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Capitol attack forces reckoning with radical, right-wing political factions

The Department of Homeland Security last year classified white supremacy as the greatest domestic terror threat to the U.S., and last week's Capitol insurrection by pro-Trump groups has renewed those concerns. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who runs the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab at American University, and J.M Berger, an analyst on extremism, join William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's easy to have forgotten this or overlooked it, but, last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security classified white supremacy as the greatest domestic terror threat to the United States.

    This week's storming of the Capitol by pro-Trump groups brought that concern to light in the most urgent way possible.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • Woman:

    This is our Capitol!

  • William Brangham:

    As more video emerges, the clearer it becomes just how violent last week's mob was at the U.S. Capitol.

    In a crowd carrying flags that declared support for police, many at the Capitol last Wednesday went at the police with dangerous, deadly intent. Amongst the crowd were also many wearing or carrying the insignia of a litany of the extremist neo-Nazi and conspiracy-minded groups in America.

    There were multiple images about QAnon, the conspiracy theory that believes a cabal of Democrats and wealthy elites are secretly running a child sex trafficking ring, one that President Trump has been quietly working to destroy.

    There were members of the 3 Percenters in the Oath Keepers, both among the many armed militant anti-government groups in the country. There were various neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic symbols. These are members of the violent hate group the Proud Boys flashing their white supremacist OK hand signal.

    In the aftermath of this attack, many of the largest social media and Internet companies sought to clamp down on those the companies say are encouraging violence online. YouTube began removing livestreamed videos of the violence on Capitol Hill.

    Facebook said it took offline several forums, including one with thousands of members who, in advance of Wednesday's riot, posted the home addresses of federal judges and politicians, often accompanied with images of guns and weaponry. Facebook stopped the president from posting to his page.

    CEO Mark Zuckerberg justified the ban, saying — quote — "We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great."

    After some back-and-forth, Twitter permanently took the president's account offline and removed all his prior messages. In a statement, the company said — quote — "After close review of recent tweets from the @realDonaldTrump and the context around them, we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.

    These moves by the social media giants were applauded by some, though many said it was far too late in coming. Many conservatives, meanwhile, cried foul, alleging censorship against their political views.

    The social media app known as Parler, which was created to be a conservative alternative to Twitter, had been surging in popularity in recent weeks. It became not just an organizing platform for last week's Capitol protest, but full of numerous calls for violence and mayhem.

    Apple and Google both removed Parler from their app stores. And then, yesterday, Amazon, which hosted Parler on its cloud web servers, booted the app offline, citing its inability to curtail violent language and imagery.

    As of late last night, Parler's Web site and app was not functioning. And, today, Parler announced a lawsuit against Amazon, accusing the tech giant of trying to stifle competition.

    For more on these extremist groups and whether these moves by the tech companies will help, I'm joined by Cynthia Miller-Idriss. She's a professor at American University. And she runs the school's Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. And by J.M. Berger. He's the author of several books, including "Extremism." He has conducted research and training about homegrown terrorism, online extremism and how to counter it.

    Thank you both very, very, very much for being here.

    J.M. Berger, to you first.

    If you were — help us understand how large a presence we know that these extremist groups were at the rally on Wednesday, meaning, if you could show have taken them off the chessboard — I don't mean arrest them, but I mean magically remove them from the circumstances — would Wednesday have been a different day?

  • J.M. Berger:

    I think that, if you removed the extremist groups from the circumstance, what you would have seen is less direct threat to the member of Congress who were present there and to Vice President Pence.

    We — there may still have been the rush on the Capitol. There may still have been a riot. But what we saw was people in combat gear carrying zip ties who clearly had the intent to do something more than just riot.

    And so that was really a close call. And it's a close call we could have avoided if the extremists hadn't been there.

  • William Brangham:

    Cynthia Miller-Idriss the question to you.

    Is it your sense that Wednesday would have been different if we could have — that those groups really did contribute to the worst things that we saw?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    The groups are really important.

    And I think, of course, it would have been — I like the idea of a magical eraser. It would have been really nice to not have those groups be present. And I completely agree that much of the high risk of violence would be reduced.

    But I think one of the things that's important to remember is that much of the way radicalization happens today is not actually through groups, but through kind of self-radicalizing networks online. And most of the recent terrorist violence we have seen comes in — from that kind of perspective, of an individual encountering ideology online and then radicalizing.

    And so I think we have had a lot of focus on groups, and that's important, but we're not going to erase this problem just by getting rid of the groups.

  • William Brangham:

    J.M. Berger, can you pick up on that, the point that Cynthia is making here?

    Help us understand how social media, how those Internet communities help radicalize and draw new adherents to these movements.

  • J.M. Berger:

    What we see on these networks is very diverse. So, there are different dynamics.

    One group that was very well-represented at the riot and the attack on the Capitol was QAnon. And that group has a center of gravity that is very heavily online. So, that is a very large movement that has really proliferated in the social media space. And so we can put a lot of blame for them and their presence there on social media.

    Other groups existed in previous forms. Certainly, we have had neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates. Militia movements have existed long before social media was there. But now they're using social media to organize, to recruit to some extent, and to get each other pumped up for an activity like this, to increase the sense of urgency and crisis that leads people to take extreme action.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, help us understand.

    We have seen that these — some of the social media platforms have been trying to crack down after Wednesday's event. And we know this is a continuation of what a lot of these platforms have been trying.

    How successful will that be, that movement to try to take these platforms away from these groups?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    Well, deplatforming is an important strategy. And I think we do have to stem the circulation of the disinformation, which is, a lot of what we saw here is large numbers of people kind of radicalizing into an alternative universe of belief about the election being invalid, and then feeling compelled to act to save democracy, actually. They feel like they're the ones being heroic and saving the nation.

    But I think it's important to — it's sort of like a Whac-A-Mole. There's always going to be another proliferation, a new creation of other platforms. And it's not just through the organized platforms themselves, but through channels like YouTube, through online gaming platforms.

    I mean, there's just an ever-expanding ecosystem of places and spaces online where extremists can recruit, can share propaganda, and can radicalize individuals.

  • William Brangham:

    J.M. Berger, is that your sense as well, that there really isn't a good way of taking these platforms away from them, because they will always find somewhere else to go?

  • J.M. Berger:

    So, I think that a lot of our conversations about deplatforming are predicated on sort of an all-or-nothing proposition, that, if these people are on the Internet, then we failed.

    What we saw with ISIS, certainly, is that you can take away the big platforms where they can reach large audiences and do a lot of recruiting and do a lot of shaping of opinion. And that really hurts these organizations.

    Now, the problem here is that the right-wing movement in this country currently is much larger than ISIS. So, to some extent, we're locking the barn door after the horse has gone. You can't put this back in the bottle.

    That said, deplatforming, it's not a total solution by any stretch of the imagination, but it's better than doing nothing.

  • William Brangham:

    Cynthia Miller-Idriss, help me understand.

    The conversation that has been had around the president's rhetoric, we saw Twitter and Facebook have taken down specific — the president's ability to use those platforms, arguing that he himself was inciting violence.

    How true do you think that is? Do you, as many have, lay some of the responsibility for Wednesday at the feet of the president?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    I do.

    I think that not just the incitement to violence in this particular case, but I think what we have seen for several years now has been a mainstreaming and a normalization of extremist ideas and a lot of dog-whistle kinds of calls, like the stand back, stand by statement, that, even if the intent isn't there, it's received — the way it's received, the impact.

    It has a lot of risk and danger attached to it in terms of the far right mobilizing online and feeling like they have been legitimated. And so what we're seeing now is the very people — not just the president, but other elected officials, the very people who are supposed to be trusted sources of information helping to create and propagate a disinformation landscape that says this election is invalid, that there's been massive voter fraud and really compelling these people to act.

  • William Brangham:

    J.M. Berger, same question to you. Do you hold the president and his language, both in the months leading up to the election and post-election and Wednesday, do you hold him responsible as well for this?

  • J.M. Berger:

    I do.

    I have been writing about the kinds of coded language and accommodation that he makes to extremists since the 2016 election. He deliberately incites in these areas. He uses language and issues that he knows will inflame people.

    And he also provides these movements with something they have really never had in this country in the modern era, which is a charismatic leader. Typically, right-wing movements in the United States have been very fractionated and divided, and there's factional infighting. There's just a huge amount of very diverse views.

    And they don't synchronize typically, because they are too disconnected from each other. And what Donald Trump has provided is a sort of central nexus of the force of gravity that pulls them all into alignment. And that's really dangerous.

  • William Brangham:

    This is obviously a conversation that the country is now, unfortunately, waking up to, perhaps too late.

    But thank you both very much for being here.

    Cynthia Miller-Idriss and J.M. Berger, thanks for joining us.

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    Thank you for having me.

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