Authorities are arresting more and more people involved in last week’s siege of the U.S. Capitol. Online gathering spaces for the far-right have be
Authorities are arresting more and more people involved in last week’s siege of the U.S. Capitol. Online gathering spaces for the far-right have been shuttered or are sputtering under a flood of new users. And thousands of National Guard troops have been brought in to protect the nation’s capital.
In the midst of it all, leaders of far-right, extremist factions are telling their followers to stay away from protests planned across the country this weekend and on Inauguration Day.
“We’re going to take a chill pill,” Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the far-right street gang the Proud Boys, said in an interview. “I feel like this part of the battle is over.”
Other prominent figures on the far-right, who helped bring huge crowds to the capital on Jan. 6, echoed his message to stay away.
“Of course this should go without saying but steer clear of the Capital on January 20th,” podcaster and far-right provocateur Nicholas Fuentes wrote on Twitter. “They are deploying 25,000 soldiers for the inauguration and the state of emergency will still be in effect. I’m not going and I won’t be returning to DC for a long, long time!”
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Experts on far-right extremism agree that, unlike the days before the Jan. 6 insurrection, the online ecosystem used by President Donald Trump’s most outspoken supporters has been muted, with few signs that large crowds will gather in Washington or state capitals for protests planned Sunday and Wednesday, Inauguration Day.
But, they cautioned, that doesn’t mean there’s no chance of violence.
Federal authorities believe the aggressive pursuit of suspects in the Capitol assault and the early show of force to secure the Inauguration may have prompted some extremists to reconsider returning to Washington to engage in violence, an official familiar with the investigation said Thursday.
The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, said some suspects who had planned to return have retained lawyers and turned themselves in rather than risk joining demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere.
The official cautioned, however, that the threat level remains high because many extremists are not part of organized groups, such as the Proud Boys, with designated leaders.
The FBI warned earlier this week that protests are planned in all 50 states, and experts worry that state capitols could prove softer targets for domestic terrorists, armed paramilitary groups, or simply large crowds of angry Trump supporters.
“Nothing’s going to happen in D.C., but I worry about state capitals,” said Daryl Johnson, a security consultant and former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security. “They should be beefing up security.”
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Clamping down on insurrectionists
As of Thursday morning, dozens of people who participated in last week’s riot have been arrested. The Justice Department is reportedly pursuing more than 150 people in connection to the attack.
Security in Washington, D.C., was ramped up immediately after the insurrection. It has reached extraordinary levels, with thousands of National Guard troops pledged to protect federal buildings and public spaces.
The message to prospective protesters is clear: Unapproved mass gatherings and violence will not be tolerated. And it appears to be resonating among the far-right.
“Even before Jan. 6, I always said it was stupid to rally in D.C.,” Tarrio said. “You can’t open carry (a firearm) in D.C., so the whole idea of a ‘Million Militia March’ was stupid from the beginning.”
He referred to a rallying cry that briefly flared up in the days after the insurrection, when people on far-right social media posted about holding a “Million Militia March,” or “#MMM,” this Sunday.
The attack on the Capitol, coupled with digital intelligence, has also exposed many agitators to law enforcement, said Jonathan Wackrow, chief operating officer of consulting and advisory firm Teneo Risk and a former Secret Service agent.
“There’s no longer a surprise,” Wackrow said. “Not only do we know what their intent is, we also know who the players are.”
A movement scattered online
In the days leading up to the violent rally, far-right personalities had a welcoming platform to urge followers to show up: the short-lived social media site Parler.
Parler gained millions of new users after the presidential election, many of them Trump supporters disgruntled with efforts to kick conspiracy theorists and extremists off Facebook and Twitter.
An easy-to-use platform, Parler was perfect for groups advertising their intention to descend on Washington to intercede in Congress’ certification of the Electoral College votes – the final, formal step required before Joe Biden could be sworn in as president.
The Proud Boys, promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, far-right agitator Alex Jones and others used Parler to post fliers for the rally and urge supporters to attend.
Parler was taken offline on Sunday, hobbling far-right extremists’ ability to reach their followers. In recent days, Twitter removed over 70,000 accounts associated with QAnon. Other sites, such as the streaming platform DLive, removed far-right activists. Fuentes, who had raised money on DLive, was one of them.
“You sort of limit their ability to cast a broad message,” said Brian Gerber, co-director of Arizona State University’s Center for Management and Homeland Security. “That creates some difficulties in tracking them but it also limits their scope of activities as well.”
Without Parler, extremists struggle to reach followers online
Extremists and far-right Trump supporters have been scattered across the internet to less user-friendly forums. On the encrypted messenger service Telegram, a channel initially called “Parler Lifeboat” gained almost 16,000 new subscribers within 24 hours.
But Trump supporters familiar with Facebook, Twitter and Parler found themselves floundering on Telegram. It operates less like a discussion board and more like a group chat, with a firehose of comments that new users can find overwhelming.
Incoming Telegram users found themselves face-to-face with neo-Nazis and white supremacists who have long used the platform. They tried to spread anti-Semitic and racist propaganda to the influx of Trump supporters.
The “Lifeboat” group has become a confusing mess of conservatives arguing with hardcore white supremacists as they struggle to post and access content on the platform.
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Compounding the chaos, potential far-right protesters now lack the guiding light of their movement: tweets from Trump.
Since Trump was banned from Twitter on Friday, he has been forced to send text messages to his followers and post statements on the official White House website.
The president has urged calm from his supporters while acknowledging for the first time that Biden will become president next week.
“Deplatforming him certainly makes it more difficult for his supporters to rally around some message that he’s giving them,” Gerber said.
Violence still possible
While massive, violent protests are unlikely in the nation’s capital, lone terrorists or small groups could still seek to make a mark on the Inauguration.
Johnson, the security expert, is worried about bombs being driven into Washington or even snipers targeting Biden supporters at the Inauguration itself.
Wackrow, the former Secret Service official, said the massive efforts to secure Washington shouldn’t create a false sense of security. The amount of publicly accessible, online activity by extremists is a fraction of what’s happening in the dark corners of the internet, he said.
“One single person with the right means, opportunity and intent can significantly change history,” he said. “But that will give the extremists the win that they need.”
One faction of the far-right mob who stormed the Capitol last week has, in a strange twist, been heartened by the heavy military presence in Washington.
Followers of the disproven QAnon conspiracy theory believe a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is plotting against Trump, who will eventually destroy them in a military action termed “The Storm.” They have taken solace in the buildup of troops, said Travis View, a researcher and podcaster who has studied QAnon.
“These people are overjoyed by the large numbers of military troops,” View said. “They think they’re there to prevent Joe Biden from taking over the presidency, so they’re saying, ‘Enjoy the show, get the popcorn ready.’”
Contributing: Kevin Johnson