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Violent threats ripple through far-right internet forums ahead of protest

Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins
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Clash following the "Million MAGA March" on November 14, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Online forums popular with conservatives and far-right activists have been filled in recent days with threats and expectations of violence ahead of a planned protest in Washington on Wednesday to coincide with congressional certification of the election.

In anticipation of possible violence, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has asked residents to stay away from the downtown area where protesters will be marching. Every city police officer will be on duty, and the National Guard has been mobilized.

"In regards to the protests planned for January 6th, the violent rhetoric we're seeing online is at a new level," said Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy Inc., a global research organization that studies disinformation and extremism. "There are endorsements of violence across all of the platforms."

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A new report from Advance Democracy chronicled a wide variety of posts about the protests, including many that anticipated violence from other groups and called for people to arm themselves.

On Twitter, QAnon-related accounts posted conspiracy theories alleging that Black Lives Matter and antifa activists were going to kill supporters of President Donald Trump at the protest and suggested that protesters arm themselves Wednesday, calling it "Independence Day."

On TikTok, several videos with hundreds of thousands of views promoted violence at the rally. A user with a militia-related avatar told viewers to carry guns even though firearms are prohibited in the areas of the city where the demonstrations are taking place.

"Take your motherf---ing guns. That's the whole point of going," the person said.

Threats have also been posted to Parler, a Twitter alternative favored by conservatives and users who have been banned from larger platforms for hate speech, misinformation or other policy violations. Thousands of posts included hashtags associated with a second civil war.

On TheDonald, a far-right message board that formed after its community was banned from Reddit, moderators were promoting some calls for violence.

Calls for violence were among the top five comments on more than half of the posts discussing congressional certification of votes, while 12 percent "explicitly endorsed violence in the main post itself," according to the Advance Democracy report.

A representative comment suggested that people "travel in packs and do not let them disarm someone without stacking bodies."

Half of the top posts about the Electoral College certification on TheDonald's landing page included unmoderated calls for violence, according to the report.

The online threats target both Democrats and Republicans, identified as "traitors" for acknowledging the election results, Jones said.

"Much of the anger behind the violent rhetoric online is based on the false belief, propagated by President Trump and echoed by his most ardent supporters in the House and Senate, that there was widespread election fraud in November," Jones said. "This false narrative only seems to be gaining momentum. Our concern, of course, is that the violent online rhetoric resulting from the president's false claims produces real-life violence."

While spreading near-constant misinformation about the election and false claims that he actually won, Trump has also been promoting the protest for weeks, tweeting about it at least six times and suggesting that he would make an appearance.

The threats of violence have online extremism experts concerned.

"The threats are coming from what seems like every direction, so it's hard to triangulate and evaluate everything," said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who tracks white nationalists online.

"I'm getting a strong 'last stand' vibe from some of these groups," Squire said. "I hope they go quietly, but it seems like that is not what they want to do."

Calls to violence have also been pulled from anonymous QAnon fans on the depths of extremist websites like 8kun to viral posts on Twitter. L. Lin Wood, a lawyer and QAnon influencer, tweeted a link Monday to an 8kun-hosted document that openly advocated for civil war. It was retweeted over 25,000 times. The post was also shared by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a Trump donor, and Ron Watkins, who runs the QAnon hub 8kun, and it has been retweeted by Trump several times this week.

QAnon supporters have been looking forward to Wednesday for weeks, many of them believing in a legally impossible scenario in which Vice President Mike Pence extrajudicially overrides the results of the election in an elaborate ceremony that immediately causes civil unrest. QAnon believers, who call it the "Pence Card," believe Trump has promoted gatherings in Washington to effectively kick off a civil war after the fictitious event.

Realizing that their dreams of overriding the Electoral College will almost certainly be dashed Wednesday, Watkins and Wood have soured on Pence and begun circulating fake email correspondence claiming that Pence and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plotted to kick Trump off the Republican ticket in 2016.

The documents, however, were created in 2016 by an internet prankster named Marco Chacon, who created intentionally over-the-top fake documents hoping to dupe conspiracy theorists.

"It's an absurd story told in an absurd manner with absurd trappings," Chacon said.

Chacon said it's unclear how Watkins and Wood found the forged emails, but conspiracy theorists have provided a substantial traffic boost to the years-old fake documents in the last several days.

Chacon said he's not surprised that QAnon supporters have used his faked documents to create another scapegoat for Trump's inability to overturn the election results.

"This is a testament to the power of confirmation bias," Chacon said. "QAnon supporters literally can't tell the difference between truth and fantasy when it comes to anything with a partisan valence."

But with the "Pence Card" falling apart, he is worried what will happen as QAnon supporters run out of magical thinking.

"It seems like they've decided there's nothing but civil war," Chacon said.