A digital flyer made public on Instagram and Facebook in December made little secret of the ambitions of some of the people planning to visit Washington on Jan. 6: “Operation Occupy the Capitol.”
That call to arms is just one of the many warning signs on extremist sites and mainstream social media platforms that extremism experts say were easy to spot but ultimately disregarded by law enforcement in the runup to Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol, which led to the deaths of five people, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, 42, who was reportedly hit with a fire extinguisher during the melee.
On the fringe message board 8kun, which is popular with QAnon followers, for example, users talked for weeks about a siege of the Capitol, some talking about it like a foregone conclusion. Others simply debated how violent the uprising should be, and if police should be exempt.
“You can go to Washington on Jan 6 and help storm the Capital,” said one 8kun user a day before the siege. “As many Patriots as can be. We will storm the government buildings, kill cops, kill security guards, kill federal employees and agents, and demand a recount.”
Some users pushed back. “Why kill cops and security guards? I was under the impression the enemies were the high government officials and the rest are uninformed masses?”The Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit that tracks disinformation trends, cataloged some of the threats before the rally. They said there was a substantial uptick in insurrectionist hashtags both on extremist sites and on the open web, specifically a large bump in traffic around the hashtags “1776” and “Occupy” in the night before the rally.
“When you have tens of thousands of attendees convinced they are a part of a plan to imprison or overthrow lawmakers, however, this possibility, even at a low noise, becomes a plausible threat,” said Alex Goldenberg, the institute’s lead intelligence analyst.
On Thursday, Washington Police Chief Robert Contee said at a news conference that there was “no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol.”
Users on extremist sites have continued to urge armed insurrection even after Wednesday’s siege.
Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who has been warning for months about potential violence from QAnon supporters, said he is particularly worried about extremist groups in the 12 days remaining in President Donald Trump’s presidency.
“I think we better be ready for Jan. 20, and I mean at every state Capitol that was contested, also,” Riggleman said. “We need a coordinated effort to detect groups planning now for Inauguration Day — a whole-of-government approach with public trust, data companies and research universities.”
Reports from numerous news organizations warned that online forums were being flooded with calls for mayhem.
A day before the rally, the investigative journalism website Bellingcat published an article detailing the online convergence of radical conservative groups with QAnon and white supremecist groups leading up to what the president promised would be a “wild protest,” specifically mentioning their online discussion about storming and burning the Capitol and specific threats directed at D.C. government officials and police.
The Washington Post published a similar article, citing specific posts on the encrypted app Telegram and Parler, a Twitter alternative, about sneaking illegal weapons into the rally. NBC News also published an article highlighting the threats, using research from Advance DemocracyInc., a global research organization that studies disinformation and extremism.
“Proud Boys and Hardcore Trump Supporters Are Turning Their Backs on Cops,” was the headline at Vice News on Tuesday, reporting that the arrest of the Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, 36, by D.C. police had resulted in online threats from members to “burn down” the Capitol.
Trump urged his supporters to join his rally in the days before the event. Once at the rally, he urged his supporters to march on the Capitol.
Extremists made little secret of ambitions to ‘occupy’ Capital in weeks before attack The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ NBC News.