On the 6th of January, the world was shocked as the images of Capitol Hill riots were running in real time on both live TV and social media. The violent attack on the United States Congress was carried out by a mob (that was a tiny fraction of a total attendance difficult to ascertain – a roughly-estimated several thousand people) of President Donald Trump’s supporters, that stormed Washington in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Although it cost four dead, different far-right online extremist groups (including pro-Trump QAnon believers and the Proud Boys) celebrated Capitol Hill insurrection as a triumph. It symbolised their fight against democratic institutions and the current political élite, seen as corrupt and illegitimate.
As reported by bbc.com, many high political figures of Western countries and NATO Allies, as well as top leaders of the European Union, condemned and called for peace and an orderly transition of power. NATO SG Jens Stoltenberg expressed his view stating that “The election results must be respected”. On the other hand, Americans’ decline of confidence in mainstream media, the Congress, the Federal Government, and other institutions has been observed in polls since early 2000s, becoming quite a leitmotiv among US public opinion. Moreover, it is a shared belief among Republicans that the electoral process may be subject to irregularities. According to a survey conducted by Gallup, in 2016 a majority of right-wing voters perceived voter fraud as a significant problem.
These already-existing trends laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s narrative of a rigged election to proliferate and to stick in the minds of the target audience. Starting from last April, with seven months still to go to the polls, warnings about a potential voter fraud were overtly stated by Trump both offline and online. Several declarations about rigged election were reported by mainstream media while his comments on digital platforms became viral, generating peaks of users’ interests, conversations, and searches online (see the chart below).
The stage was set for the aftermath of election day: the outgoing President continued to push baseless claims and conspiracy theories about an alleged election fraud, inflaming the most extreme, fringe, radical groups of supporters. As reported by nbc.com, “Election officials across the country who have been harassed and threatened since the election had warned that Trump’s rhetoric would lead to real-world violence”.
In this sense, Capitol Hill riot represents the most striking example of the thriving threats posed by domestic violent far-right terrorism and by the dangerous transition from digital platforms to real life. In the Domestic Terrorism Act of 2019, the Congress reported that far-right wing extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73%) of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death in the USA in the last 15 years – i.e. since the 12th of September, 2001 – while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27%).
Not only right-wing groups are making troubles, actually. Over the last 25 years, the United States has seen the rise and spread of various forms and types of terrorism. Left-wing terrorism is composed by a variety of actors, including anarchists, Antifa, environmentalists, animal rights groups. Religious terrorism still represents a consistent menace, even though the related threats in the US are not as concerning as in Europe. As shown by data based on annual attacks and plots (see the chart below), right-wing terrorism (including white supremacists, anti-government extremists, and incels – women hating involuntary celibates) currently poses the most significant menace to the country, and QAnon makes no exception.
With respect to Capitol breach, Professor Peter R. Neumann tweeted recently that he believes that parts of the group have the potential to “become a more dangerous terrorist threat to America than jihadists: (1) more people; (2) more guns; (3) enemy within (greater potential for polarisation); (4) infiltration of military and police.”. In addition, the consequences of the end of Trump presidency and the recent crackdowns operated by Facebook and Twitter are noteworthy. QAnon followers are already trying to reconstitute their communities on alternative social media platforms, including Telegram and Gab, sites that have long been the haven of far-right groups such as the alt-right, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis. In this regard the risks coming from an increased number of people involved, an ideological mash-up, and further radicalisation should not be ignored. Particularly in times of COVID-19 pandemic, this new wave of far-right extremists may exploit negative economic records, growing unemployment, and rampant inequalities to further promote division, social unrest, and even violence. As a matter of fact, this is not an issue limited to the United States: from Brazil to Norway, from Hungary to India and New Zealand, right-wing extremism is surging as a global problem that requires worldwide solutions.
While building on widened intelligence cooperation and a robust regulatory approach, possible answers to the problem should comprise at least two strategic communications techniques. First, the deployment of on-point counter narratives in the short term to sustain the democratic values under attack. Second, the building of a coherent, engaging, and constructive pre-emptive narrative in the long run, to reduce the number of people vulnerable to extremist rhetoric over time. The suspension of high political figures from social media is a late recovery, and may exacerbate online polarisation and extreme stances. As the 6th of January demonstrated, it is too late to shout out “Don’t think of an elephant!” when the elephant is already in the room and its consequences are unmanageable.
Junior Fellow at the NATO Defense College Foundation since 2020. BA graduate in International Relations, MA student in Public and Political Communication at the University of Turin. He is currently enrolled in the 360/Digital Sherlocks fellowship programme of the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.