'The War Begins Today': From Twitter to Parler, How Trump Supporters Organized
Francesca Billington is a dot.LA editorial intern. She's previously reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. Before joining dot.LA, she was a communications fellow at an environmental science research center in Sri Lanka. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.
The images of a mob of Trump supporters invading the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon played out on live television and in Twitter feeds, but the moment had been building for years.
"Trump's most loyal base, which includes those affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory and white supremacists, have long been successful at translating online chatter to real-life action," said Daniel J. Jones, president of the Advance Democracy, a non-partisan nonprofit conducting public-interest research and investigations.
The group released a report on Wednesday that found over half of all QAnon-related Twitter accounts wrote about Jan. 6 leading up to the siege. And that ahead of storming the building, supporters called for violence on Twitter, Parler, TikTok and TheDonald, an online forum frequented by the far right.
"I think we will continue to see this on Parler and Gab and user-generated forms like theDonald.win," Jones said. "I suspect we will also see more coded language for violence to avoid the censors."
In reaction, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snap and Twitch have all banned Trump in some form. But, as mainstream social media companies have cracked down on Trump's false rhetoric, a slew of others have popped up that accommodate the speech, places like Parler, a libertarian-leaning social site created in 2018, run by John Matze and backed by conservative donor Rebekah Mercer.
Several recent Parler posts leading up to the storming of the capitol referenced war, some stating, "the war begins today." On the internet forum TheDonald.win, more than 80% of the top posts on January 6 featured "unmoderated calls for violence in the top five responses," according to the report.
Even on TikTok, the video-sharing platform that too has become a home for political discourse, four widely-shared posts called for violence or rebellion during the protests.
There's been a shift away from mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook to alt-right platforms as stronger moderation policies have been implemented, said Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy at UCLA who studies how social networks affect an individual's decision to protest.
Over the last two years especially, supporters have turned to far-right online platforms for "tactical coordination," he said.
"We have real-time communication about how to protest," he said. "In what I've researched on the Arab Spring, this is quite common behavior. This occurred in Iran, in 2009, for example."
Steinert-Threlkeld said many supporters are also probably having private conversations in closed and private groups on Facebook, for instance, or through encrypted messaging platforms.
Ángel Díaz, who focuses on liberty and national security at the Brennan Center for Justice, said it can be hard now to draw the line between conversations about violence online and actual violence. "We're not in that territory anymore," he said.
The move by some social media companies to block Trump came too late.
"For months the president has been using social media to incite real-world harms," Díaz said. "He encouraged violence towards Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. He encourages supporters to defy lockdown orders. He encourages supporters to harass election officials."
"I think a lot of how the platforms will react going forward is going to continue to be shaped by a combination of what the public outcry is and what the political pressure is," he said.
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