How to view the violent online rhetoric promising civil war

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The January 6 committee returns to public view Thursday with its first hearing since July – a sort of closing argument on its work, arguing that former President Donald Trump remains a threat to democracy.

Committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren promised Tuesday on CNN the hearing will feature “pretty surprising” new information.

Read CNN’s full preview.

So much has happened since the last committee hearing – particularly the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, which reinserted Trump into the news. The committee has continued with interviews, including with members of Trump’s cabinet and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While the committee may focus on how Trump’s rhetoric before January 6, 2021, helped incite the insurrection, there are troubling indications that post-insurrection rhetoric from Trump along with that of far-right groups online has helped spur an increase in talk of violence.

CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan has a forthcoming TV report on the rhetoric and how it has evolved since January 6. I asked him more about his reporting; our conversation, conducted over email, is below.

WHAT MATTERS: How can we tie Trump’s rhetoric to talk about violence online? What is the evidence?

O’SULLIVAN: Just look at all the January 6th defendants who have argued in court that they went to the Capitol that day because they thought that’s what Trump wanted them to do.

While Trump makes headlines when his rhetoric appears more blatant than suggestive (recently saying Mitch McConnell has a “death wish”), it’s more his regular drumbeat of lies about the election that is giving 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’s been a great dispersal of online discussion since January 6th, with many figures on the right, even Trump himself, forced off major social media platforms, prompting a cottage industry of new services like Trump’s own Truth Social.

As a result, it is difficult to quantitatively measure discussion topics, but the many experts I have spoken to agree there has been a steady level of discussion about political violence (and to a lesser extent specifically civil war) since January 6th – with a big spike being observed around the Mar-a-Lago FBI search.

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

O’SULLIVAN: Influential Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene perpetuate the notion that the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago is essentially the beginning of a civil war; she also recently has been pushing the false claim that Democrats are killing Republicans.

We spoke to Barbara Walter, a professor at UC San Diego, who has studied civil conflicts around the world, for this story. She explained how there is a not insignificant number of Americans (many White, Christian males) who see the demographics of the country changing and are getting worried. Rhetoric like this from Greene, I think, can only exacerbate those fears.

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

O’SULLIVAN: The false idea the 2020 election was stolen still widely circulates across the main platforms. But we have 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 – often that results in hateful and violent rhetoric circulating more freely than it would on the Big Tech sites.

WHAT MATTERS: When these people post about civil war, are they actually thinking there will be a war between Americans?

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

WHAT MATTERS: We prize freedom of speech in this country. What’s the evidence this violent rhetoric turns into violence?

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

But January 6th changed that. We’ve seen how some of those who attacked the Capitol posted online not only in the lead-up to the attack, but during the attack itself. Social media is a critical space to them.

The nonprofit group Advance Democracy even identified one anonymous poster who asked about a second American civil war in light of the Mar-a-Lago raid as a January 6th defendant.

Of course, not all keyboard warriors go on and commit violent acts (or leave their basements), but I don’t think we are any longer in a position to ignore what is happening 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 is the conspiracy theory now?

O’SULLIVAN: There’s a lot of focus now on getting people sympathetic to election lies in positions that would have them oversee elections as a way of remedying the perceived problems with American democracy.

WHAT MATTERS: The people who are studying and following this movement online – what do they think should be done? Marginalize it? Shine a light on it?

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

…. I’d also add Walter doesn’t think another civil conflict here would take the form of the battlegrounds of old, but instead likely be guerrilla warfare with attacks on government buildings and officials.

WHAT MATTERS: For a closing follow-up on that point Walter made to O’Sullivan, look at some recent examples of the government being targeted. Following the Mar-a-Lago search in August, an armed suspect was killed after trying to breach the FBI’s field office in Cincinnati, and there were convictions in the 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

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