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November 9, 2022 30 mins

In Part Six of LikeWar, we track how social media has contributed to the rise of domestic extremism in the United States. The spread of rampant disinformation is no longer just the work of foreign actors or organized Russian trolls. Now, it comes from within the US and every one of us is on the frontlines. 

This episode features the expertise of Quinta Jurecic, a fellow in Governance at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.  

This series is adapted from the book LikeWar, written by series narrator Peter Singer and series contributor Emerson Brooking. To learn more about their research and defense work, you can find them on Twitter @peterwsinger and @etbrooking.

Get the book at LikeWarBook.com.

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
H m hmmm. This story is a warning about what

(00:33):
can go wrong when we don't take social media threats seriously.
I'm Peter Singer. This is like one part six, The
Fight Comes Home. We begin on January six. Standing outside

(00:55):
of the White House. President Trump has just given his
latest speech, railian against the election results. All of us
here today do not want to see our election victory
stolen by a bald and radical left Democrats, which is
what they're doing. We will never give up. We will
never concede. It doesn't happen. You don't concede. Where the

(01:17):
theft did well? Quinta Jurassic is a fellow at the
Brookings Institution and a senior editor at law Fair. January
six did not come out of nowhere. President Trump had
been going around saying that the election happened, stolen from him,
you know, hinting that January six, when Congress assembled to

(01:38):
certify the electoral vote, would be you know, a big
and exciting day, and that his supporters should gather in Washington,
d C. Then President Donald Trump says he will continue
to find the results of the presidential election. Congress meets
in just hours to certify the votes, and as we've
reported there are lawmakers who have gone on record saying
they will contest the electoral College results. As a direct

(02:02):
result of those comments by Trump, there was a lot
of conversation on social media among supporters of Trump about
what should happen on that day. And when I say
social media, I mean major platforms that listeners have probably
heard of, like Twitter and Facebook, but I also mean

(02:22):
platforms that are part of what's come to be called
the alt tech ecosystem, sort of alternative platforms for people
with fringe political views, usually on the far right, so
sites like gab and Parlor, and on those sites, there
was a lot of conversation. People were planning to assemble
in Washington d see how the election had been stolen

(02:43):
from Trump and that you know, patriots and needed to
take a stand. We're gonna walk down and I'll be
there with you. Thousands of his supporters stream out across
the National Mall. We're gonna walk down anyone you want,
but I think right here, we're gonna walk down to
the capital. Others marched down Constitution in Pennsylvania avenues straight

(03:05):
towards the US capital because you'll never take back our
country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you
have to be strong. Some, including members of various far
right extremist groups like the Proud Boys, have already gathered
on the Capitol lawn, and in the middle of those
emerging crowds, Tim Gionna is live streamings. He's traveled more

(03:30):
than two thousand miles to be there, all the way
from Scottsdale, Arizona, and he's brought with him sixteen thousand
of his loyal fans. This was far from his first
controversial live streamed Doonna was more commonly known by the
pseudonym Baked Alaska because if you're not here, should be here.

(03:52):
But if not, you're here supporting in the streams. So
thank you, I love all of you. Are really good
to be here. He had previously gained notoriety for various
outrageous stunts that he posted online during the early stages
of the pandemic. For example, you could find him on
the right wing friendly streaming platform d Live. There he

(04:14):
made a show of confronting store clerks while maskless and
starting fights at bars. Those videos hadn't gone viral beyond
the reach of the platform, but filming the insurrection would
gun a made his way toward the Capitol Building with
other Trump supporters. Soon they faced off against the Capitol police,

(04:34):
toppling barriers and then battling with them, pitty pushing down
police officers, even beating one of them with an American
flagpole and g n A streamed at all Ever, the
consummate live streamer, he checked in on his audience every

(04:54):
few minutes. As users type their comments in real time,
he would read them aloud. Some rewarded him with limits
d live's currency that content creators can convert into real money.
While those online audience encourage the crowd onward, asking them
to mace the police officers, the rest of the world

(05:16):
watched and shock and horror. The rioters soon gained access
to the most secure parts of the Capital Building. Some
wandered about stealing items to commemorate the event. Some destroyed offices,
and one even defecated on the floor of the Home
of US Democracy, smearing feces on the wall. Others search

(05:41):
for the Vice president and members of Congress, seeking to
take them hostage. They even thought to come with zip
tized to bind their hands. They miss seizing these leaders

(06:02):
by just a minute. Steered in the wrong direction by
a quick thinking police officer they were chasing down the hall. Ultimately,
five people, including a police officer, would die in the
chaos of the day. Law enforcement agencies had clearly been
caught off guard by the rush of the insurrectionists, but

(06:23):
their presence shouldn't have been a surprise because all of
the lies it had fomented January six, and all of
the calls for violence during it had been out in
the open at sites like the Donald dot when over
eighty percent of the top posts about the election outcome
featured calls for violence, with debates on whether members of

(06:45):
Congress should be killed by hanging or guillotine. But well
before all of this, and even before President Trump's speech
directing them to go to the Capitol that morning, social
media had already been weaponized to not just direct, but
motivate that violence. My co author, Emerson Brooking, was one

(07:06):
of the many experts who tracked this campaign and witnessed
the roots of the Capital insurrection starting to take hold.
I was part of an organization called the Election Integrity Partnership,
and I remember it was back in August in September
when we began to see that hashtag emerging Stop the Steal,

(07:30):
where conservative activists would say that illegal immigrants were being
recruited for early voting or that poll workers were getting
special instructions to exclude Trump votes. But after election night,
Stop the Steal morphed into something much bigger. Trump took
to the stage and he said, contrary to all the evidence,

(07:53):
that he had won the election, and that was like
pouring gasoline on a fire to stop the Steel movement,
explode it. And the next day there was a Facebook
group which became the fastest growing in Facebook's history. Within
twenty four hours of President Trump's election defeat, millions of
Facebook users began organizing demonstration sharing stories that supported the

(08:16):
false claims of a stolen election. When Facebook eventually shut
the page down, it only added more fuel to the fire.
There's been a fair amount of studies showing that Facebook
is set up in a way that content that is
particularly extreme, that provokes a strong emotional reaction, often a
negative emotional reaction, does particularly well. You know that people

(08:39):
click on it, that they engage with it, and Facebook's
algorithm is designed to privilege that kind of content. For
die hard Stop the Steel supporters, it reinforced the idea
that there was a growing conspiracy to silence them. They
moved to other websites where they could continue to motivate
and plan YouTube was sort of the ground zero for

(09:03):
the Stop the Steel movement, because even as a lot
of the planning for violence went underground, it was YouTube
where this movement really festered and where it continued to
draw strength and momentum, and where all of these disparate beliefs,
all these adjacent communities kind of combined in believing that

(09:26):
there was going to be one moment of truth and
that it was going to come on January six. The
intent to commit violence was always there. As the leader
of the Stop the Steel movements foreshadowed on parlor quote,
if d C escalates, so do we. I think it's
useful here to put yourself in the shoes of just

(09:49):
a casual Trump supporter. In the weeks leading up to
the election, you would have seen Stop the Steel mentioned
more and more frequently. Then that night, when it seemed
that things were turning against Trump, you would have heard
a speech from the President himself telling you that he
had won and that anything else was lies. We were
getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win

(10:13):
this election. So our goal now is to ensure the
integrity for the good of this nation. This is a
very big moment. This is a major fraud in our nation.
We will win this, and we, as far as I'm concerned,
we already have won it. So I just wanted you

(10:36):
sincerely believed that Trump had won the election, because everyone
you believed and trusted was telling you that it was
the case. And everyone who you've been taught for the
last four years to view as enemies of the state,
we're telling you something else. That was the momentum that
could carry someone from casually sharing stop the steal Store

(11:00):
raise a few weeks before the election to being there
on the grounds of the US Capitol attacking Capitol Hill
police officers and trying to enter the building to forcefully
reinstall Trump as president. You will see just an endless
amount of social media post people are posting on Facebook.
Here's a photograph of my guns that I'm taking with

(11:23):
me as I drive across the country to Washington, d C.
But there's also just an incredible trove of information, a
lot of which was available to, you know, anyone with
an Internet connection. All you had to do was, you know,
load up Parlor that signaled that the sixth was potentially
going to be really, really concerning. For weeks, Trump supporters

(11:46):
organized in online forums like Parlor and Telegram. Leaders of
the Stop the Steel campaign publicly posted their plans in
December and the weeks leading up to the attack. Users
study the layout of the street surrounding the Capitol. They
shared a map of the complexes tunnels. They had tactical
plans in place to make sure they could communicate from

(12:08):
earpieces and hand signals to cell phone apps that they
could use like walkie talkies. They planned to come dressed
in military gear and helmets and arm with everything from
stun guns and mace to baseball bats. Like so many
others who had spiraled from casual Trump supporters to insurrectionists,

(12:29):
Tim Jane had already started his journey years before. He
had been raised in Anchorage, Alaska, by devout Christian parents.
Then he left home to go to college in Los
Angeles to study film and marketing. When he graduated, he
got a job doing social media marketing for a few
record companies, and then he decided to take a shot

(12:52):
at his own career in music. But first he needed
a stage name. He was from Alaska, and he liked
to smoke weed, and so with that deep level of creativity,
the character Baked Alaska was born. He started rapping under
the pseudonym, putting out songs like Alaska Vacation, Iclimb Mountains,

(13:16):
and bull Moose Trapping. But his career didn't take off
like he had hoped, so the failed rapper made a
play to get back into social media marketing. He got
a job at the digital media company BuzzFeed, and he
did well. His main focus was pop culture, but as

(13:37):
BuzzFeed gradually expanded from entertainment to politics, so did Jane.
He wore a Maga hat to the office. He got
a silhouette of Donald Trump tattooed onto his arm. A
few months later, he resigned from BuzzFeed and took a
job managing a college tour for Milo Napolis, a notorious

(13:59):
internet troll and right wing provocateur who had worked for
Breitbart Now. Milo was himself known for elevating members of
the alt right and neo Nazi movements, even down to
the details of using anti Semitic passwords on his email.

(14:23):
Milo already had an online following in the hundreds of thousands.
He had connections, connections that got gen a special access
to the Republican National Convention, Friends, delegates, and fellow Americans.
I humbly and gratefully except your nomination for the presidency

(14:47):
of the United States. And that's where g n A
first met the future President. Trump even signed the tattoo
that he'd had inked on his arm months earlier. But
just like all his pre vious gigs, gen A's relationship
with Milo didn't last very long. Back on his own,
he released a song called Maga Anthem. He launched a

(15:12):
viral social media campaign to try and force Starbucks employees
to write the name Trump on coffee cups. Go to
Starbucks operation Trump Cup, hashtag Trump Cup if they don't.
If they refuse to write Trump on your Starbucks cup,
I want you taking video. His descent into extremism came
to a head with a series of tweets accusing Jewish

(15:33):
people of secretly running the media, but his trolling and
his anti Semitic rhetoric soon boosted his profile among the
more extreme Trump supporters, and in August he was added
to the feature speakers list at the Unite the Right
rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the event, he stood alongside

(15:56):
right wing militia members and self proclaimed white nationalists. Protesters
marched with Confederate and Nazi flags. Noted white supremacist and
Pepper the Frog fan Richard Spencer was also in attendance.
The event quickly turned violent. Protesters clashed with counter protesters,

(16:24):
Dozens were injured, and then a far right extremist deliberately
rammed a car into an innocent crowd, killing Heather Hager
and injuring another thirty five people. In the center of
the violent crowd, spewing hateful rhetoric, Baked Alaska was live streaming,

(16:46):
keep streaming me someone I'm streaming, so get someone to
stream me. I got it, even as he himself was
down by pepper spray, crying for milk to relieve the pain.
He had a one track mind. Just like his earlier
online stunts, Baked Alaska faced almost zero consequences afterwards, despite

(17:08):
participating in what police called an unlawful assembly in Charlottesville.
The following years, Baked Alaska would yo yo back and
forth across political movements, from spouting out white nationalist slogans
to trying to market himself as a reformed, former racist
He even wrote and self published a book entitled Meme

(17:30):
Magic Secrets, revealed it would be removed from Amazon for
copyright violation for having Peppe the Frog on the cover.
Fast forward to the Capitol insurrection in January. As rioters
stormed the Congress, Baked Alaska live stream from inside the

(17:51):
building for twenty seven minutes. He encouraged other writers not
to leave the premises. He entered private offices when asked
by police used to leave, he falsely identified himself as
a member of the media. Yet at the end of
the day he wasn't arrested. He walked out on his own.
For many watching at home, it seemed that people like

(18:12):
Baked Alaska would get away totally scott free, But fortunately
the FBI wasn't making the same mistake in the aftermath.
Ten days after the attack, g and A was arrested
in Houston, Texas. Now he faces charges of violent and
disorderly conduct on capital grounds and knowingly entering a restricted

(18:33):
building without lawful authority. At this point, more than five
hundred others have been charged. It's one of the largest
criminal investigations ever in American history. Hundreds of thousands of
digital tips have been submitted and they're still coming. While
the insurrectionists used social media to help organize and document

(18:55):
their attack, this time it was used against them. Their
weapon became the thing that caught them, but the most
full circle moment, and nearly of the arrests the charges
were based at least in part on the person's own
social media accounts. One of those accounts was of a

(19:16):
New york Man who bragged on the dating app Bumble
that he'd been in the Capitol during the riot. His
match notified the FBI. Not everyone was dumb enough to
tattle on themselves, though for those cases, investigators are relying
on facial recognition software. Images from surveillance cameras, social media posts,

(19:42):
and live news coverage are used to find a possible
match among the FBI's massive photo databases. In other cases, still,
they've subpoena at cell phone service companies to find out
whether someone's phone was inside the Capitol on January six.
It's an impressive step forward for a federal government that

(20:02):
too long looked the other way at domestic extremism, especially
from the far right. It's also an important reminder that
there are repercussions for our behaviors. Online and in person.
But the response in the aftermath of the insurrection hardly
compensates for the five lives lost at the Capitol or

(20:25):
the irreparable damage done to our democracy. One thing I'm
certain of, there had not been a successful attack on
the US capital for some two hundred years until that
moment that it was overrun on January six. I'm certain

(20:49):
that it will be much less than two hundred years
before another such attack takes place. The successful attack on
the U s Capitol transferred a lot of power or
to these groups and these individuals, because they could claim
that they had overtaken one of the most important symbols
of democracy in the world. Now we can arrest these people,

(21:11):
now we can charge them, We can take steps to
deter these sorts of attacks from happening again. But the
fact remains that for part of the population, they have
become heroes in far right media circles. They have become
people to look up to and to idolize. And I'm
sure that years from now, people who were part of

(21:33):
that attack will continue to brag about it. And I'm
also sure for the next generation of far right extremists
they will want nothing more than to follow in the
footsteps of the people who attacked the U. S Capital
because they showed it could be done. The afterlife of
January six in political memory, I think, is proving to

(21:54):
be particularly powerful. We cannot leave the violence of January
six and its causes uninvestigated. The American people deserved the
full and open testimony of every person with knowledge of
the planning and preparation for January six. There is currently,
as as we're speaking, a investigation going on in the

(22:18):
House with a select committee investigating what really happened on
January six. On that day, I participated in the defense
of the United States Capital from an armed mob. An
armed mob, I was at risk of being stripped of
and killed with my own firearm. As I heard chance
of killing with his own gun, he kicked me in

(22:40):
my chest. As we went to the ground. I was
able to retain my baton again, but I ended up
on my hands and knees and blind. After giving CPR
to one of the writers who reached the capital in
an effort to save her life, that I finally had
a chance to let my own family know that I
was alive. Within the Republican Party, there's been a sort
of a growing movement on the fringe, which is itself

(23:03):
a growing portion of the Republican Party of sort of
seeing January six as uh an act of justice. You know,
that it was a just thing to do to be
patriots and storm the capital and try to defend Trump.
I don't think anybody in America. I think even your
viewers understand what a sham this committee is and how

(23:23):
politically driven. There was no insurrection, and to call in
an insurrection, in my opinion, is a bold face line.
You know, if you didn't know the TV footage was
a video from January the six, you would actually think
it was a normal tourist visit. It's worth saying none
of this was immediate. In the immediate aftermath of January six,
Trump sort of hedged, but by and large, there was

(23:45):
condemnation from both sides of the political aisle across the spectrum.
Today was a dark day in the history of the
United States Capitol. We condemned the violence that took place
here in the strongest possible terms. Those who formed these
reprehensible acts cannot be called protesters. These were riders and insurrectionists,

(24:07):
goons and thugs, domestic terrorists. The United states Senate will
not be intimidated. We will not be kept out of
this chamber by thugs, mobs, or throats. We will not
bell the lawlessness or intimidation. You see members of Congress, like,

(24:34):
for example, Representative Matt Gates and Representative Marjorie Taylor Green
treating people who have been detained pre trial for their
participation in January six, treating them as political prisoners and
sort of having stunts where they go to the jail
and try to see them. You see Trump making Ashley Babbitt,

(24:54):
the woman who was shot by a police officer and
died while trying to s from the Capital in to
a martyr figure. Trump said in a statement he had
spoken to the mother and husband of Ashley Babbitt, the
rioter who was shot and killed by a US Capitol
police officer as she tried to crawl through a broken
window near the Speaker's lobby on January six. My team

(25:14):
and I at the Digital Forensic Research Lab. We spent
the morning tracking the activity in d C, jumping from
live stream to live stream, following these prominent far right
media personalities with whom we were so familiar. But there
came a moment later in the afternoon where there was

(25:38):
a law in activity, and I was working only about
ten blocks from where all this was taking place, so
I took an opportunity to just walk down as far
as I could and just to try to understand the
mood and outlook of the people who were doing this thing.

(25:58):
And I got as far as Freedom Plaza, which is
still quite a ways from the US Capital, and I
stood there for a while and just watched. What really
struck me was how festive the atmosphere was. I just
watched these horrible things online that these people were doing.

(26:20):
But then when I actually got there, people were streaming
back from the US Capital. They had grins on their face,
they were talking excitedly. It was likely just attended the
biggest party of their lifetime. They thought that they had
done something truly incredible, that they had lit the match
of revolution, that they had done their duty. No one

(26:41):
then seemed scared or regretful. So when I'm asked what
is the impact at the end of the day of disinformation,
I think about a few moments I spent in downtown
d C on January six, where I watched people streaming
back from the capital that they just looted with smiles

(27:02):
on their face. I watched a guy with a baseball
bat strolling back and forth screaming for an invisible Antifa
to come out and fight him. And I think about
the extraordinary delusion that these people were under, how they've
been led for years down dark pathway, so far from reality.

(27:25):
And this was the ultimate consequence of the flood of
misinformation and manipulation and falsehood which Trump had first rode
to his electoral victory and then emphasized again and again
over years that journalists were the enemy, that democrats and

(27:49):
liberals hated the country, that Black Lives Matter protesters were
Antifa and should be shot in the streets. This was
what the damage of disinformation should look like. An attack
on the US Capitol, an attack on the foundations of
American democracy. Are you proud of what happened here today? Absolutely?

(28:13):
I think we should have gone on in and yanked
our senators out by the hair of the head and
drug them out and said no more. I'm absolutely stand
behind what happened here today. And it's terrible how this
election was stolen. Well, I mean, but what does this achieve?
This violence? Are we violent? There's not violence VI people

(28:37):
have been hurt there. This attack will likely inspire others

(28:59):
in the future. You need to act before a dangerous
internet campaign becomes an insurrection. We need a new model
for how to deal with the viral forces of misinformation, disinformation,
and hate that have so troubled our real world. That's
next time on Like War. This is a production of

(29:27):
I Heeart Podcasts, Graphic Audio and Goat Rodeo. Caros Chillen
That's Me is the series lead producer. This episode is
just one of a seven part series. Find other episodes
wherever you get your podcasts. If you'd like to dive
deeper into the work of P. W. Singer and Emerson Brooking,

(29:48):
you can access the full audiobook Like War, on which
this series is based wherever you get your audio books.
Writing and editing from Karash Shillen. Production assistants from Isabel
Kirby mc gowan. Senior producers are Ian en Wright and
Meghan Nadowsky. Please share this series with the hashtag like

(30:11):
War to find other conversations about the series. Thank you
for listening.
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