During the earliest days of 2021, many of us hoped for a reprieve after an intense 2020 US presidential election. Federal, state, and local election officials across the country had risen to the unprecedented challenge of safely holding an election in the middle of a pandemic. The threat of foreign interference—looming large since the last presidential election—had been mostly mitigated. The final election results had been somewhat delayed, as expected, but fair and clear. Groups like the Election Integrity Partnership, whose members included the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), had come together to monitor an inundation of disinformation—primarily from within the United States. Efforts to secure the election had been successful. All despite a concerted effort by then-US President Donald Trump, his campaign, and his supporters to undermine the foundational process of democracy.
Instead of a reprieve, what we witnessed—six days into the new year, sixty-four days after Election Day, and fourteen days prior to a newly and popularly elected US president taking office—was an insurrection at the US Capitol. The perpetrators chose a time and place at the functional and symbolic center of American democracy.
The DFRLab’s new report, After the insurrection, is a follow-up to our comprehensive analysis of online activity that led to the attack on January 6. The companion essays presented below provide independent insights from other experts examining the aftermath of the attack. The common finding: The threat that resulted in a spectacular assault on American democracy has carried on in the year since the insurrection.
As federal law-enforcement agencies bring forward hundreds of cases against those who planned or participated in the attack on the Capitol, and as the US House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack quietly goes about its business, we can say with certainty that the planning, coordination, and inflammatory rhetoric that produced the event happened online—right out in the open for all who were looking to see it.
Unlike other dark moments in history, we saw the insurrection with our own eyes. To deny it or downplay it or not demand accountability for it is to deny our own experience. Yet many around the country don’t even share a common understanding of a verifiable event.
The insurrection was a cumulative moment. The crowd that stormed the Capitol included an overlapping assortment of Donald Trump’s political supporters, conspiracy-theory adherents, government skeptics, ideological groups engaged in criminal activity, violent extremists, and countless others who just wanted to witness history. Events throughout 2020—including the pandemic and corresponding public-health measures, racial-justice protests and violent responses to them, and an election cycle featuring politics at a fever pitch—helped bring together the groups at the insurrection. They stewed in a toxic mix of disbelief, disenchantment, cynicism, and violence, and were preyed upon by grifters and powermongers, fueling a race away from the shared responsibility and facts on which democracy depends. We have no reason to believe the trends that led to that moment have stopped accumulating.
Put plainly: The United States has a growing political-violence problem.
America’s division is its greatest national-security threat, making the many other challenges Americans face much harder to solve. US partners and allies, as well as adversaries and competitors, are watching the country’s gridlock, violence, and detachment from facts. American democracy has never been inevitable.
The silver lining is that America’s division and the political violence flowing from it are also not inevitable. The US system of government—and the freedoms it protects—relies on collective decision-making based on a shared set of facts. Elections are the foundational process of government for and, more importantly, by the people. Americans still get to choose their future. When we do so, I hope we’re clear-eyed about the events and continued aftermath of January 6, 2021.
—Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab
The normalization of political violence
One of the most alarming developments in the year since the 2021 insurrection has been the effort, especially among politicians and influencers, to normalize ideologically driven political violence. Although there was a brief period after the attack on the US Capitol when all, but the most extreme election deniers, roundly denounced the violent attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, that unified stance was short-lived. Since then, we’ve seen elected members of Congress outright lie about the assault, calling it a normal day of tourism and ignoring that a police officer was killed and 140 others injured. We’ve seen elected officials refer to those charged with the attack as political prisoners. We’ve seen some adopt violent imagery against a fellow Congress member or suggest a fellow Congress member is a terrorist. We’ve seen candidates for public office in states across the country openly talk about using violence to stop what they view as a “stolen” election. We’ve seen words like “tyranny” used to refer to government efforts to protect public health.
The impact of the acceptance, and even encouragement, of political violence by people whose power and position give them a veneer of credibility cannot be overstated. The anti-democracy forces at work in the United States seek to normalize behavior that unquestionably would be viewed as terroristic if committed by an Islamist extremist. Appealing to those who feel politically or socially marginalized through disinformation and propaganda is what foreign terrorist leaders do, demonizing the “enemy” and radicalizing members to believe that violence is an acceptable means—maybe the only means—of redressing grievances. Polling shows that an alarming number of Americans believe that “patriots” may have to use violence to save the country. These are the conditions in which a repeat of the January 6 attack, or even worse, becomes possible.
Lone-wolf acts of terrorism will always be a threat in the US and elsewhere, whether motivated by Islamist extremism, white supremacy, anti-government sentiment, or other ideologies. Preventing such attacks, as the FBI director has repeatedly testified, will continue to be a high priority. But going into 2022, after the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and political divisions over vaccinations and masking, the uproar over racial justice and school curricula, and the continued lies about a stolen presidential election, the threat looks more insurgent. It’s not only from individuals or small groups of bad actors, but from mobs, egged on by politicians primarily motivated by political gain. Countering these threats requires the work of responsible elected officials, faith leaders, and others with the ability to change the hearts and minds of those most susceptible to the false claims of anti-democracy fanatics. Failure has consequences well beyond the tragic loss of life associated with terrorist attacks. Failure to counter extremist efforts to undermine American democracy means a failed democracy.
Mary McCord is executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) and a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. McCord was the acting assistant attorney general for national security at the US Department of Justice from 2016 to 2017 and principal deputy assistant attorney general for national security from 2014 to 2016.
A glaring lack of accountability
The terror of January 6, 2021, when a horde of Americans violently forced their way inside the US Capitol to disrupt a time-honored democratic process, could have been a wake-up call. It could have been an opportunity to reject extremism and the narratives that animate it. Instead, it seems to have resulted in a fuller embrace of the dangerous narratives that undermine democratic institutions, normalizing the messages and tactics that resonate with extremists and that led people to the Capitol in the first place.
To understand how this failure of accountability has impacted the extremism landscape, we must recognize the role elected officials, television personalities, and social media platforms have in normalizing toxic disinformation and conspiracies, amplifying them, and emboldening extremists.
Extremists have taken notice of the dog whistles and support from this new crop of potential allies and have sought to leverage this moment in time. For example, the Proud Boys, who had one of the highest representations among extremists arrested in relation to the insurrection, are showing up at school board meetings to protest policies related to mask mandates and school curricula. Across the country, school board members have been targeted with threats, harassment, doxxing, and even white supremacist propaganda because of their positions. Medical professionals, public health officials, and scientists have been similarly harassed. There are increasing reports of a mass exodus of elected officials and election officials, many of whom have been targeted for their commitment to upholding democracy.
Disinformation and conspiracies continue to incubate and spread across the social media ecosystem, serving as breeding grounds for extremist ideologies and bad actors. And they are finding even wider audiences at events where QAnon adherents, election fraud promoters, and anti-vaccine activists have appeared and spoken side-by-side with extremists. Some politicians have further doubled down, spreading violent memes, denying that the insurrection occurred at all, glorifying vigilantism, and misleading the public about the very democratic institutions that they should protect.
These narratives are further amplified in the media. Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s special “documentary” series, “Patriot Purge,” promotes a variety of conspiracy theories—that the FBI played a role in the January 6 insurrection and that the new “second war on terror” targets what Carlson calls “legacy Americans.” The normalization of the conspiracies that animate their beliefs is great news for extremists, who don’t have to work nearly as hard to have their views accepted in the mainstream.
January 6 should have ushered in a new sense of responsibility and civility. Instead, the people and institutions we rely on to reject extremism have accepted it and even normalized it. This glaring lack of accountability over what transpired on January 6 has inevitably bred more distrust, fear, anxiety, and violence. The extremists are taking notice.
The signs are all around us. We ignore them at our peril.
Oren Segal is vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Propaganda, profit, and post-truth partisanship in the media after January 6
One year after the US Capitol attack, I remain deeply pessimistic about the political future. Few, if any, events in my lifetime so vividly illustrate the shattering of consensus reality as January 6’s political eruption in the nation’s capital. Seemingly every headline is followed by a contradictory account—consumed, filtered, and ultimately accepted or rejected through the specificities of a consumer’s preferred political media outlet.
Conflicting information persists about “Stop the Steal” protest organization strategies, leaders, motivations, and participants. Some sources claim rioters charged with criminal actions lacked ties to extremist organizations, as equally respected news outlets instead suggest the presence of numerous, well-known hate groups. Claims of “antifa” orchestration persist, alongside refutations provided by right-wing opponents of the loose, antifascist activist network. The impeachment articles lodged over former President Trump’s alleged role in inciting the riots, unsurprisingly, split along highly partisan lines, and debates continue to rage over the terminological relevance of “coup” to the events of January 6. Even as congressional investigations continue and new information emerges, officials dispute the status of Capitol protestors as tourists, patriotic heroes or domestic terrorists.
However variant in perspective and news source, accounts of January 6 conventionally focus on 2020’s contested election results and Trump’s rhetorical incitement (or lack thereof) as exceptional events, uniquely causal catalysts to the violence of the Capitol siege, divorced from broader trends and problems that demand urgent solutions—such as lack of access to credible media platforms, and the resultant inability of healthy civil society to flourish without a media literate, well-informed citizenry.
Trump’s presidential campaign, as well as Charlottesville’s deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, provoked considerable debate concerning the role of establishment media as well as social media’s roles in platforming extremist ideologies, conspiracy theories, glamorizing extremist ideological leaders such as Richard Spencer, and in the process—normalizing bigotry, and contributing to a political climate often characterized by pundits as one of unprecedented polarization. Widespread erosion of public trust in the institutions of American democracy, however, did not originate with Donald J. Trump. Nor has Joe Biden rectified a long-simmering, bipartisan cynicism towards establishment elites and the political process. Rather, Trump’s 2016 victory remains symptomatic of a bipartisan disease that continues to metastasize throughout the American body politic.
In 1962, social historian Daniel Boorstin presciently lamented a looming destruction of media’s role in bolstering robust democracy by holding the powerful to account—warning of an eventual erosion between “news” and “entertainment” itself. President Trump, it would seem, embodies Boorstin’s thesis—whether through his “Apprentice”-style approach to terminating administration appointees, or even, as some remarked on Twitter during the events of January 6, presented an arguably perfect “season finale” to his ratings-obsessed presidency.
Today, alongside the rapid explosion and proliferation of social media technology, ostensibly democratizing access to information, establishment media has undergone a vast sea-change rarely given broad consideration: print media’s death and the migration of credible, established news outlets into inaccessible information siloes, inaccessible resources hidden behind paywalls and subscription demands. Confirmation bias reigns supreme, and little—if any—incentive exists to seek out opposing viewpoints, particularly when the discomfort of cognitive dissonance accompanies financial costs. After all, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and propaganda of all persuasions are ubiquitously accessible—free of charge.
Financial obstacles to accurate, credible information—whether fact-checked by professional journalists, or peer-reviewed academic resources—actively prevent the media literacy necessary for an informed citizenry and healthy civil society; additionally, the contemporary media ecosystem’s twin pillars of economic sustainability and longevity—access to society’s powerbrokers and corporate profit margins—present vulnerabilities ripe for manipulation by any number of bad actors engaged in the space of information warfare.
As a political commentator often approached for media interviews about current affairs, I monitored and responded to the Capitol protests in real time and found myself struck by the undeniable dilemma posed by the political and economic siloed media systems. Challenged in a debate about the alleged presence of antifa elements perpetrating a “false flag,” I received a Washington Post news alert urging me to “fact check” dubious claims circulating across multiple platforms, notification of a recently published article investigating precisely such claims of leftist responsibility. Naturally, I clicked the link, eagerly seeking reliable, credible, and professional sourcing—only to find … paywalled content I was unable to read.
In the field of higher education, professors and administrators alike routinely stress the crucial value of critical analytic skills and media literacy for the cultivation of a healthy body politic and functioning civil society. University campuses are, after all, intended to confront young minds with a variety of perspectives meant to refine such abilities—but outside the ivory tower, what incentives exist for market-driven media to provide access to credible resources for all audiences? At what ultimate cost to civil society and American democracy is the entertainment-news-politics industrial media complex?
Tempting as it may be to dismiss Trump as a “reality show president” now without political influence—stripped of both presidential office and social media accounts—such a narrative would constitute yet another “alternative fact” in the “Post-Truth” era. Rather, the very conspiratorial narratives of election fraud underpinning January 6’s call to arms emerged from the breakdown of news media’s idealized role within the American vision of democracy and exacerbated by a radical yet underexamined shift in the landscape of communications technology.
Without radical reimagination of media as an enterprise far more valuable to civil society than a profitable industry like any other, repetitions of January 6 will continue. After all, calls to teach “media literacy,” and the need for critical analytical skills as a bulwark against propaganda and disinformation, will contribute nothing as long as news platforms and media technology operate on a pre-Gutenberg logic, barring access to truths locked away behind inaccessible walls.
Dr. Amanda E. Rogers is a fellow on non-state armed groups at The Century Foundation. She is an internationally renowned expert on media, propaganda, and transnational political violence. Her current research focuses on global white supremacists’ strategic campaign of infiltrating the military and law enforcement over the last fifty years. You can find her on Twitter as @MsEntropy.
The situation has become more perilous
The scenes from the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, were harrowing, but not surprising to those who warned that extremist movements were metastasizing, and the federal government was failing to grasp the threat. The ideals of the far right were supercharged throughout President Donald Trump’s term—by his racism, his tacit support of extremists, and his claims that the election was stolen. For those paying attention, January 6 was a disaster foretold.
The mob that day—neo-Nazis, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, militias, and a host of everyday “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) supporters—turned against democracy, invading the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power. Images of the Confederate flag in those hallowed hallways was a signifier of how much extremism had penetrated the mainstream, posing a significant threat to American democracy.
One year later, the situation has become even more perilous. Extremist movements are stronger, conspiracy networks larger, and elements of the GOP more radical, with some elected officials spreading extremist views. The prosecution of insurrectionists has not shut down groups like the racist Proud Boys and anti-government Oath Keepers, or likeminded allies who thrive online and on the streets.
The barriers that once existed between divergent forms of far-right extremism continue to melt away. Seeing militiamen among the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017 was novel; it is now commonplace. That is true also of the extremist landscape, made up of overlapping networks, where different ideologies meld together and are shared among online communities. The old world, populated by groups with card-carrying members, has given way to sprawling multinational online communities, some of which share manuals on bomb-making, ghost guns, and other material to prepare for violent attacks.
Most worrying is the growing acceptance of extremist ideas among conservatives. The QAnon conspiracy cult, which claims Democrats run child-trafficking rings, has seen significant growth over the last year. Even though the user “Q” hasn’t posted since 2020, polls show around a quarter of Republicans believe the conspiracy.
The “Great Replacement” conspiracy, which posits that white people are being “replaced” in their home countries with people of color, is being spread by powerful conservatives, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Trump advisor Stephen Miller. This conspiracy is an example of the white-supremacist thinking that inspired the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque attacks, which killed fifty-one people, and the El Paso Walmart massacre, which killed twenty-three people.
There is no question that Trump bears much of the blame for stoking these conspiratorial fires. He decimated American social norms, made racism and anti-immigrant hatred mainstream, and spread noxious conspiracies that had global impacts. Some political scientists now place the Republican Party, which was once a center-right party, in the same bucket as far-right parties like Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Hungary’s Fidesz party.
But the most dangerous thing Trump has done is undermine the nation’s faith in democracy by pushing the idea that his electoral “win” was stolen. A considerable number of Republicans have bought into the idea that elections are no longer free and fair and that January 6 was a patriotic protest that simply got a little wild. Consensus over the seriousness of January 6 does not bridge America’s partisan divide, as the failure to establish a bipartisan inquiry into the events of that day revealed.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2022, extremism will continue to grow and be cause for concern, as will radicalization within the Republican Party. But nothing compares to the threat to our democracy, which the insurrectionists hoped to upend. Several states have already passed laws making it harder to vote, and conservative activists are working to undermine America’s election infrastructure, proposing changes that could put election results in the hands of partisan legislatures, rather than the popular vote. If the 2024 election ends up politicized in this way, what we saw on January 6 will seem quaint given the widespread unrest that will surely follow.
January 6’s impact on the Kyle Rittenhouse trial
One of the most important developments in the past year involved the right-wing media coverage of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was put on trial on charges of first-degree intentional and reckless homicide for the killing of two men at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. Throughout his trial and after his acquittal, mainstream and fringe right-wing media outlets alike treated Rittenhouse as a hero: a young man willing to stand his ground to assert his right to self-defense. In some cases, the coverage and the online conversation went further, treating Rittenhouse as an avenging angel, taking it upon himself to “clean up” the streets of supposedly dirty and violent protestors.
This coverage contrasts with the right-wing media sphere’s coverage of the US Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. At the time, rather than embracing the storming of the Capitol, cable outlets and internet personalities alike condemned the riots, and figures like the “QAnon Shaman” were not widely embraced beyond their niche communities. Nonetheless, the right-wing media coverage of January 6 helped set the stage for the coverage of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial later that year in important ways. Even as pundits condemned the Capitol riots, for example, they also claimed they were no worse than the looting and arson that had occurred at Black Lives Matter protests. Others condemned the Capitol storming but also suggested it was the result of antifa agent provocateurs. These explanations shifted the blame back to the left, underscoring the idea that left-wing activists were the ultimate threats to democracy, not the Trump supporters who were present at the Capitol.
Thus, the right-wing media coverage around January 6 helped bolster the narratives that made Rittenhouse into a symbolic hero, and Rittenhouse’s acquittal was read by many on the far right as permission to escalate violence at rallies for progressive causes. The media sphere suggested that violence at the US Capitol building was not supported, but implicitly – and, at times, explicitly – suggested that violence against left-wing protestors was necessary. In this way, 2021 marked an important year because it saw the mainstream right-wing media embracing political violence against anti-racist protestors. Indeed, while the Rittenhouse trial was a media frenzy, the embrace of political violence was felt more pervasively through the surge of deadly vehicle ramming attacks against Black Lives Matter protestors across the country. These attacks are not the work of a single extremist group. But, as with the coverage around January 6 and Rittenhouse’s trial alike, they suggest that extremist threats to the democratic right to protest are increasingly mainstream.
Becca Lewis is a PhD candidate in communication theory and research at Stanford University, where she researches the politics of media technologies with a focus on the messaging and recruitment strategies of right-wing digital media creators.
Being clear-eyed about a dire threat to democracy
One year after Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol to overturn the results of a fair election, the U.S. finds itself weaker and more prone to falling under hard right authoritarian control than it has been at any point during any of our lives. According to a November 2021 survey by PRRI, 68 percent of Republicans believe that Trump won that election and that enemies of MAGA stole it from them. Within that subgroup, over a third believe that political violence will be needed to remedy such purported wrongdoing. QAnon adherents still stagger around in an internet-addled daze. Neofascist gangs continue to fight in our streets, and Americans have become inured to seeing footage of it. Mainstream pundits on FOX News bring up talking points about the teaching of “critical race theory” and immigration that only fringe, racist forums used to entertain.
The Democrats have failed to adequately diagnose the radicalized state of their opposition and find themselves in the process of losing their tenuous grasp on all three branches of government. Hard-right authoritarians seek to gain control of the courts and the schools, and have already taken significant steps to achieve those ends. Those of us who cherish democracy and aspire to live in a country that is fair to all people must be clear-eyed about how dire threat of hard-right authoritarianism has become – and how much worse it could potentially get. American political parties have evolved substantially throughout their history, and we have no reason to believe that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is wrong by asserting that she represents the base of her party, rather than the fringe.
Michael E. Hayden is senior investigative reporter and spokesperson at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A conspiracy theory of everything
The evolution of domestic extremism over the course of 2021 was directly impacted by COVID-19, as ideologies became enmeshed with extant health freedom and anti-vaccine conspiracy movements. In the past, militia movements or anti-government extremists had little to do with traditionally progressive movements devoted to opposing supposedly dangerous new technology or fighting the “Big Pharma” conspiracy. But when the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world indoors, these movements merged on social media. People who loathed former US President Donald Trump, but were against vaccine mandates or 5G internet, would join online groups that reinforced their beliefs and be pointed in the direction of other groups they might agree with that could send them further up the ladder of conspiracy theories and outrage. They would eventually stumble on groups or communities devoted to unabashedly pro-Trump theories like QAnon or the notion that the 2020 election was stolen.
As 2021 dawned, these disparate movements had essentially merged to become a conspiracy theory of everything, and this uber-conspiracy steadily became more mainstream as Republicans refused to condemn the actions of January 6 and offered increasingly incoherent attacks on masking and vaccination mandates. It’s now become perfectly “normal” for a nominally progressive Bernie Sanders voter to be equally devoted to both exposing the “truth” about Trump having “actually won” the election and Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates forming an unholy alliance to vaccinate babies with tracking chips. These acolytes are now driving an industry of grift and social media influence, increasingly encroaching into the real world by taking their beliefs to school board meetings and local elections.
This union of varying conspiracists comes down to the same principle—not wanting anyone to tell you what to do, and thinking that you personally are too special and important to follow the rules and listen to what the media and experts recommend. In the words of “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” said Daniel Romer, research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, in an interview with the American Psychological Association. “They can be psychologically reassuring, especially in uncertain times.”
This desperate need to feel important will continue well into 2022. It’s inevitable that the “conspiracy theory of everything” will continue to suck in more “politically homeless” anti-vaccine and anti-mask progressives who refuse to believe anything but “their own research,” which will push them into an alliance with fervent Trump supporters who believe the former president rightfully won the 2020 election. It will simply evolve into standard issue Republican politics.
But on the flipside, as the COVID-19 and election-conspiracy nexus becomes more mainstream, it will become too vanilla and staid for some conspiracy promoters. Those people will take the most esoteric elements of these theories and turn them into smaller and more intense tangents—one of which can already be seen in the Negative48 cult currently prowling Dallas, Texas, searching for the deceased John F. Kennedy Jr. and Michael Jackson.
Both these tracks of extremism are dangerous and extremely compelling to people whose own lives don’t provide them with enough excitement and community. If they didn’t get enough on January 6, they’ll get it somewhere else—and they’ll demand equal watching by journalists and non-journalists alike.
Mike Rothschild is a journalist and author of The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything, published in June 2021.