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President Donald Trump has instructed his followers to not engage in political violence following the deadly riots on the Capitol on Jan 6. But the video in which he made the plea has barely made a dent in the groundswell of extremism that was seen last week and has proliferated online since.
A vast swath of the president’s diehard base in MAGA Nation — the conspiracy theorists, the militia members, and the followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory — has disregarded Trump’s Wednesday remarks. Instead, they are dissecting his phrases and using those cues as rallying cries, doubling down on their plans to keep the MAGA movement going after Trump leaves the White House.
The absence of a formal Trump concession to President-elect Joe Biden has emboldened their chatter and bolstered their ideology. So, too, has the clamp-down by social media platforms on MAGA extremist content — Trump’s own posts included — which has given white nationalist and unapologetically fascist groups openings to recruit Trump fans to their cause.
They’ve claimed that elite forces have started purging conservatives from the internet. They’ve argued that the riots were actually false flag operations. Within the QAnon community, they’ve gone so far as to suggest that the upcoming inauguration will be a cover for Trump to announce the long-elusive mass arrests of government bureaucrat pedophiles.
The president’s pleas against violence may have bought him some goodwill politically, as he faces a Senate trial following his second impeachment. But the fact that it’s fallen on deaf ears among his followers illustrates the degree to which that community has fundamentally rejected the reality that the country will soon enter a post-Trump era.
“Despite Trump’s speech yesterday we are still seeing excessive use of violent rhetoric and some organization of offline activity planned for the days around the inauguration, not only in Washington, D.C., but also other cities spread across the U.S.,” said Chloe Colliver, head of the research unit at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism.
“It doesn’t appear that Trump’s speech has got the message across to those online users who are interested in mobilizing towards violence or potentially dangerous activity in the days around the inauguration,” she added. “We’re seeing concerning levels of planning, promotion and organization of offline activities that might turn harmful and violent.”
At the root of these extremists’ continued fervor is a key observation: Trump still has not acknowledged that the election was legitimate and admitted his defeat to Biden. In his video on Wednesday, the president did not acknowledge he had lost the November election. And by not doing so, the outgoing president is seen as giving tacit approval to his followers’ plans to wage war against the political establishment.
In the hours after Trump’s video was released on Wednesday, Telegram channels with thousands of subscribers started to post memes claiming the president’s words were an effort to hoodwink the media and Democrats, while urging his followers to keep preparing for potential violent clashes.
Others posted videos of military personnel gathering in Washington and elsewhere as a sign that “The Storm” — a QAnon-related conspiracy involving mass executions of Trump critics — was imminent. More spread rumors that Black Lives Matter supporters had instigated the recent riots in D.C., and called on MAGA followers to head to the nation’s capital to protect the current president.
“Appeals for calm from political leaders in the U.S. do not appear to be reducing the volume or intensity of far-right propaganda,” said Adam Hadley, director of Tech Against Terrorism, a nonprofit group that tracks online terrorist content.
QAnon supporters have found quite the opposite in Trump’s words, viewing any utterance by the president as confirmation of their faith. One popular meme at the moment suggests that somehow, through some extralegal magical shenanigans, Biden will not be able to take the oath of office next week.
“These movements are currently caught in debate between members regarding next steps and what the future may hold for their groups,” said Jared Holt, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab.
Some of the most extreme groups have tried to take advantage of the online confusion. In at least five channels on Telegram, the encrypted messaging service, self-proclaimed fascists outlined how best to recruit Trump supporters to their cause, according to Tech Against Terrorism and a review of the social media activity by POLITICO.
In point-by-point memos circulated within these channels — which often had thousands of members — the activists called on followers not to overtly mention Nazism, but gently nudge pro-Trump online users toward more extreme views.
Part of that strategy included highlighting how much white nationalism had in common with the Trump movement, along with claims that the mainstream conservative cause had failed them in their hour of need. As part of the tactics, the posters suggest joining mainstream conservative online groups and then contacting the administrators of those digital channels to push a hardcore fascist agenda.
“Our goal is to get them watching one of our docs,” read one of the playbooks, which had yet to garner much traction across Telegram. “This might seem odd, but it works.”
The online radicalization marks the latest in a monthslong campaign within the far right that dates back well before the November presidential election. But with days left before Trump leaves office, the most extreme messaging from far-right campaigners may not reach more mainstream conservative voters online.
Within private Facebook groups, encrypted messaging services and, in the most extreme cases, invite-only message boards off-limits to people outside the far-right movement, campaigners have spent months promoting online memes, coordinated talking points and other pro-Trump messaging that has come to dominate much of the digital conversation around the end of the Trump presidency.
Yet as the major platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have clamped down on such content—and Parler has been booted from Amazon’s web servers—extremists have been forced to fringe networks like Telegram and Gab, limiting how far they can spread their potentially violent messaging to more mainstream conservative voters.
Claire Wardle, co-founder of FirstDraftNews, a nonprofit that works with media outlets to track online disinformation, said that such “deplatforming” of the most radical voices from the likes of Facebook and Twitter had curbed extremists’ ability to attract people to their cause.
“What they’re trying to do is all about recruitment,” she said, adding that the majority of the online audience was not following them to their obscure platforms, likely curbing their growth.
“If they are not able to reach people on traditional social media with their messages,” Wardle added, “they won’t be able to attract the golf-shirt-wearing dads or the QAnon-believing moms.”