As we watched events unfold at the Capitol on January 6, for many of us the shock was not just at the violence itself, but also that the insurrection was so easy. The rioters present had talked extensively on publicly accessible social media about their plans to storm the Capitol and commit violence, and private citizens and law enforcement agencies had raised concerns with Capitol and DC police. Why wasn’t this prevented, and why were we unprepared to respond?
While others analyze the security failures of last Wednesday, we still face tense days until the inauguration and certainly afterward. Fortunately, social media still holds plenty of information about plans for more violence, and this time we can be more prepared. Social media is an invaluable source of intelligence; it is critical we take threats made on social media seriously.
All kinds of known groups were involved in the planning for January 6, from the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers to individual Trump loyalists and devotees of the QAnon conspiracy theory. They planned on Parler, the Twitter-like platform that Amazon, Apple, and Google booted over the weekend. They planned on anonymous message boards like 4chan and 8kun. They planned on thedonald.win, a refuge for Trump supporters who had been banned from Reddit. They also planned on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Their posts were widely seen, and their threats of violence were unhidden. One poster on theDonald.net wrote, “If There Is No Blood on the Streets Of DC Today We Are Done.” Though the far-right social media landscape has been in chaos since the insurrection, many continue to plan their next steps.
The profile of activities and participants has now shifted. Fear and paranoia have suffused most discussions about further action. Those who participated on Wednesday worry about the consequences they may face if they are identified. Calls for new marches and protests are almost immediately accused of being “false flag” or “honeypot” operations designed to trick Trump supporters into showing up and being arrested.
Others feel betrayed. They expected to be hailed as patriots but have been condemned by some Republican legislators and disavowed within the movement by those who falsely attribute the violence to antifa.
The lack of success at overturning the election has only intensified the resolve of others who see this as a moment for more aggressive steps. In the latter half of last week, calls for civil war circulated freely on Parler. “Next time, come armed” was a common sentiment. On 8kun, such a post came complete with links to downloadable files on “Civil War tools,” including guides to making homemade silencers, lock-picking, and survival techniques. While the social media sites now hosting the far right are more obscure, they are not secret; these posts are designed to reach an audience.
Calls for armed marches in the week leading up to the inauguration have been circulating, but the digital chaos of the past few days has made organization less clear. Many of the hashtags, groups, and people tied to false election conspiracies have been booted from mainstream social media. Parler has effectively been shut down. While committed followers have found refuge in many alternative platforms, including Gab, Clouthub, Telegram, and others, a coordinated movement for action has not yet emerged.
For many, Trump’s own words were the directives they followed. On social media, every tweet was broken down, analyzed, and scoured for clues. For example, his final tweet before Twitter permanently banned him was “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” Across social media, this was interpreted by his followers as a sign that the inauguration would not take place. This drew on conspiracies that martial law would be declared or the Insurrection Act invoked, that the military would begin mass arrests of those in power, or that Trump would otherwise be appointed to remain president. Others read into different elements of the conspiracy, inferring that Trump would be out of town and in a safe location, thereby clearing the way for citizen and military action against Biden and Congress on inauguration day.
After Trump’s social media deplatforming, his riotous supporters’ main guidance has disappeared. Trump still has plenty of traditional media access, though, and he is the wild card in determining what comes next. One call from him for action around the inauguration is all it would take to put organized planning into motion across social media.
Even without signals from Trump, threats are still present and diverse. In addition to targeting Washington, DC, armed marches are planned in all 50 state capitals. Remaining evidence from the lead-up to January 6 also offers a warning. Maps that were circulating around Trump supporters online included the locations of media and tech company offices and of the Chinese Embassy in DC. The responses from media and tech companies have enraged much of the Trump base on alternative social media, and these organizations should be prepared for threats and perhaps violence in the coming days.
Will all these threatened events come to pass? It is hard to say. The anger is real, but these forums are also the place of big talk that does not always manifest as action. However, if we have learned anything from the insurrection, it is to take these threats seriously and be prepared to address and counter them. Social media is not separate from “the real world”; we have seen digital language manifest as physical violence. When citizen monitors, the media, and law enforcement warn of online threats, every organization must take it seriously. We cannot be caught off guard again.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at [email protected].
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