Extremists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 are turning their attention from national to local politics
A year since insurgents stormed the Capitol on January 6, investigators are still learning who these people are.
Some were members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, white nationalist organizations and right-wing militias, while others had no affiliation with extremist groups.
Digitally, they tend to live in an echo chamber of conspiracy theories, misinformation and lies – not just about the 2020 elections, but also about COVID-19, masks and vaccines.
NBC senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny, who has been reporting on misinformation and extremism for years, says the rioters’ initial high of Jan. 6 fizzled out for several months when those who stormed the Capitol were identified and arrested en masse. In addition, former President Donald Trump was banned from social media and then left office. Intense media and public scrutiny plagued these extremists and sent them underground, she says.
But extremists picked up speed after being encouraged by far-right leaders like Steve Bannon, who instructed his podcast audience to recapture the country “village by village,” she says.
This go-local tactic has meanwhile been picked up by extremist groups on a broad front, she says. In the absence of national elections, these groups have turned their attention to controversial issues – vaccines, racial, educational, and cultural wars – that “create empathy or relationships with more mainstream conservatism,” says Zadrozny.
She has observed this in communities across the country, and points to a specific example in the Pacific Northwest, a place that she believes was a “hotbed of extremism”. Vancouver, Washington-based right-wing extremist group Patriot Prayer spread a rumor that a student was facing arrest for not wearing a mask to school.
The lie was picked up by the Proud Boys, who visited three schools in protest. These three schools had to be closed for the safety of students and staff, she says.
In October, a far-right group flooded a school council meeting in Douglas County, Colorado to oppose masking requirements.
“We saw it all over the country,” says Zadrozny. “Proud boys who show up in school libraries to protest against so-called LGBTQ books, things like that over and over again.”
Extremists have understood how to join alternative online platforms and even create their own to communicate, she says. A recent study by ProPublica found that extremist content on Facebook increased sharply between the election and the uprising. And although many of these major social media platforms have cracked down on banning extremist content since January 6, extremists continue to strengthen alternative digital ecosystems like Gab or Parler.
When she gets banned from Youtube, which it often does, Zadrozny says she saw white nationalists maintain their movement by starting and monetizing their own streaming services.
These replacement platforms are pushing extremist groups deeper into the internet – making it harder to track their movements, she says.
In the year since January 6, extremists have adapted and survived. That didn’t surprise Zadrozny, but shocked her again and again, she says. It is important to stay alerted about her actions, she says, in order not to settle down and believe that extremist violence is “our new normal”.
“I think it’s important to always recognize that this is violence,” she says, “and online violence creates violence in the real world.”
Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview with Chris Bentley. Serena McMahon adapted this interview for the web.