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Internet radicalization experts knew violence was brewing. What did they see?

While the events at the nation’s Capitol last week caught many by surprise, those who monitor extremism on the internet had already seen a rebellion brewing. Charlie Warzel is the New York Times Opinion Writer-at-Large and reports on online radicalization. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the online spaces and rhetoric that fomented violence at the Capitol.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While the events at the nation's Capitol last week caught many by surprise, those who monitor extremism on the internet had already seen a rebellion brewing. Charlie Warzel is the New York Times Opinion Writer-at-large and reports on online radicalization.

    Charlie, this attack on the Capitol on January 6th caught a lot of Americans by surprise, but the online communities that you have been following and the individuals that you've been reporting on, this was not a surprise. This was planned and this was something that a lot of people could see coming.

  • Charlie Warzel:

    Yeah, it was a very difficult day for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, but I found myself– and I noticed this among a lot of my peers as well, for the hours and days after– there was just a real frustration, a feeling like a lot of us had been kind of screaming into the void. This is a multi-year process of radicalization, of the creation of a pro-Trump media environment that basically has created a durable alternate reality. And I think we could watch this, you know, build and build and get close to reaching a head and busting out of the online ecosystem into real-world violence. You'd seen it in some isolated incidents, but this was sort of the thing we were always really worried about. And 1/6 was the culmination of that to a degree.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There is the content, which is the disinformation. And then there's the platforms, which you've also reported on in great depth. How responsible are they for amplifying these mistruths in a way, and even directing people to groups that are trafficking in it?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    So my colleague Stuart Thompson and I recently published a story that is sort of an investigation into this phenomenon. We wanted to understand with either COVID deniers or election deniers or conspiracy theorists with a political edge, not only how did they get radicalized, but what does that process look like? Is it quick? Is it slow?

    And we found a number of, let's just call them, "conspiracy influencers." And what we noticed was, for long stretches, we went through all their post histories for long stretches, they were apolitical or they posted just random selfies or motivational slogans, photos of their babies or cats or whatever. And then one day, that shifts, and the change in engagement for venturing into the political sphere is astronomical. I mean, basically what they did is they, you know, like tapping into an oil well or something. You know, they struck pay dirt and are just rewarded with the sea of likes and shares and attention.

    And it's very clear, you just watch this as a pivot point. The moment they tap into this rich vein, everything changes for them. They go on to create groups and pages and become influencers. So there's a real reward system at play here. And it's not that Facebook caused this. It's not that this is only a platform problem. This is a huge problem. There's a supply issue and a demand issue. And the networking platforms are part of the supply. But they meaningfully influence people and reward a certain part of their personality. And that part of the personality often tends to be extreme.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Who is most susceptible to this? Is this someone that is kind of in a moment of low self-esteem and is looking for validation from the outside world? And it's like, wow, look at this. This seems to get me lots of likes and somebody really likes what I'm saying and I can be me in front of these people.

  • Charlie Warzel:

    I think it's a little bit of everyone. You know, something that has been rather depressing about this is that when it comes to getting sucked into this world, this ecosystem, these alternate realities, there are many on-ramps and very few ways out, it seems.

    But I think what we have to do is start thinking about this a little less in terms of, a very specific type of person is going to be caught in this. Maybe a specific person becomes an influencer, right? Someone with a really entrepreneurial streak, someone with a real desire for that connection and community and to be kind of adored and taken seriously. But in terms of people who just fall into these conspiracies or create this collective delusion with other people, they can just be normal individuals who for whatever reason, find community here in some way and find a group of people who are, feel like their people.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yeah. So how easy is it to fall into the rabbit hole and how hard is it going to be to try to help someone out?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    I think what we found is it is relatively easy, because it is so easy to create, you know, to create echo chambers, it is so easy to create, you know, alternative media that looks and feels and has all the trappings of, you know, of legacy, of real vetted mainstream media.

    I think that we find that really one of the biggest things is this idea of community, that people find individuals who make them feel validated, who give them a reason. The Q-Anon conspiracy theory is really based in people, quote-unquote, "doing their own research." And that research is empowering. It gives people a feeling that they are not only a part of something, but really participating and advancing that cause through their own work, which is different than a normal, you know, news, which is passive consumption to some degree.

    In terms of getting out, I think it's incredibly difficult. I think everything you've seen about de-radicalization, whether it's from white supremacy and hate movements or conspiracies, historically, I think, is that it takes a lot of empathy and a lot of time, and it's something that really can't scale, it's something that people in your life have to help you with. There's no video you can show a bunch of people who have been radicalized that will kind of snap them out of it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You've touched base with some of these people that were influencers that came to Washington, D.C. from near and far. And I don't know how to verify what they're doing now, but do they feel more committed to the cause? Do they feel like January 6th was a line crossed? I mean, I know it's just the people that you've talked to, but what are you hearing? What are you seeing?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    Well, I think, you know, with reporting on this movement, as someone coming from a major newspaper, there's always the possibility that people are lying to you. But I think what I've seen, and it's one thing that sort of gives me pause and hope at the same time, is that the siege of the Capitol was a line in the sand for a lot of people. I think there are a number of people who are going deeper into radicalization. It is a real tent pole for them and it's something that they're going to latch onto and become further committed to the cause.

    But I do think for other people there that I've spoken to, there are a few that were there that drove a long distance to see Donald Trump speak. And then they saw this and they were disgusted by it. I think this is going to be a bit of a sorting of this MAGA pro-Trump movement. I do think you're going to see a lot of people double down on us. But I also think that as this becomes more of a commitment to potential real-world violence, there's a lot of people who are living comfortable lives, who are somewhat political and may not be willing to, you know, to risk all that for this movement.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there any idea of how large this population is? I mean, you know, even if you just do the math and say 99.9% of the 75 million people that voted for the president are not like this, that still leaves 75,000 people. So that's just, I don't know how to wrap my arms around it. And I'm trying to figure out what is law enforcement looking at? What should we be prepared for? How big is this?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    This is the big question of all of the work that I have done, that so many people have done: extremism researchers, platform tech reporters. It's very unclear what the actual footprint of this movement is. And not only that, but how that footprint translates to a real presence in the streets or actual violence or what have you.

    I mean, I think what the sort of the polarized landscape shows is that there's, and what the results of the 2020 election show, is that this is a substantial movement. This is one that has to be taken seriously. If 1/6 didn't sort of demonstrate that for you, I don't really know what else to show you or tell you.

    As far as the true extremist community, law enforcement and researchers in this space are looking at militia factions and different communities that are springing up around that sort of "liberty, patriot" movement. I don't know how big it is. I do think it is louder online than it might be in the streets. But like you said, a very small fraction could still be close to 100,000 people. And if those people are violent, that's — that, that's a scary thing to consider.

    But I think that– that's sort of where the work comes now, is really a mapping this and dividing it out, from people who are, you know, sort of the online influencer crowd sort of egging this on, and then the people who, you know, really and truly want to foment a violent political movement.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, going forward from any of the law enforcement agencies or any contacts and the administration, is there any idea that the Biden administration is going to take this more seriously? I mean, I don't know how much more seriously you can say. I mean, the FBI has said the Department of Homeland Security has said, you know, domestic terrorism from white supremacists is something that we need to be on watch for. Right, but yet we still had this massive lapse of intelligence. So what is the Biden administration do to try to tackle this?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    You know, the the idea of a massive lapse of intelligence is almost, you know, it's incredibly frustrating to, I think myself and so many of my peers because, you know, the events of the Capitol siege were planned online in plain view. I am by no means an intelligence community member. I have no formal training in any of this other than being a reporter and someone who can use the internet. And I was able to see this. There were people who wrote articles about this weeks in advance showing—with screenshots—the planning. So I think in terms of an intelligence failure, it's actually just people not taking the internet as seriously as they need to and taking these communities seriously.

    As far as what the Biden administration can do, I think there's a real fine line to walk. I think, you know, there is talk of Biden administration sort of Disinformation Head or Chief, I think, you know, working with task forces on, you know, white supremacy and political violence. I think all those things are very good. But I also think, you know, there's a fear among many civil liberties activists that this could also lead to some large overreach in terms of new domestic terror laws that then will be levied at activists and social justice protesters and things like that. It's kind of a scary time. I mean, we've seen a true threat spring up and we haven't taken it seriously and it needs to be taken more seriously. But, you know, we really want to be careful, I think. And the Administration should really try to be careful to not use that as a justification to impinge on the rights of innocent Americans.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Charlie Warzel, The New York Times, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Charlie Warzel:

    Thanks for having me.

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