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December 8, 2021 35 mins

Investigative journalist Robert Evans explores the murky online spaces where the Capitol insurrection was conceived and planned. He discovers how a single lie snowballed online into one of the biggest gaslights in American political history.

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Before we get into it, be advised that this series
contains bad language and references to violence. It doesn't exist anymore,
but right on the bank of the Savannah, on the
border between South Carolina and Georgia, there was once a
famous town. The place is a golf course nowadays, but

back in the eighteen seventies, Hamburg was a center of
black political power. The mayor and sheriff were black, Most
of the city officials were black. Black state politicians lived
in Hamburg in a land where many white citizens still
mourned the abolition of slavery just ten short years earlier.
Hamburg was a safe haven for African Americans trying to

move up in the world. But on January eighth, eighteen
seventy six, all of that changed. There was talk the
white people would come through and say something's about to
happen at Hamburg. So African Americans kind of knew that
something was going to happen, they just didn't know what.
That's Wayne O'Briant. He's a historian who lives five miles

away from the site of old Hamburg. Wayne spent a
lot of his life studying the town and the people
who lived there. He told me about the Hamburg massacre
that July day, when a white mob hundreds strong arrived
in the town. According to a paper from the time,
they were armed with shotguns, revolvers, whose axes, and pitchforks. Oh,

and they brought a cannon, an actual cannon. The mob's
mission is to disarm Hamburg's garrison of black militiamen, one
of whom is Wayne's ancestor, my great great grandfather's brother,
was named with Needum or Bryant. He was actually going
around the town at the time telling everybody to stay

indoors and saying that if you're not going to give
up your weapons, y'all need to, you know, batten everything
down and just stay inside, you know, and hopefully this
thing will blow over. It wouldn't be so easy. The
mob surrounds the black militiaman, besieging them in a brick
warehouse that serves as the town's armory. As nightfalls, the

mob begins to rain down musket and cannon fire on
the armory. At least one militiaman is killed. The town
sheriff is hunted down. According to some accounts, they cut
his tongue from his head. The residence of Hamburg can
do nothing but hide and pray. The mob finally disperses

late at night on July. By that time over a
thousand people strong. Before they go home, the mob ransacks
black homes and shops and executes five black townsmen. They
discussed the horror and the terror that would be in

African American people's eyes and hearts when they woke up
the next morning saw seven stiff bodies on the ground.
Terror is exactly the point. The Hamburg massacre took place
in an election year, and some white South Carolinians had
reached across roads. They knew that South Carolina was about

six black before the Civil War, which had ended eleven
years before, the black majority it had no input on elections,
But now that African American men could legally vote, the
electoral landscape had changed. Some white Southerners were waking up
to the fact that multiracial democracy was a losing proposition
for them. They decided to do something about it. Hamburg

was the obvious place for them to strike first. The
massacre was just the start. After they left Hamburg, same
group started marching onto different towns and you know, doing
the same thing. Yes, I into just murder African Americans.
The rest of the year was dedicated to terrorizing African
Americans to keep them away from the fool The plan

was put into place that every white man has a
duty to control at least two Black votes. You can
do it by threat. You can do it by you know, violence.
You can do it if you had to kill them,
but you had to make sure that at least two
African Americans did not vote. The plan worked. Many African

Americans were prevented from voting. Those that did vote did
so under the threat of violence, and the next year,
when Northern forces left the South at the end of reconstruction,
white Southerners had a free hand to take back power.
Black lawmakers were forced out of office and practically, if
not legally, they lost the right to vote altogether. Wayne

has a record of one of his ancestors on the
South Carolina voter roles in seventy six, the year of
the Hamburg massacre. After that, there's no record of anyone
in his family voting for another ninety two years. Mult
the racial democracy died in America. It wouldn't return until
the nineteen sixties, when African Americans were at long last

granted full suffrage, but the story doesn't in there. On
the sixth of January, the spirit of the Hamburg massacre
came to Washington, d C. White mob violence was once

again deployed as a tool to subvert democracy at the
Capitol Riot. The violence happened after the election, not before,
as it had at Hamburg, but the intent was the same,
to influence an election by force. As Wayne O'Bryant watched
the siege unfold on TV, he felt a sense of
weary familiarity. If people knew history, they would recognize the immediately.

These things are all, you know, tied together. It's just
like one long story, and if you know all the points,
then you can see how the story goes. The tactives
have worked in the past, and every so often you
see old tactics being dusted off and maybe rebranded. But
there's the same thing. What if Wayne's right, What if

the story is repeating? Is white mob violence returning as
a political tool the final recourse for people who feel
their power slipping away from the team's at Cool Zone Media,
I Heart Radio and novel. This is the Assault on
America Episode one, The Digital Fever Spot The Road to

the Capital Riot on January sixth, twenty twenty one, starts
with a lie. You've probably heard people talk about the
big lie. It's a term that dates back to before
the Second World War. You'll see a lot of quotes
about the big lie attributed to Joseph Gebel's or Adolf Hitler,
but neither man was the kind to admit their own falsehoods.

The best definition of how big lie tactics work really
comes from a profile the O. S. S, precursor to
the c I A wrote about Hitler quote. His primary
rules were never allow the public to cool off, Never
admit a fault or wrong, Never concede that there may
be some good in your enemy, Never leave room for alternatives,

never except blame. Concentrate on one enemy at a time,
and blame him for everything that goes wrong. People will
believe a big lie sooner than a little one, and
if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or
later believe it. The most recent and most dangerous big
lie to hit US politics is the falsehood that the

U S presidential election was fraudulent. It says that once
you discount the dumped ballots, the Venezuelan voting machines, the
dead voters, the voting dogs, the biased election officials, and
all the other totally plausible reasons. Then Joe Biden didn't
win the US election at all. Rather, he lost by
millions of votes. According to the big lie, Donald Trump

took the White House in November, and it wasn't even close.
On January six, the whole world saw where that lie
took us. What we have yet to see is how
much further it can still take us. Was the siege
at the capital the last convulsion of a dying Trump

presidency or was it the start of a new civil war.
I'm Robert Evans, an investigative journalist at Bellancat, and in
this series, I'll be investigating the why, the how, and
the who behind the first mass breach of the US
capital since the British stormed Washington in eighteen fourteen. I'm

going to dig into the events of January six in
forensic detail, all identify key players who spread disinformation and
helped to create a riot. I'll speak to those who
know them best and the experts trying to figure out
how we got here. With their help, I'll trace the
stories of instigators, militia leaders, and far right influencers whose

poison has seeped into every corner of America and honestly
might be the thing that tears us all apart. It's
a fraud and it's a shame. I'm talking about some
massive straight lines up in the vote tallies after they've
supposedly stopped counting. We'll shut down is country. We have

to the bike patch does the right thing. We win
the election. I've been plotting, I've been planning. I've been
scheming to damn today. It's the day American patriots start
taking down names and Chicken as he's any school relationship

is on the ground here where we went on the
cab overran the Capitol. In the Capital, they've got the
gallows bit upside of the Capitol building. This guy can
start fucking years and up in the cap and the
revolution we will. We will stop the steel. To understand

how the Capital riot was conceived and planned, we have
to get into some pretty murky online spaces. This is
kind of my home turf. Unfortunately for me, I spend
quite a lot of my time lurking on what you
might call controversial internet message boards places like eight chan,
and encrypted social media apps like telegram. These online communities

are filled with trolls pretending to be neo Nazis, Neo
Nazis pretending to be patriots, militiamen LARPing as real soldiers,
and actual soldiers viewing far right hate. I think of
these places as a kind of digital fever swamp. My
job is to document what happens when this swamp leaks
into the real world. Usually I'm monitoring small, dangerous groups,

the type of people who celebrate racist mass shootings like
the christ Church massacre. They spend these atrocities into propaganda,
creating false narratives that serve their cause with the big Lie.
Donald Trump applied this tactic to an entire nation. He
pulled off the biggest gas light in modern US history
in terms of online poison seeping into everyday life. This

was the bp oil spill of disinformation. Here's how it started.
Following the results of the November elections, the conversation really
shifted from people talking about the possibility of election fraud
to really believing that election fraud happened. Shira Frankel is
a tech reporter for the New York Times. Like me,

she spends an unhealthy amount of time online monitoring far
right groups, she witnessed in real time how a single
lie born online jumped like a plague bearing fleet into
people's minds. It really started in the day after the elections,
and it started as a Facebook group. On November four,

the day after the presidential election, Shearin noticed a new
group on Facebook. Welcome. It read to Stop the Steel
You're hearing the audio from a grainy video that was
posted on the original Stopped the Steel group. The footage

shows a crowd of Trump supporters gathered outside a voting
facility in Detroit, trying to stop officials from counting the
remaining votes, the majority of which were postal votes favoring Biden.
The pixelated, shaky footage quickly went viral. As it spread

across Facebook, more and more people found the new group.
This Facebook group grew faster than any other group I've
ever seen on Facebook, and I monitor these things quite closely.
And I recalled allowing Facebook up that day and saying,
do you see the numbers in this group? Every time
I checked their thousands of new members, and one of
their engineers where I was speaking to you you, said, the
numbers are crazy. We haven't seen this before. By the

morning of Thursday, November five, less than twenty two hours
after it was created. The group numbered more than three
d and twenty thousand users. By this point, the Detroit
video wasn't the only thing on there. They were sharing
videos and photographs that they claimed showed people illegally voting.
A lot of those photos were manipulated. Those videos were

some of them not even from this election cycle. One
of the really popular ones, you know, they showed dump
trucks of ballots, sort of dumping up of shredders going
through and shredding ballots. I'm watching all of the ballots
being shredded now one. Now those videos are real. They

come from previous elections where after the vote is counted
in tally, the election officials were shredd documents and that's
just something that happens. Or when you're done going through envelopes,
you will dump the empty envelopes, or sometimes you're dumping
blank envelopes to make sure they don't get used for
fraudulent purposes. So it's about taking things from the Internet
and just pulling them out of context and making them
frightening enough to people believe that this is actually showing

you vote to fraud. The crazy thing is it works.
If people think they're candidate is being cheated out of
an election, they'll do something about it. Who wouldn't. In
November and December, there were Stopped to Steel rallies almost
every weekend across America. Many of those attending echoed the

same points they saw online. If there's one vote that
is fraudulent, that's enough for me. This isn't a research project.
I'm not looking for statistically significant stuff. At what point
did Facebook, you know, put the kai bosh on all this?
Facebook shut down the original Stop Steel group fairly quickly

for violating its rules, and they were posting a ton
of misinformation and fake videos, and there was you know,
sorts of virtual in there. The problem, which we often
find to be the problem with Facebook, is that they
shut down one group, but they let dozens or even
hundreds of other groups remain. When Facebook execs pulled the
plug on the original Stop the Steel Facebook group, the

damage was already done. There were dozens of other similar
groups sharing the same videos, spreading the same rumors, promoting
the same conspiracy theories fraudulent. The poison was spreading at

an unstoppable rate, and soon it's spilled over from Facebook
to the other platforms. It was this kind of piecemeal
approach which gave them time to move to Telegram and
to gathergely to all these other social media sites. It said, well,
if we get shut down, here, give us your email
address and we'll put you on our list server, and
we'll make sure that you stay in touch with us,

and we can keep feeding you this misinformation. And when
Facebook act in that way, when they act in a
piecemeal way or in a in a very slow kind
of way, it gives the bad actors time to organize
and rally and find a way around them. In short,
the horse had bolted, but Shira didn't let the story
escape her so easily. As the Trump supporters dispersed to

right leaning social media apps like parlor and gab, where
users can spread disinformation unchallenged, Shira went with them by
joined hundreds of different groups across different social media channels
that were dedicated to supporting him. How did you kind
of see the narratives and the conversations in these online
spaces shift In the weeks leading up to the capital attack,

after there were a series of legal complaints against the
elections that seemed to fail one after another, and these
sort of ongoing promises by President Trump and people in
his team that they would find people who had voted
illegally and they would find that the vote had actually
been fraudulent. People really amped up and believed that they're
sending millions of ballots all over the country. There's fraud.

They found him in Greeks. They found some with the
name Drumped just the other day in a waste paper basket.
And so the closer we got to January, the more
the more angry really the conversation was. The more people
who seemed to believe that the election had been stolen
from them, and that these moments in time that they
thought were going to reveal the truth, these lawsuits that

they thought were going to succeed, or these election results
that were going to be overturned. Every time that didn't happen,
they were more and more angry at the results of
the November elections. In the immediate lead up to the sixth,
did you see conversations about what kind of equipment they
planned to bring. As we got closer to January six

we started to see real time planning of how people
wanted to get to Washington and where they were going
to be staying. And part of that conversation in volved
weapons as well. People discussed are you going to put
a gun in the trunk of your car? Are you
going to come armed? What kind of bullets are you
going to bring with you? There was discussions of the
legality of transporting weapons across state lines, and then they

seem to be very real planning happening around bringing weapons
to Washington. What started as a single Facebook group on
November four had morphed into a national movement. People who
were once ordinary Facebook users are now one obscure far
right apps discussing the kind of ammunition that might be
best suited to helping them storm the nation's capital. What

was frightening is that you had members of the Republican Party.
You had voting officials coming out time and again and saying,
we've found no claims of vote fraud. You know, we've
looked at the lawsuits, We've given people a chance to
count and recount, and it's not here. You should trust
that your vote matters. You should trust that our voting
systems are secure. The most powerful condemnation of the trunk
campaigns fraud claims happened in Georgia. On December one, an

election official named Gabriel Sterling lost his cool during a
press statement. It had all gone too far, all of it.
It has to stop. Shortly before his speech, an election
official working under Sterling received a death threat, accompanied by

the image of a noose. Death threats, physical threats, intimidation.
It's too much. It's not right the way Sterling saw it,
Trump's claims about the election, We're putting officials in danger,
and to what end? Everyone knew the claims were bullshit,

These unsubstantiated claims. Are these claims that were just there
were false? Right Like? People investigated and they found that
these were not real claims. People still wanted to believe that,
and that's that's rightening. I think the public well of
information was being poisoned and people were knowingly drinking from it.
The sickness that followed was inevitable. I was sitting at

home in my office and I had a couple of
screens open on my laptop, and then I had a
second screen that was set up. One was on a
YouTube channel, another was tweet deck. On January six, Shira
was monitoring her screens, tracking the movements of the extremely
online crowd that gathered in d C. Good America. The

day started with a series of speeches at the Ellipse,
a park situated a few hundred yards south of the
White House. I watched a sort of the rally launched
and the speakers went on stage. They can lie, they
can cheat, they can steal. My father has started a movement,
and this movement will never ever die. I was waiting

for the moment where Trump got on stage that was right,
curious to hear what he would say, and I knew
that would likely play a large role in the response
of the crowd. I've been in two elections. I won
them both, and the second one I won much bigger
than the first. Okay, I remember vividly the moment where
he talked about march on the building. I think I
can't remember the words he used. And after this, we're

gonna walk down and I'll be there with you. We're
gonna walk down to the capital and we're gonna cheer
on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we're
probably not gonna be cheering so much for some of them,

because you'll never take back our country with weakness. It
sounded like a rallying cry when I heard it, and
so at that point I started looking more and more
at some of the chats I was in, and people
were giving each other instructions about how to get to
the Capitol building. And I think that was the first
moment where I realized, oh, this might go off the rails.

Like many of us, Shira was glued to her computer
as the crowd turned by looked That feeling of this
is going sideways intensified as they broke through that first
police barricade towards the Capitol Building, and you could watch
all this in a live stream. One of the things

I was doing is I was finding new live streams
as they were happening. Yo, Yo, we're on the steps
of the US Capitol. We're going in. I remember one
point I was watching a guy with a camera, and
then I recognized somebody behind him, a right wing figure
with another camera right behind him, and so I went
to go find his live stream because I knew they
would have different angles on the same scene. The moment

they got up to the building, when it was clear
they were actually reaching the building, we were just sort
of watching this in real time. And what was amazing
was that how many people felt emboldened to record this
in real time and to eric live foots on the ground. Here,
we're moving on to Capitol. We gotta stoys. This is

the key point. The Capitol riot was a frenzy of
content creation. Rioters recorded themselves, often maskless, sometimes declaring their
own names to the camera, proudly boasting of the crimes
they were actively committing. Patriots actually just storing the Capitol

building up. And they didn't just record their actions, they
also recorded what they were thinking. The people are piste off,
we're standing up for the truth. Keep sucking with us,
funking around and find out. Right after the riot, it
was clear what the general mood was. Content. People were hyped,

they were gloating. There was a lot of boasts of
you know, whose office did you get into, did you
take anything? A lot of people posting selfies to show
off where they had been. I think the mood was
was jubilant. I don't think people understood the gravity of
what had happened. It's kind of amusing that so many

rioters put themselves on a plate for federal prosecutors will
meet some of those rioters later in the series. But
what's clear from the digital breadcrumbs is that this riot
would not have happened without social media. That's where people
met and exchanged ideas. That's where plans were hatched and
logistics ironed out. Social media bosses will argue that when

you connect the entire world, it's possible the odd coup
might get planned on your platform. Plotters are gone a plot.
But if only, if only armed insurrection was all we
had to worry about. The deeper problem, arguably, is that
the very notion of reality in America is fractured beyond repair.

Broadly speaking, there was this kind of I cannot believe
this happened, you know, in the hours and days after
one six. Charlie Warzl is a technology reporter. He writes
a newsletter about the Internet called Galaxy Brain. Like me
and others who dwell in the swamp for a living,
January six wasn't the biggest shock for him. Anyone who's
even dipped their toes into the extremism researcher reporting waters

is like, no, this is this is why people have
been so concerned for so long, Like this seemed inevitable,
not some some wild outcome I'm curious what you find
particularly malign about the way that Facebook group's function or
at least the way they impact people. Yeah, so there's

this great conference that Facebook through. It was like a
summit in Chicago, Illinois. Mark Zuckerberg kicked it off. Before
we get started today, I want to introduce myself. This
is like one of those things you're not paying attention
to unless or like a tech writer, nerd or really

into it. Mark and I'm a member of the Zuckerberg
Family group. And it was all about how Facebook was
going to sort of shift it's focus into communities, right.
The idea behind our new mission is to bring the
world closer together. He was trying to model Facebook groups

and things like that around the way things work in
the physical world, which is you don't come in your
community and immediately say, all right, I need to find
a knitting group, I need to find you know, book club,
and need to find this and just sort of like
willy nilly cast around. The idea is like your ties
and networks are the ones that say, hey, I'm part
of this book club. You want to join something like that.
You may think you're just creating a space for new

moms or for bird watchers or for locksmiths. But when
you give people a way to connect and a sense
of support, it can lead to important changes. What it
ended doing was, you know, taking this sort of nuanced
cultural societal way that humans operate and just like mapping

it onto like a recommendation algorithm. And it was just
incredibly blunt. And so what Facebook began doing was basically
saying like, oh, I see you're doing this, Let's give
you more of that, Let's push you deeper into that.
Because of my own work investigating the far right, I

subscribe to hundreds of Telegram channels, gab accounts, parlor feeds,
all that good stuff. But the people on the platforms
I study are already far gone. Facebook groups, on the
other hand, that's where folks come to get radicalized. When
I was hanging out in right wing Facebook groups, it
became increasingly obvious that not only where the groups growing quickly,

but that as soon as you join one, you start
getting shared others. I get invited to a group where
people they're joking about Hawaiian shirts, and before I know it,
I'm in a new group where people are talking very
seriously about shooting federal re agents. For real, this stuff
is not hard to find. You accept a couple of recommendations,

you go where you're pointed by the algorithm, and hey,
you're hob nobbing with some of the scariest people in America,
and the admins who create these groups know exactly how
to speed you along the journey. Facebook release report after
one six and it showed that, like all the stuff,
the Steel groups were in large part driven by a

small core of superinviters that would basically find people via
different groups and build audiences based off of these common interests.
And so, I mean, I think that the groups has
so so much to do with it, because not only
are you talking about insular communities on their own that
are sort of away from people, where you know they

can kind of become more and more intense, but you're
also talking about a network of those groups that are
just constantly being thrown into your face. And I think
that it was really just a way of pushing people
further down that radicalization funnel. For their part, Facebook does
say that it's been more aggressive than ever at labeling

misleading posts, clamping down on conspiracy theories, and amplifying credible
information about voting It's not a new observation that social
media funnels our interests towards outrage and extreme opinions. But
what I think hasn't been appreciated is just how many
people went down this path after the election to stop

The Steel campaign fell like a guillotine, severing the connection
between millions of Trump supporters and the basic reality of
the election result, and social media was the perfect medium
for the message. Would it be fair to say that
social media rewards and even makes people famous for being
better at lying and distributing misinformation? Oh? Yeah, completely. You know,

these algorithms a reward high engagement subjects, many of which
provoke pretty strong emotions. The strongest emotions tend to be
outrage and feeling victimized, and you know in group out,
group exclusions, and so yeah. I mean, I think the
architecture of these platforms is geared towards attention first and
like civic responsibility a hundred and thirty five. And as

long as that's the case, the attention is gonna win
out every single time. There's no way anyone could tell
me the joke Biden one this election wrong. Is not
trying to overturn the election. He is trying to get
the real election results to be heard, the real election.
What do you think is the end result? We're in
this place now where at least in the low tens

of millions of Americans believe in what is functionally an
alternative reality, you know, not just may have a conspiracy
or two, not just like, oh maybe I'm curious about
the jfk assassination whatever, but believe in like a fully
separate reality. Do you think that bubble ever bursts or
do you think more and more people just become siloed

off to what is effectively another world. I don't get
the sense that this is a bubble that bursts, Like
I think that this is pretty durable for a lot
of people. I'm very worried. Like I think candidly, I'm
in a period right now where I'm trying to sort

of not think about it for just a couple of
weeks or months, because I just know it's getting worse.
But not on a very public level. I think post Trump,
you know, everyone's sort of collectively said, Okay, can I
take a break, can I recharge my batteries? And personally
I'm doing that because I think what we're in for
is a lot more of the same with a higher intensity,

and soon we're not going to the luxury of not
paying attention to it fully, and that's pretty scary. There's
a term I didn't invent it, but it's come to
define what I think is the single largest problem we

face in our culture right now. That term is weaponized unreality.
Here's how it works. You're a person for whom the
observable facts of reality are problematic. Maybe you're an oil
and gas company. It's the nineteen seventies and you don't
want people to think climate change is a thing, so
you start paying pr people in shady media types to

help you build an unreality when we're the problems caused
by your product don't exist. Most of us are familiar
with how big businesses use unreality. The most prominent example
is probably the tobacco industry. Weaponized unreality takes that a
step further. If you're a demagogue politician who as an election,

you might blame the people who won legitimately for orchestrating
a vasked conspiracy to steal the election, and you might
dog whistle towards other conspiracies, ones that suggest your political
opponents are satanic pedophiles working to destroy the country. This
allows you to say face and keep breaking in donations.
But if you succeed in convincing millions of people that

they're under constant, deadly attack by real people who really exist, well,
they might try to murder those people. A Reuter's and
Ipsos poll from March found that of all Americans think
that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. The simple
fact of the matter is that tens of millions of

Americans live in realities so different that they cannot continue
to coexist. It's fine if your neighbor believes in Bigfoot,
but if he believes you're planning to steal the blood
of his children for black magic, you probably can't keep
living together. As long as social media companies decide that
the best way to engage people is to rile them up,

push them closer and closer to the edge, there will
be bad actors who decide to profit from just shoving
those folks right over it. In the next episode of
The Assault on America, we meet one of the most
nefarious actors in this entire story. He's a shady political

operative who made January sixth happen, and most people don't
have a clue who he is. It's time to meet
the man behind the lie. I've been plotting. I've been planning.
I've been scheming that's coming up in episode two of
the Assault on America.
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