How to see violent rhetoric online promising civil war

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The Jan. 6 commission returns to public view on Thursday with its first hearing since July — a kind of final argument on its work, arguing that former President Donald Trump remains a threat to democracy.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a member of the committee, promised on CNN on Tuesday that the hearing will include some “quite startling” new information.

Read the full preview from CNN.

So much has happened since the last committee hearing, especially the FBI’s search for Mar-a-Lago, which put Trump back in the news. The committee continued its talks, including with members of Trump’s cabinet and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While the committee can focus on how Trump’s pre-January 6, 2021 rhetoric helped incite the insurgency, there are troubling indications that Trump’s post-insurgency rhetoric as well as that of online far-right groups have helped boost an increase in discourse on violence.

CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan an upcoming TV report on the rhetoric and its evolution since January 6. I asked him more about his reporting; our conversation, conducted via email, is below.

WHAT MATTERS: How can we link Trump’s rhetoric to talking about online violence? What is the proof?

O’SULLIVAN: Look at all the defendants on January 6 who argued in court that they went to the Capitol that day because they thought that was what Trump wanted them to do.

While Trump grabs headlines when his rhetoric seems more blatant than suggestive (recently saying that Mitch McConnell has a “death wish”), it is instead his steady drumbeat of lies about the election that gives some Americans a perceived justification for violence. American democracy is under attack, they believe, and something must be done about it.

WHAT MATTERS: How has this chatter changed since January 6?

O’SULLIVAN: There has been a wide scattering of online discussions since January 6, with many right-wing figures, even Trump himself, pushed out of major social media platforms, prompting a cottage industry of new services like his own. Trump’s Social Truth.

As a result, it is difficult to quantitatively measure the topics of discussion, but the many experts I have spoken to agree that there has been a consistent level of discussion about political violence (and to a lesser extent specifically about war civilian) since Jan. 6 – with a large spike seen around the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago.

WHAT MATTERS: Is there any reason to think this is a growing movement or a marginalized movement?

O’SULLIVAN: Influential Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene perpetuate the idea that the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago is essentially the start of a civil war; she also recently pushed the false claim that Democrats kill Republicans.

We spoke to Barbara Walter, a UC San Diego professor who has studied civil conflict around the world, for this story. She explained how there are a sizable number of Americans (many white, Christian males) who see the demographics of the country changing and are concerned. Rhetoric like this from Greene, I think, can only exacerbate those fears.

WHAT MATTERS: Has this discourse completely exploded on fringe platforms like Trump’s Truth Social, or is it still on Twitter and Facebook?

O’SULLIVAN: The misconception that the 2020 election was stolen is still circulating widely on major platforms. But we’ve seen new communities devoted to QAnon conspiracy theories and election lies, some with hundreds of thousands of members, spring up on platforms like Truth Social, Telegram, Gab and Parler.

These are platforms that position themselves as bastions of free speech and can have very little moderation – this often results in hateful and violent rhetoric flowing more freely than on Big Tech sites.

WHAT MATTERS: When these people post about the Civil War, do they really think there will be a war between Americans?

O’SULLIVAN: Yes. In the minds of many people I talk to and many people we see on these sites, “the other side” is the real enemy. They stole an election; they have destroyed American democracy – they must be defeated to save America.

WHAT MATTERS: We value freedom of speech in this country. What is the evidence that this violent rhetoric turns into violence?

O’SULLIVAN: I spent some time with Greg Ehrie of the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) reading some of the violent comments online for this story. Ehrie is a veteran law enforcement officer, a former FBI Special Agent. As we were browsing through these anonymous comments online, I pointed out to him that I never would have made a story like this a few years ago – crazy, anonymous comments on the internet, who cares?

But January 6 changed that. We have seen how some of those who attacked the Capitol posted online not just before the attack, but during the attack itself. Social media is an essential space for them.

The non-profit group Advance Democracy even identified an anonymous poster that asked about a second American Civil War in light of the Mar-a-Lago raid as the Jan. 6 defendant.

Of course, not all keyboard warriors go on and commit violent acts (or leave their basements), but I don’t think we’re better able to ignore what’s going on in these spaces, unfortunately.

WHAT MATTERS: January 6 was marked by wild ideas that Trump would mobilize the military, declare martial law and refuse to leave the White House. What’s the conspiracy theory now?

O’SULLIVAN: There is now a lot of focus on getting people to accept election lies in positions that would allow them to oversee elections in order to remedy perceived problems with American democracy.

WHAT MATTERS: People studying and following this movement online – what do they think should be done? Marginalize him? Shed light on it?

O’SULLIVAN: I asked Barbara Walter if we were breathing life into this by even talking about it – she said no. Speaking to people who have lived through conflict from Belfast to Baghdad, she said, few saw it coming until they were in the middle of it.

…. I would also add that Walter doesn’t think another civil conflict here would take the form of the old battlefields, but rather guerrilla warfare with attacks on government buildings and officials.

WHAT MATTERS: For a final follow-up to this point Walter made to O’Sullivan, look at some recent examples of targeted government. Following the search of Mar-a-Lago in August, an armed suspect was killed after attempting to rape the FBI field office in Cincinnati, and there was convictions in the 2020 conspiracy kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.


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