiary claims that more violence was in store, quickly garnered large amounts of online views on the site.
Other TikTok users went even further to claim the president was about to institute martial law. The hashtag InsurrectionAct, in reference to false claims that Trump had already called in the military, currently has more than 4.4 million views, collectively, on the social media platform.
“TikTok is acting as an echochamber for people’s grievances,” said O’Connor. “A lot of this material is being created to promote Three Percenter or pro-militia activity.”
In response, TikTok said it was reviewing the posts that POLITICO had flagged, adding that content or accounts that incited or promoted violence would be removed.
But the app is far from the only place where these groups and individuals are congregating and posting. Many, fearing scrutiny from law enforcement, have gone dark. As early as November, hardcore extremist groups retreated to invite-only message boards and encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram, as they began organizing events to protest Trump’s loss. The growth of CB apps — named after CB radio, the informal frequencies truckers use to communicate with each other — has made it easier for them to coordinate activity in real time.
Though fewer people outside those networks can become radicalized as a result of the use of invite-only boards, extremism researchers have found it more difficult to track these groups as a result. They expressed hope that law enforcement — with their ability to execute warrants and superior technology — was zeroing in on these entities nonetheless.
“Most who research this space are in favor of removal because we don’t want to usher in the next generation of supremacists [simply] because we wanted to monitor it,” said Joan Donovan, research director for the Harvard Shorenstein Center, which studies and monitors the spread of disinformation and extremist ideology online. “There are trade offs in every field of research, but this is an issue that requires real action.”
It is possible that the sudden surge of law enforcement interest might frighten and deter potential attendees from coming to state and national protests. After FBI officials and other federal agencies were able to swoop in and arrest attendees of last week’s event at the Capitol — even going so far as to put potential suspects whom they found on social media on no-fly lists leaving Washington — it became clear to the wider world of MAGA supporters that they were risking severe consequences.
Some militia groups have tried distancing themselves from their own events.
The Boogaloo Bois, an anti-government far right militia, attempted to cancel an event they’d organized for the 17th. But even as they warned that “mainstream headlines” had drawn too much attention to their march, they noted that anyone who wanted to protest that day could bring weapons if they wished: “If you can carry legally, you can carry.”
In an ironic twist, right-wing media outlets, professional MAGA influencers, and pro-Trump social media groups are now warning their members to avoid these events, albeit with their own conspiratorial spin: that they are acutally false flag operations, either created by the government in an attempt to silence conservatives and strip away their Second Amendment rights, or by leftist antifa plotters hoping to make the MAGA movement look bad, or even by the Chinese government in conjunction with the elites.
“Do not go to capitols armed, do not be part of the demonstrations on January 20th. It’s run by the globalists,” warned Infowars’s Alex Jones on Tuesday. “There isn’t some secret plan to overthrow things so Trump wins. All you’re doing is cementing things as domestic terrorists, so Biden can cement a new Patriot Act and come after you.”
Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.