Following the deadly mayhem that unfolded in Washington, D.C., last week, when a mob of rabid Trump supporters laid siege to the U.S. Capitol, a reasonable fear has mounted: Will we see a repeat of such violence on Inauguration Day? While Donald Trump has since begrudgingly promised a smooth, “orderly” transition of power from his administration to Joe Biden’s, the threat of extremist violence nevertheless looms. According to an internal bulletin obtained by CNN, the FBI is anticipating planned “armed protests” at all 50 state capitols as well as the U.S. Capitol on January 20, and law enforcement is bracing for violence.
To better understand the gravity of the current threat, the Cut spoke with Megan Squire, a computer-science professor at Elon University and senior fellow for data analytics for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Squire’s work focuses on how online spaces are being used to foment hatred and how they allow radical-right groups to organize — or, as she told the Cut, “the ins and out of the far-right using social media and the online world.” The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Ahead of the presidential election, experts who study far-right and extremist groups warned that we’d see an uptick in violence in the period between the election and Inauguration Day. Do you think what we’re seeing now has exceeded predictions?
I think the people that follow this aren’t particularly surprised by the online aspects, though I think we were all shocked by the videos that came out of the Capitol on Wednesday. That was just horrific. But regarding the fact that it was planned online and livestreamed, none of that is surprising at all for folks who study this world. I knew exactly which channels to visit on Wednesday because I’d been watching them plan for it for weeks.
The the time between the election and the inauguration has turned into a pretty big deal for Trump supporters, and everyone from QAnon to Proud Boys. They really coalesced around Trump and his stolen-election narrative and rallied around his lawsuits. After the election, they had this car rally that went from state capitol to state capitol, trying to convince legislators to overturn the vote. So this period has been frenzied. Now Trump supporters are focused on the inauguration. On the channels, some of them are talking about how they still believe that Trump will be inaugurated.
Could you elucidate how important these platforms are to the far right, specifically regarding their efforts to organize and mobilize?
Think of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, that kind of stuff, as “Main Street tech.” And then there’s what happens when you get kicked off of those places and you have to find a different home. We call those platforms “alt-tech,” which includes the video platform DLive, Gab, and Parler. Their importance cannot be overstated. This is where organizing, preplanning, recruitment, socializing, propagandizing, where all of that takes place. The online world is critical to any kind of extremist activity.
I’d also like to quickly talk about platforms kicking off or banning extremists, which you discussed in a viral Twitter thread over the summer. Why is de-platforming so crucial, and what are some of its inherent challenges?
When people are kicked off “Main Street tech,” the ones who go to “alt-tech” tend to be more hard-boiled, less rational, and more prone to violence. So you end up with these more intense and maybe more radical platforms. They can be like a petri dish where the people radicalize each other, which is problematic. But if you leave these kinds of people on mainstream platforms, then normal people on those platforms become desensitized to the speech that they’re seeing, and the behaviors of these bad actors become normalized.
We’re sort of between a rock and a hard place. Do you leave these people on a platform where they’re harassing everybody and putting swastikas everywhere, or do we put them on these smaller platforms where they radicalize each other? What I’m hoping for — a girl can dream — is for these platform companies, which claim to be for free speech, to be part of the solution. What we’re instead seeing is that a lot these companies, instead of cooperating with one another, are competing and poaching each others’ users, which is letting these groups become more radical, which is really harmful.
So what do you expect we’ll see in D.C. on Inauguration Day?
I just ran a keyword search involving “inauguration” on Telegram, which is one of the platforms [extremists] moved to since Parler went dark, and some of them are saying, “Let’s go,” whereas some are arguing, “No, don’t go on with the plot, it’s a scam,” and then others are saying, “Let’s go, but let’s dress as Antifa.” Regarding the likelihood that, on Inauguration Day, we’ll see a repeat of the Capitol riot, I want to say no, but these people don’t use the same risk-reward mechanisms as normal people. I wouldn’t have thought that they would storm the Capitol, because why would you do that when you know you’re going to be arrested? But they don’t take actions based on normal thought processes.
What do you think we’ll see at other locations across the U.S., like at state capitol buildings? According to CNN, the FBI now has information that “armed protests” are planned for Inauguration Day in all 50 states.
I worry that, because it’ll be hard to get plane tickets and hard to get into D.C., these people will redirect their energies at the state capitols, for example, or governors who they’re annoyed with. They’ve already tried to take their anger out on state leaders like Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, for example. All indications are that, if they show up, a healthy percentage will be armed. In my state, North Carolina, and in Washington D.C., weapons are banned at protests, so there will probably be fewer people openly carrying weapons in places like that. But in 36 other states where guns are allowed, I would state the probability is very high that the folks showing up will be armed.
I’m also concerned about them harassing people on platforms, which might seem like a small thing, but when you have 500,000 Trump supporters in your DMs, it’s not super fun. I would also look for things like blowups in parking lots, people screaming at others in grocery stores, and that kind of stuff.
What do you think about the meager police presence at the Capitol riot? As you said earlier, it wasn’t exactly a secret — even the FBI and the NYPD reportedly warned officials about it.
I will say, it’s always so hard to tell the line between fantasy and reality, and to know what is an actionable threat. Every day, those of us who study this stuff see people literally saying, “I’m going to go storm the Capitol,” but it’s hard to tell when it’s true or when it’s fantasy. I mean, it’s always a fantasy, but when are they going to act on it? Telling the difference is way, way harder than it sounds, so I try to be patient, but it does get a little frustrating. Like, Wasn’t anyone listening? We told you about this! But again, you want law enforcement making judgments based on actionable intelligence, not somebody’s late-night Twitter rant.
So overall, how worried are you? How emboldened are these people feeling?
In my opinion, the period after the election was when we saw the most emboldening. Right now, I think we’re getting a lot of correct reactions. Now, this may not be trickling all the way down the funnel to the most extreme people, as they’re not going to believe any of the corrective measures, but Trump has been so undercut. I could be wrong, but right now, it certainly doesn’t look as good for them as it did last Monday.