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Shifts in Domestic Extremist Movement Rhetoric, Two Years After the Capitol Siege 

Shifts in Domestic Extremist Movement Rhetoric, Two Years After the Capitol Siege 
6th January 2023 Ilana Krill
In Insights

Much has been written about the Capitol riot on January 6 2021, but its aftereffects on a burgeoning domestic violent extremism landscape are yet to be fully realised and continue to reverberate throughout the movement. Two years on, the ensuing investigation remains the FBI’s largest probe in U.S. history, eclipsing the 9/11 investigations. Over 900 people have been charged for their participation in the Capitol siege as law enforcement continues to levy new charges. The January 6 Committee recently concluded its years-long investigation that outlined the various intelligence failures and overt actions that led to the storming of the Capitol.

Despite the progress of current federal investigations, members of domestic violent extremist (DVE) groups and the far-right posit very different rhetoric surrounding the activities of January 6 2021 to this very day. Two years ago, DVE movement members and their supporters rallied around narratives to “Stop the Steal” of the 2020 election by disrupting the Electoral College certification process. Since then, the discourse has shifted among DVE movements, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, to subtly distance themselves from the events of January 6. The evolution of such narrativesboth online and offlinehighlights DVE groups’ ability to weather the storm and harden in the face of increased federal scrutiny. This Insight reviews the changing dialogue among DVE members and groups present at the Capitol siege, and how such historical revisionism presents further challenges for countering the fractured extremist landscape.

Narrative in the Days After January 6 2021

As U.S. citizens and people around the world began to process the  Capitol siege, DVE group members and participants celebrated the events, boasted their escapades online, and promised further action. Using online platforms and messaging applications, participants left stark footprints across online messaging applications and social media, aiding federal officers in proceeding criminal investigations. Their brazen activity indicated that the Capitol siege may have ignited a larger fire within DVE movements to motivate and entice new recruits with similar societal and political grievances. However, their methods would gradually shift from embracing open pride to using caution and historical revisionism over time.

Other participants advocated for follow-up attacks on local targets, including local infrastructure and political figures. For example, Thomas Edward Cauldwell, a leader of the Oath Keepers convicted of conspiracy-related crimes for his participation in the siege, publicly stated his intentions to attempt another attack, messaging: “We need to do this at the local level… Lets [sic] storm the capitol in Ohio. Tell me when!” In mid-December 2022, January 6 participants Edward Kelly and Austin Carter were charged in the Eastern District of Tennessee for plotting to assassinate 37 FBI law enforcement officers as retaliation for their Capitol siege investigations into Kelly and his subsequent arrest. Furthermore, Guy Reffit, a January 6 participant from Dallas, plotted with fellow members of the Three Percenters to shoot up a social media company’s infrastructure and generator/servers right after January 6. Undercover federal authorities observed a video call recording where Reffit discussed using sniper rifles to take out the company’s server. Such plots were partially fuelled by a renewed dedication to the cause after the perceived ‘success’ of the attack on Congress. However, these plots were short-lived and began to diminish as investigations progressed and the FBI unveiled more charges. 

Shifts in Narratives Since 2021 

As the January 6 investigations enter into their third year, DVE members have adopted historically revisionist narratives that distort the Capitol riot events. Although each narrative accepts a different degree of reality, all attempt to obfuscate and distort the events of January 6. in attempts to divert responsibility and conceal the identities of participants. Some of these narratives acknowledge the events of January 6 but depict participants as patriots and heroes. Others include conspiracy theories that portray the siege as a plot by the government or leftists to persecute Trump supporters. 

Government Overreach 

Across the spectrum of online DVE rhetoric, the most prevalent online narrative is the accusation of government overreach.  In their view, the government unlawfully prosecuted peaceful protesters —convicting them as “political prisoners” and holding them in “DC gulags.” For example, one user wrote:

“Now we know why the democrats took political prisoners. They knew the election was stolen. They wanted to show us what would happen if we pushed back against the treasonous act. Jan 6 was used to break us. We know the truth but they have us scared.”

These accusations depict the January 6 prosecutions as a political scheme against Trump supporters. Extremists online dismiss that January 6 was a violent riot and contrast its “peaceful” nature to the “violence” witnessed during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests during the summer of 2020. By comparing the number of deaths, the level of property damage, and the number of imprisoned protesters in these two events, they accuse the government and law enforcement of having double standards. This discourse attempts to isolate, then unify, conservative and far-right supporters, as well as entice new recruits and support for DVE groups by providing a semi-vocal, online support system. 

Coinciding with online shifts, DVE groups have altered offline protest tactics to invigorate the groups’ appeal and save face as January 6 prosecutions continue. One main effort centres around convicted and incarcerated January 6 participants who have been writing letters from prison. Their goals have been to fundraise for their cause in addition to associated DVE movements and rally support outside of their cells. DVE groups’ argument of being allegedly persecuted for their beliefs has further intertwined their movements’ narratives with U.S. politics and cast a revisionist story of their unlawful actions at the Capitol. Such efforts to plead the rioters’ cases to sympathetic ears have only further assisted organisational recruitment and efforts to consolidate power in the last few years. 

Leftist and Government Plot      

Other revisionist narratives include conspiracy theories that accuse the ‘left’ and federal agencies of creating the plot to target the former President’s supporters. This rhetoric disregards and manipulates evidence of the January 6 Siege documented in writing, photos, and videos. Initially, efforts to rewrite the history of January 6 accused Antifa and other left-wing supporters of conducting a “psyop” by disguising themselves as Trump supporters and assaulting the Capitol Building. In 2023, many revisionist conspiracy theories have evolved to incorporate hints of material evidence such as recorded footage or government documents to strengthen their false narratives and substantiate their claims. On Rumble, one of these conspiracy theories describes the storming of the Capitol as simulated riots of paid actors performing with Hollywood tear gas and mace in front of the media to “further divide the nation.” One video accuses the government of performing a simulation following the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program’s (HSEEP) guiding principles intended to build community resilience for crisis response. It argues that the government followed HSEEP simulation guidelines with players, controllers, simulators, evaluators, and actors on January 6 to persecute Trump supporters. 

Adapting Behaviour      

A review of this rhetoric by outside experts, including the Atlantic Council, found that DVE groups and members began to exercise far greater caution in the first few months after January 6 when speaking publicly. This shift was likely due to a fear of further prosecutions in the first few months after the Capitol siege. Since many participants were identified and prosecuted using their public statements and photos boasting about the Capitol siege, their bragging has shifted to paranoia in online forums and chats. Far-right members have become wary of what they call “glowies,” or informants, spying on their activity. On online forums and messaging platforms, far-right extremists emphasised the need to exercise caution in their statements—avoiding direct threats to maintain plausible deniability if investigated. January 6 participants have provided valuable information to undercover FBI agents and informants, as some have cut deals with law enforcement to lessen their sentences. 

Additionally, DVE movements have shrouded their online organisation efforts to deceive outsiders and become more selective in their recruitment processes. For example, the Proud Boys strengthened its vetting of potential recruits and provided guidelines for recruitment narratives that differ drastically from the rhetoric only granted to organisation members through internal communications. As prosecutions continue, such cooperation with the FBI and active monitoring has sowed doubt about DVE organisations’ reliability and encouraged DVE adherents to proceed with caution.

Even DVE figureheads have cautioned members away from visible action that could hand more ammunition to the federal police. In January 2021, the Oath Keepers’ leadership published a letter warning members to beware of “false flags” that could lure them into being arrested by “the enemy” during public protests and to avoid activity around state capitols. Such guidance pivots distinctly from their bold energy going into the Capitol siege, as well as DVE members’ bold, celebratory, and brash public statements in the weeks after January 6. Although the group has long publicly disavowed their extremist foundations and connection to violence, even the group leaders have attempted to distance themselves from their organisations’ participation in violent incidents. This indicates at least a slight active awareness among varying ranks within DVE organisations of the damage their violence has caused their reputation, undermining the same conspiracies that denounce their siege involvement.

Looking Forward

January 6 posed a seminal point in the U.S. domestic terrorism landscape, but its implications stretch far beyond that day. In the last two years, DVE groups have adapted towards more calculated, precautionary, and revisionist activities to survive in the post-January 6 landscape. DVE tactics may have diluted offline and their organisation decentralised, but their narratives persist and continue to disperse throughout the larger, fragmented DVE movement. 

The public and private sectors, as well as law enforcement agencies, should adapt accordingly to these behavioural shifts. Social media companies have an increasingly challenging role in countering DVE narratives as their language and rhetoric becomes more subtle, calculated, and implicit. Instead of addressing revisionist conspiracy theories as they arise, social media companies may garner awareness by using proactive, forward-thinking strategies and policies to counter disinformation. More recently, some platforms have become a more hospitable space for white supremacist activity and DVE groups and reinstated the accounts of known extremist, bigoted individuals who were previously banned. Since social media users are becoming further exposed to the misinformed, revisionist rhetoric of DVE groups, companies should levy monitoring and partnerships with civil society to regulate and investigate extremist activity.

As the U.S. pulls further away from January 6, the standalone date holds far less meaning than the long-standing convergence of domestic extremist activity and its ramifications on U.S. national security over two years later. While long-term implications on counterterrorism continue to evolve, law enforcement investigations, the seditious conspiracy charges in the January 6 prosecutions, and online platforms’ moderation strategies will dictate how the U.S. system will handle the burgeoning DVE landscape moving forward.

Ilana Krill is a Research Fellow at the Program on Extremism. Before joining PoE, she worked as a research intern for the Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she researched Iranian external operations across the globe. She is a graduate of Brandeis University.Valeria de la Fuente is a graduate of Georgetown Security Studies Master’s Program. Previously, she studied Criminology at the University of Seville. Her area of expertise is the intersection of extremism and technology, and has worked for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Program on Extremism, and Parents for Peace.