How to view the violent online rhetoric promising civil war

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The Jan. 6 committee returns to the public Thursday for its first hearing since July — a sort of closing argument for its work, in which it argues that former President Donald Trump remains a threat to democracy.

Committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren vowed on CNN Tuesday that the hearing will contain “rather surprising” new information.

Read CNN’s full preview.

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

While the committee may focus on how Trump’s rhetoric before January 6, 2021 helped incite the insurgency, there are disturbing indications that post-riot Trump rhetoric is linked to Trump’s far-right groups on the internet has helped spur them on an increase in talk of violence.

CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan has an upcoming TV report on rhetoric and how it has evolved since January 6th. I asked him more about his reporting; our conversation, which was conducted via email, is below.

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

O’SULLIVAN: Just look at all the January 6 defendants who have 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 obvious rather than suggestive (he recently said Mitch McConnell has a “death wish”), it is his regular barrage of lies about the election that gives some Americans an apparent justification for violence. American democracy is under attack, they believe, and something must be done about it.

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

O’SULLIVAN: Since Jan. 6, there has been a major proliferation of online discussion, with many right-wing figures, even Trump himself, being ousted from the major social media platforms, leading to a cottage industry of new services like Trump’s own Truth Social.

As a result, it’s difficult to quantitatively measure topics of discussion, but the many experts I’ve spoken to agree that there has been a spike observed since the 6 days surrounding the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search.

WHAT MATTERS: Is there reason to believe 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 raid of Mar-a-Lago was essentially the start of a civil war; She also recently made the false claim that Democrats kill Republicans.

For this story, we spoke to Barbara Walter, a professor at UC San Diego who has studied civil conflict around the world. She explained that there are a significant number of Americans (many white, Christian males) who see the country’s changing demographics and are concerned. Rhetoric like Greene’s, I think, can only reinforce these fears.

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

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

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These are platforms that position themselves as bastions of free speech and can have very little moderation – often resulting in hateful and violent rhetoric circulating more freely than on the big tech sites.

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

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

WHAT MATTERS: We value freedom of expression in this country. What is the evidence that this violent rhetoric is turning violent?

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

But January 6th changed that. We’ve seen some of those who attacked the Capitol posting online not only in advance of the attack, but during the attack itself. Social media is a critical space for them.

The nonprofit group Advance Democracy even identified an anonymous poster asking about a second American Civil War in the wake of the Mar-a-Lago raid as a January 6 defendant.

Of course, not all keyboard warriors go on and commit acts of violence (or leave their basements), but I think we’re no longer able to ignore what’s happening in these rooms, alas.

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

O’SULLIVAN: Much emphasis is now placed on sympathizing people with election lies in positions that would lead them to monitor elections to fix perceived problems with American democracy.

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

O’SULLIVAN: I asked Barbara Walter if we even give it oxygen when we talk about it – she said no. Speaking to people who have experienced conflict from Belfast to Baghdad, she said few of them saw it coming until they were in the thick of it.

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

WHAT MATTERS: For a final wrap-up on this point made by Walter O’Sullivan, look at some recent examples of government targeting. After searching Mar-a-Lago August was an armed suspect killed after an attempted break-in the FBI field office in Cincinnati, and there they were Convictions in Plot 2020 Kidnapping Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan.

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