From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today: Over the past few days, social media companies have raced to remove the president and those who organized the attack on the Capitol from their platforms. My colleague, Sheera Frenkel, on whether that will diminish the chance of violence or make it harder to prevent.
It’s Wednesday, January 13.
Sheera, last time that we talked to you, you told us about how supporters of President Trump were preparing and planning online in very knowable ways for what became a violent attack on the Capitol on January 6. And so I want to ask you what’s happened to those same people in the days since, and whether we now feel that the risk of future violence is higher or lower than before.
So the same people that took part in those riots on January 6 are now trying to find their footing in this new world. What happens when a group of people do what, really, they thought was impossible and breach the halls of Congress — make it inside, hold court there for hours and then leave, many of them to post their videos and photographs online — they want to build on that momentum. And they’re currently trying to figure out what the best way is to grow their cause, which is really to see Donald Trump serve another term in office — to see, in their minds, the rightful president assume control of the government.
So what does that actually look like in the wake of a physical attack that, as you said, was in its own terrifying way successful but has resulted in a tremendous online crackdown?
So in the hours after the siege, you see a lot of these guys going on Twitter and Facebook. And they’re posting celebratory images showing how awesome they look as the speaker of the House or roaming the halls of Congress. And they’re clearly really excited about what they’ve done. But by the next morning, some of these accounts start to disappear.
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Overnight, Twitter announced it purged more than 70,000 accounts associated with QAnon content.
At first they’re just taking down photos and videos on places like Facebook and Twitter.
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Facebook meantime saying today they’ve removed over 600 militarized social movements.
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President Donald Trump has found himself effectively de-platformed.
Around this time, Trump himself is knocked off one social media platform after another.
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From Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch.
And then whole groups — Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers — realize they’ve gone too far and that social media isn’t going to allow them to post these overtly violent images online. And they start to migrate to more fringe places, like Gab and Parler.
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The niche social platform Parler, which has drawn conservatives as well as far-right extremists, saw a surge in downloads, rising to number one in Apple’s App Store.
And so they think Parler is going to be the answer. They think President Trump is going to join them there. But —
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Then this morning, Parler went dark after losing access to Amazon Web Services, which hosts the content.
Within a day, they find that that’s taken down as well. It was being hosted by Amazon. Amazon very quickly pulled the plug. And all of the sudden, Parler is inaccessible.
And so in a matter of days, they find themselves booted not just off of Twitter and Facebook, but now off Parler. And Gab, which is one of the only sites sort of online remaining, is so flooded with requests by new users that it’s just unbearably slow. It takes minutes — sometimes five, six minutes — to load a single page on Gab.
Wow. So it’s basically just over-clogged with right-wing conservatives who have been booted off these other platforms?
Yeah. Gab becomes — if you remember the days of dial-up internet, where you would just kind of sit and watch a page load for minutes at a time, that’s what Gab starts to feel like. And so they realized that they have to move elsewhere. And this idea builds that, why don’t they go to the encrypted parts of the web, to apps that have already been around for a long time like Telegram and Signal, and build a following there? And it happened so quick. I was in one group for the Proud Boys, which is a far right-wing militia. I watched them grow 8,000 members in a matter of days.
And what are you seeing happening in these encrypted platforms, in the Signals and the Telegrams, as all these conservative activists and agitators and plotters are now flooding in?
So if you imagine the web as like this one big ball, and on the surface of it you have Facebook and Twitter and all the places that you and your friends and your family hang out. And then you go one layer deeper, and maybe there’s Parler and Gab — which, I don’t know, they’re less known. But anybody can join them, really.
One layer deeper than that you have the apps like Telegram and Signal. They’re harder to find. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for. You have to join. They can be inundated by messages and internal codes and language. And you have to really know that you want to be there in order to join. So when people get there, they suddenly become part of this inner circle and this inner group where anything goes. It’s an encrypted channel. You can say whatever you want. You can assume that law enforcement will not be able to trace it back to you. And you feel like you’re in this small cloistered community of like-minded individuals who believe the same things you do and who want the same things you want.
And so their language, their rhetoric just becomes, day after day, more extreme. They start to see themselves as the true believers, the true soldiers of Trump, who have been kicked off and banned and silenced by the mainstream platforms and have now found their way to these encrypted channels where they can plan what they say is real revolution.
And so what is the nature of their planning and of this embittered and maybe somewhat emboldened conversation in the days since January 6?
At this point, there are several dozen militia groups on Telegram and Signal that I’m following. And I’m watching their plans. But really, they’re all over the map. Some of them want to see a March on the Capitol, on Washington, D.C. starting on January 16. Others are talking about marching on all 50 U.S. capitals. And in the subtext of those conversations, they’re saying things like, come armed at your own discretion. And so it’s clear that there’s a real opportunity and potential for violence there. They’ve also talked about efforts to have protests in front of tech companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook.
And I’ve seen calls for actions against news organizations ranging from The New York Times to CNN and The Washington Post. So they’re really still making up their mind on what they want to do next.
I wonder — and I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to romanticize this in any way or promote it. But is there anything you can read from some of these exchanges that feels illuminating?
In my mind, one of the exchanges I saw last night that I thought was sort of telling about their level of planning and the way they think about this was between two members in one militia group who wanted to travel across state lines. They wanted to march on a capitol, a state capitol building. And they were going back and forth among themselves about, what arms could be legally carry across state lines?
And so they’re searching through local laws to say, right, well, in this state, such and such a weapon is legal. In that state, it’s this other weapon. If we transport it across state lines and we get stopped by a highway patrolman, are we in trouble? They’re not amateurs. I think there’s the sense that they don’t know what they’re doing or that they’re acting off the cuff. And that isn’t the case. By some of these groups, there is very serious planning happening.
Right. What you’re describing reminds me of the planning that you said you saw before January 6, this rather detailed discussion of what could be brought on a plane to Washington, how it could be hidden. And it sounds pretty far-fetched on the page until you realize that that planning happened, and it resulted in this assault on the Capitol.
Right. And we’re seeing exactly that same discussion. The only difference I would note now is that they’re still on the fence about whether or not they’re going to do it. They’re planning for this. They’re casting different dates. They’re saying, should we do it on the 16th? Should we go on the 19th? Should we maybe wait until the 20th?
And I think a lot of that confusion is because until now, they have seen themselves as taking their marching orders from President Trump. When Trump Tweeted that January 6 was a key day, that Congress ratifying the votes was a key moment, that for them was the sign they needed that that was the day to come to the Capitol. Right now, in the wake of what I think in their minds is a sign-off from the president, they have been arguing among themselves about what they should do next.
So they have no clear orders this time, and they have no real clear leadership, it sounds like.
Yeah. And what’s interesting — I’m curious, I think people will be studying the effects of this for years to come, because when they were booted off places like Facebook and Twitter, they also took away the ability for these groups to kind of see one another and transparently talk and see what the others were planning. And now, as they become fractured, you see these kind of disparate efforts happening. And they’re struggling.
There was a conversation yesterday morning where one of them said, I’m so confused. Just tell me what to do already. Do you want me to come to Washington on the 16th? Do you want me to go to Virginia on the 17th? I need to know how much gas I’ve got to put in my car, and I need fuel reserves. He was really frustrated, because he felt like he wasn’t getting the clear orders that he used to get from centralized groups in places like Facebook and Twitter.
It feels like the de-platforming of these groups — the online crackdown we have seen over the past few days since January 6 — has left all of these people less organized because of the way that they’ve been spread out across these encrypted services. But does that mean there are fewer of them engaged in this? Or is that not really knowable?
I don’t think we know if there are fewer engaged. They’re definitely trying to attract more people. I think that the leaders of some of these militias are really worried right now that they won’t be able to attract new followers in the same way that they could when they can post on Twitter and Facebook. And they need new followers to survive. They need people to be constantly coming into their movement.
So I watched this interesting thing happen earlier this week, where there was a discussion on how to attract people from QAnon, the conspiracy movement, into militias. Of course, there were many QAnon supporters at the rally on January 6. Some of them rioted and stormed the Capitol building. And so for some of these militias, they see this kind of ripe audience of potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans who believe in the QAnon conspiracy who might be willing right now, in a point of frustration, to join militias and actually take action on some of those conspiracies that they’ve been believing for years now.
And so what are these organizers doing to try to recruit members of QAnon, supporters of QAnon, this baseless conspiracy?
They’re self-consciously adopting a lot of the QAnon language, that the world is run by this deep state cabal and that they are secretly harvesting young children, trafficking in young children, and that if people join militias, they can fight that. And they’re trying to draw them into their militias by putting online the digital equivalent of a calling card everywhere they can. And they would say, follow me everywhere, because we don’t know what’s going to come down next. And then once you follow them there, once you’re on their encrypted Telegram channel or Signal, they then give you six or seven alternate accounts to follow, just in case that one gets taken down, because they know that it’s very likely that some of these will get taken down.
I’m struck, Sheera, by just how adaptable the leaders of this are, by how much they are planning for the next crackdown. And it feels like the crackdowns are just leading them to broaden the number of places that they think they need to be. It’s not really stopping them.
They’re planning for a long-term war.
And these are people who are digital natives. They have grown up on the internet. A lot of them formed these communities when they were teenagers. And so being very online and very flexible about how they are online is just part of their DNA. It’s part of how they think about the world. They know they need that in order to be successful.
We’ll be right back.
So Sheera, a very important question would seem to be, has this crackdown that you just described as sending these organizers of January 6 off into many of the darkest corners of the internet — has that made it harder for law enforcement to do its job, which is to monitor their planning, their discussions, their thinking?
Absolutely. As these groups become fractured and spread not just to different parts of the web, but also to different channels within each app that they’re using, that is that many more places that law enforcement have to constantly be monitoring. I spend hours of my day looking at these Telegram and Signal channels, and even I find it hard to keep up with the pace of communication in some of these networks.
There was one group I was in this morning, a QAnon group, which, I think I counted close to 400 messages in the span of an hour. And if you’re law enforcement and you’re trying to monitor and figure out if someone is really making a bomb threat or if another person is actually carrying a weapon, keeping up with the sheer volume has got to be really difficult.
Is that to say that perhaps it was easier at all to monitor these groups when everyone understood that they were congregating in one or two places? For example, a Parler, which felt like a hotbed in the past couple of months.
I spoke to someone from the F.B.I. a couple of days ago who has been tracing far-right groups for the last decade or so. And the way he described it is actually much like we think of it as reporters, which is what you saw on Twitter and Facebook was just the surface level. But it gave you clues to what they were thinking and what they were saying. And so if there was a new date that they were rallying around, like January 6 for instance, you would see that trickle out to Facebook and to Twitter, and you would know what to look for in other places. It was like they were leaving behind little breadcrumbs of what they were actually planning in some other places. And now that that’s gone, it’s that much harder for law enforcement.
They have to be penetrating these groups at a much deeper level to be able to gain the same type of intelligence. And these networks are end-to-end encrypted, so you have to be in them to see what’s being said. But even once you’re in them, tracing them back to a specific person is difficult. Most of these people are using burner phones. They’re not using their real names. They are signing up for these accounts through ways that mask their identities. Now, I’m going to note that these networks — Telegram, Signal — they’ve been around for years. Journalists use them. Human rights workers use them. They’re incredibly important as a safe means to communicate. But no one knows what to do when they start to get used for people planning for violence.
So what kind of hope do federal and local law enforcement have in really policing these encrypted channels that you are describing, especially if — I’m remembering what you said earlier — that many of the organizers are envisioning action in multiple state capitols?
So part of the reason that the organizers are moving towards this approach of launching marches and protests in all 50 state capitols is that they really want to try and make it as hard as possible for local law enforcement to plan ahead and stop them. They know that the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security and local police officers have some expertise in tracking them online. They know how to use Telegram. They know how to use Signal. They’ve used them before in investigations.
But imagine you’re a local police officer in a state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, and you now have to follow dozens of Signal groups and perhaps hundreds of Telegram channels to figure out exactly what these militias are planning next. By dividing their efforts like this, they’re really making it as hard as possible for law enforcement to decide what to do ahead of these rallies.
So that is the police side of this, Sheera. And now I want to turn to for just a moment to the participants that you have been studying in these new dispersed channels and whether you think that they see themselves as more capable and determined of future violence, knowing that they were — this is a weird word to use — but successful — on January 6. Do they feel emboldened? Did being able to get inside the Capitol make them think that they can do it again and that they should try to do it again, based on what you’re seeing?
Absolutely. Among the most fringe and extreme militia groups that exist here in the United States, there is absolutely a feeling that they have been emboldened by their success on January 6. It was successful beyond their wildest dreams. And they see those optics of them not just entering the Capitol, but then leaving, as a great recruiting tool. Some of that — I will say, just the tiniest bit has been mitigated by the arrest of some of those rioters in the week following January 6.
And as we’ve seen more arrests building, there have been more mentions in some of these private groups of oh, wait, it looks like the F.B.I. are actually getting serious and cracking down on anyone who entered the Capitol building. But it’s an afterthought. I mean, the vast majority of them think that they got away scot-free. And now it’s like, how much further can we go? What more will we be able to get away with?
And I have to imagine that the social media crackdown is in no way seen as real punishment.
Well, they were expecting Facebook and Twitter to crack down on them. They have been talking about this for some time. And again, we’re talking about the most fringe kind of militia groups right now. Among some of them, it’s almost a badge of honor to get kicked off of Facebook and Twitter. It shows that you really got under their skin and that you were successful, and that they had to get rid of you because you’re just too powerful. And so you’ve seen a lot of boasting among some of these groups of, oh, well, I had 20 Facebook accounts, and they shut down all 20 of them. Aren’t I, you know, all-powerful, that somewhere like Facebook had to shut down all my accounts and try and diminish my voice? There’s this real sense of kind of First Amendment rights being trampled on that is actually driving them to think even more boldly about what they can do on places like Telegram and Signal when they aren’t being monitored and they’re not scared of being shut down.
So to return to where we began, and given everything that you have told us, do you think at the end of the day that the crackdown that has followed January 6 — taking these people off the well-known social media platforms and taking their champion, President Trump, off these platforms as well — has that made it more or less likely that in the coming days, there’s going to be more violence?
I think that they’re in a moment of decision right now about what comes next this week. They haven’t made up their minds. Being on a private channel in some ways emboldens them to say whatever they want and to try to plan for the absolute sort of worst-case scenarios. But on the other hand, there’s a ton of media attention on them right now. They know the F.B.I. and the police are watching them, and so they could decide to bide their time.
And what do you mean, bide their time?
In the short-term, they’re trying to figure out if they can actually stop Biden from becoming president and whether they can do something in the next week that allows Trump to assume office. A lot of them are saying that that’s not possible. They’re kind of coming to the realization in this moment that what they planned on January 6 drew too much attention and that if they do anything in the next week, they’re going to get arrested. And instead, they’re taking a long-term view. And they’re saying, we’ve attracted a lot of attention to our cause. We can recruit new members and come back in a year from now, or two years from now, and take everyone by surprise.
And now that they’re all on these encrypted channels, now that they have flocked to places like Telegram or Signal, they have found a place where they feel they can plan and recruit — which will, at some point in time, be away from the prying eyes of journalists and police and the F.B.I. And so you’ve really seen them embrace this kind of safe haven that they have created for themselves online, which can become a real community for them going forward.
I mean, what you’re describing — and it’s pretty terrifying — is a kind of long-simmering rebellion. And from what you’re saying, it may be — I don’t know, but it may be too late to truly undermine it and rein it in.
I think these groups are here to stay. And the thing is, if people were serious about stopping them, there would have been action taken four years ago, when they were on places like Facebook and Twitter. That would have been the moment. We’re now four years later, where they’re so entrenched in their beliefs. And they’re now moving into a media ecosystem where they’re in a small group, where everyone agrees with them and everyone holds the same extreme values. Reaching them is going to be incredibly difficult.
Reaching them and, it sounds like, detecting them.
Detecting them, and maybe even convincing them that violence and insurrection and storming U.S. Capitol buildings is not the way forward.
Well, Sheera, thank you very much. We appreciate it.
Thank you for having me.
On Tuesday afternoon, during his first public appearance since the attack on the Capitol, President Trump expressed neither contrition nor regret for instigating the mob. Instead, he called his remarks to supporters before the assault, quote, “totally appropriate.” And in a remark that seemed to raise the prospect of more violence, the president said that the efforts to impeach him today were causing tremendous anger.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. The Times reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in Congress, believes that President Trump has committed impeachable offenses and is pleased that Democrats are moving to impeach him. McConnell has told associates that impeaching Trump will make it easier to purge the president from the Republican Party, something that McConnell now welcomes after working closely with Trump for four years.
In another major defection, the chair of the House Republican conference, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, said that she planned to vote to impeach the president. In a statement, Cheney said, quote, “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled this mob and lit the flame of this attack.” The House is scheduled to begin debating its article of impeachment against Trump at 9:00 a.m. this morning. A vote is expected later in the day.
Today’s episode was produced by Eric Krupke, Asthaa Chaturvedi, and Alexandra Leigh Young. It was edited by Paige Cowett and M.J. Davis Lin and engineered by Chris Wood.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.