Four people were killed as police clashed with Donald Trump supporters at the US Capitol on Wednesday, where Congress was confirming the results of the 2020 election – but how were these rioters organised?
The mob who ravaged the Capitol had travelled from across the country to gather for a rally held by the president that morning during which he repeated his baseless claim that the election had been “stolen”.
Mr Trump then directed his supporters to march on the Capitol building where the electoral college votes for Joe Biden were being certified. As Mr Biden would later declare: “At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”
The instruction to march was what many had been waiting for. It was a message condoning them to interrupt what the sitting president of the United States had told them was a fraudulent election and to “stop the steal” as their motto went.
It wasn’t the first show of violence or threatening behaviour from the president’s supporters.
Two months ago some had descended on election counting centres to intimidate staff counting mail-in ballots.
These people who had protested outside of election centres and who travelled to DC were not part of a singular hierarchical organisation. They came from a range of extremist pro-Trump communities that mainly gathered online.
Some of these communities had names, from the conspiratorial QAnon movement through to the more overtly racist Proud Boys, and the second civil war agitating Boogaloo Bois. Others did not openly identify with any known group.
Ashli Babbitt, a woman killed by police while inside the Capitol building, had regularly tweeted in support of the QAnon movement.
She and the other supporters were bound by a cultural affinity rather than membership dues within a single organisation, and were primarily organised online. The policies of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter had been updated to address the growing popularity of these movements on these platforms and the risk of violence they posed – banning some members and driving them to fringe forums such as Parler or 8chan (now 8kun).
Dr Evan Lawrence, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Central Lancaster, told Sky News a parallel could be drawn between the structure and organisation of the pro-Trump groups and terrorist organisations due to how they organised online.
“The structure of terrorist groups that we’ve seen over the past 10 or 15 years, we’re talking about groups like Islamic State, we find they have an online recruitment strategy that is along the lines of ‘do what you can, where you can, with what you can’.”
“Looking at the radical Trump supporters we’re starting to see, there doesn’t seem to be an exact structure yet, but I think we’re starting to see a fracturing of the Republican Party into these really extreme Trump supporters, and within that there are these ones who are extremely right-wing, very pro-guns, very ‘I will fight for my rights’.
“That becomes very dangerous when they start organising online, using social media to organise protests, because the nature of what they’re protesting and how they’re doing it – as you can see with the Capitol – doesn’t take a lot to be incited into violence,” Dr Lawrence explained.
Dr Lawrence told Sky News that in far-right referrals to the UK counter extremism Channel programme now comprised about 50% of all referrals. She said: “When we look at the ways that those groups radicalise, it is mainly online. It’s YouTube videos and Xbox games, it’s using social media. And I think it’s very much predicated on looking for vulnerable people.
“A lot of the time it’s only a matter of who finds you first, whether it’s a terrorist group, or sexual exploitation, or drugs and gangs. The one thing they all have in common is preying upon vulnerability.”
A report published in 2017 by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said extreme-right groups were using “technically sophisticated and culturally sensitive techniques… to radicalise the younger generations”.
“The extreme right is making a concerted effort to weaponise internet culture in an explicit attempt to radicalise young people,” the ISD’s Jacob Davey told Sky News at the time.
“Memes are effective for quickly transferring material – it is in their nature to be shareable. This is a strategic decision to try and broadcast their ideology,” Mr Davey added.
Even the extreme pro-Trump community is geographically dispersed and in a way diverse within its own narrow band of acceptable views, from QAnon to the Boogaloo Bois, it was never truly decentralised.
Observations made by Sky News found these fringe platforms were not significant locations for mobilisation. Even if they offered sympathisers a space to workshop memes and speak using racist language without being moderated, the community still took its messaging from Donald Trump’s accounts on Twitter and Facebook.
On the morning of Wednesday 6 January, the crowd – which had been encouraged to attend by another tweet made by the president back in December – was worked up by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani repeating false claims about election tabulation machines before calling for “trial by combat”.
The president himself would later address the rally, telling his supporters: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated.”
He then added: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard today.”
This message was heard by those in attendance and shared on Twitter and Facebook, as were subsequent statements. One of these, a video recorded during the riot by the president, was restricted on both platforms with Facebook explaining it did so “because on balance we believe it contributes to, rather than diminishes, the risk of ongoing violence”.
Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos said, during the riot and before either platform had suspended the president’s account, that they needed to “cut him off” adding that “labelling won’t do it”.
“There have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance,” Mr Stamos warned.
“The last reason to keep Trump’s account up was the possibility that he would try to put the genie back in the bottle,” Mr Stamos wrote, referencing the video recorded by the president. “But as many expected, that is impossible for him.
“There will always be the alt-sites and peer-to-peer, but at least the damage he does would be more contained,” he added.