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While the deliberate lies that led to the January 6 insurrection are exposed, misinformation runs riot on social media

Increased scrutiny fails to deter extremists and conspiracy theorists

Testimony in a third public hearing by the committee investigating the attacks on January 6 on the United States Capitol continued to reveal how President Donald Trump, in the words of one White House staffer, “poured gasoline on the fire” despite pleas to tamp down the flames. Committee chair, Representative Bennie Thompson, said American democracy “came dangerously close to catastrophe” as a mob gathered within feet of Vice President Mike Pence and chanted for him to be hanged.

A feature of the hearing has been Trump’s apparent willingness to knowingly spread falsehoods and misinformation on social media, fomenting anger and unrest among his supporters. In a taped interview played before the investigating committee at the second hearing, Richard Donoghue, former Acting Attorney General in the last weeks of the Trump administration, said, “this gets back to the point that there were so many of these allegations that when you gave him a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight us on it, but he would move on to another allegation.” These other allegations, according to Donoghue, included such conspiracy theory fodder as “dead people are voting,” or “Indians are getting paid to vote.” Trump meant, Donoghue clarified, “people on Native American reservations.” 

The hearing offers detailed evidence of the lingering half-life of misinformation, no matter how many times the lies are debunked. I spoke with Jared Holt, a social media and extremist activities researcher and fellow at Atlantic Council, about how conspiracy theorists are responding to the latest hearing on the Capitol Hill riots investigation on social media. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Has surprising misinformation popped up on social media among far-right groups you monitor as the hearings continue?

Much of what I’ve seen has been what I expected to see, including the re-litigating of conspiracy theories about the events of that day, such as claims that federal law enforcement set up or entrapped Trump supporters. A lot of what we’re also seeing is smear campaigns of the witnesses testifying and committee members involved. There’s lots of right-wing criticism of Liz Cheney specifically.

How might extremist use of social media continue to affect midterm elections?

I’m getting the impression that many of the Democrats’ plans for midterm elections are to try first to make this assertion that the Republican Party is an insurrectionist party and link their candidates to January 6. Additionally, candidates and their supporters will find themselves in a position where they’re continuing this seemingly never-ending attempt at revisionist history around the events of January 6, shifting away from the idea that it was an attack on the democratic process.

While the hearings look to uncover what led to the events of January 6, the Department of Justice is also trying to prosecute those who breached the Capitol. This includes members affiliated with the Proud Boys, a far-right group. Similar groups have recently disrupted Pride events in several states using social media to find their targets. Are they all part of the same conversation?

Groups like the Proud Boys, before January 6, were using social media to coordinate very openly. Now that many of their top guys have been busted by the police, it has changed a bit. For some groups, their online presence uses alternative social media platforms. Groups like the Patriot Front have been banned from the mainstream ones for quite some time. Their goal online is to try to project this intimidating image of themselves. The connecting line from the wake of January 6 and the arrests that have followed is the extra scrutiny they face operating on those mainstream tech platforms. Many of these groups underwent a series of adaptations meant to help them persist through those challenges to get over those roadblocks. For example, you’re starting to see software picking up the methods that some of the harder groups have used to evade detection.

What are those ways that you’re seeing that they’re using to evade detection?

A method used is decentralization, which we’ve seen across the extremist movement since January 6. These groups are abandoning these national-scale hierarchies in favor of more autonomous state chapters and local chapters. Additionally, they’ve kind of decentralized targets of protest and targets of harassment. For example, it’s not just all guns blazing on Washington D.C. instead, it’s, you know, your Proud Boys chapter going out to health board meetings and intimidating the people on that board. These groups are also creating parallel systems on the internet for people to use, which I don’t think will ever catch on. The mainstream social and marketing platforms are way too convenient.

What do people tend to get wrong when they think about extremist groups using these platforms?

The internet doesn’t make extremism. Political extremism has existed since the early days of this country and will probably continue in some form or another. But the internet has been utilized to reach more people with less effort. They can do it very quickly, and if they are careful, they can do it anonymously. It’s not just an internet problem but indicative of a certain amount of social disorder within the U.S. that is not being adequately addressed.

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