Much of the January 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters was posted online in real time on social media, like Facebook and Twitter. The president and members of Congress reacted as the attack happened on those same platforms.
Now, those pictures from inside the Capitol are helping the FBI track down people in the mob. Trump has been banned from Twitter. The big social media companies have been cracking down on the groups who participated in the attack.
Megan Squire is a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina and was recently named a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She’s been tracking right-wing groups online for years, using data science to learn about how extremism works online.
“There is an enormous diversity in types of groups and ideologies, different grievances, things that they’re annoyed about,” she said in an interview with Spectrum News 1. “It’s a rich tapestry of hate.”
Here’s the transcript of Squire’s interview with Spectrum News 1 on Tuesday, edited for brevity:
What did you see in your research leading up to the January 6 attack on the Capitol?
Really it goes back to the election period, the period-post election up to the inauguration. There were a lot of eyeballs of people who do my kind of work looking at the online spaces because there was so much anger and confusion and disinformation and heated rhetoric around the result of the election, particularly disaffected Trump supporters of all stripes upset about what they perceive to be a stolen election.
A lot of us were very concerned and were watching those spaces very closely to see if the rhetoric would get heated enough to start meeting in person, which it did. There were numerous "Stop the Steal" events that were organized online and were carried out in real life. And of course that culminated in the events we saw on the 6th where there was the insurrection in the Capitol and violence, and people actually died.
That was a long process to get there and a lot of us were really looking at that and very concerned with what we were seeing.
A lot of people were surprised by what happened on January 6. Were you?
I was shocked and disappointed, but I can’t say I was surprised. The rhetoric around storming the capitol is something that is decades old. There’s a sort of persistent fantasy for years and years about exactly this type of action. What was new was the fact that it was around this president, at this moment, and he kind of stoked it a little bit.
A lot of us were holding our breath and hoping it wouldn’t happen. But again, it was not something we could say was surprising in any way.
Since then, we’ve heard about more threats of violence. What are you looking at?
There’s been a couple of good developments. Some of those are, the general feeling of most of the country and in the media about the events of the 6th have been uniformly negative. That puts a negative pressure on future events in the near term. So people are not signing right back up to go back out again. There’s a lot of law enforcement pressure and just general social pressure against doing that. So, that’s good.
Second, a lot of the leaders of these groups, Proud Boys for example, some of the militia types, the Three-Percenters, those types of groups are telling their members to calm down. They’re doing that for a variety of reasons, some of which are ridiculous like saying it’s a "false flag," to save their energy for later.
In the short term, they’re calling off their people, which is a good thing. Around the very near-term, the inauguration, the time shortly after that, big targets that you saw on the 6th, D.C. for example, there’s not going to be enough energy there for a second attempt.
But there’s some concern about smaller targets or grievances against local, regional, states, that kind of thing like governors. Folks that have been in the news or had targets put on their backs. I’m thinking about state governors around the reopen movement or the Gov. Whitmire kidnapping incident. There could be smaller events that are more targeted like that.
Big players like Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on some of these groups. Where do you think people are going now?
This has been a long time coming for some of these social media companies. I can’t tell you how many op-eds I’ve signed and how many really strongly worded emails I’ve sent around the fact that President Trump was spreading so much disinformation on Twitter, the fact that he was removed after this, it was a long time coming. It was good but it was a little too late.
Other social media companies also have taken measures in recent days and months, I’m looking at Facebook, YouTube, they are usually at the center of these kind of incidents when they happen. We can point to a lot of radicalization that happened on those types of platforms.
Because of the de-platforming, the removal from those platforms, in recent days, a lot of these figures are moving towards more niche platforms, newer places. Some of them are even putting up their own websites.
It can be challenging because when you take a jar of marbles and drop them on the floor, they kind of scatter and go everywhere. But there’s also some opportunities. It can be more difficult to track them but at the same time some of these platforms make it actually easier to collect data, especially public-facing data, so we can learn more.
A lot of times when users move to some of these niche and unknown platforms they make a lot of mistakes. They don’t really know what they’re doing, so it can provide a way into these groups and kind of expose what they’re discussing when they might not realize they’re being watched.
There are a lot of groups lumped into what many think of “right-wing extremism.” What are these groups that you try to keep track of?
There is an enormous diversity in types of groups and ideologies, different grievances, things that they’re annoyed about. That was actually one of the first research questions that I looked at when I began collecting and analyzing data in this space. I was curious about the crossover in ideological bent between the different types of groups.
It is a rich tapestry of hate. It turns out there’s many ways to be a bigot, there are many ways to hate and there are many ways to have violent extremism in your rhetoric.
There’s everything in this space from hard-boiled neo-Nazis, skinheads, Klan members, all the way to folks who want to violently overthrow the government and replace it with a monarchy or some kind of fascist dictatorship.
Every way you can imagine to hate someone, there’s a group doing exactly that. It can be a complicated space trying to figure out the overlap between all of those groups.