Violent threats against January 6 witnesses spread to fringe sites

In the hours after former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson shocked the country with her testimony before the House committee investigating the January 6 attacks, people on the fringes of Internet began to plot their revenge.

“She would be fun to smash…with a hammer,” wrote one user on the anonymous 4chan forum.

“Cassidy Hutchison should get the death penalty, that’s all,” said another person on pro-Trump forum Patriots.win.

“Ropes, people, no more ropes,” said one user who claimed to be at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. The person indicated in a later post that they were on their way to Hutchinson’s home.

The attacks on Hutchinson are part of a larger pattern of violent threats on fringe social media directed at witnesses testifying before Congress about the Capitol insurgency. Since the committee began holding prime-time hearings in June, the nonprofit Advance Democracy has identified a wave of vitriol targeting key witnesses and prominent Jan 6 committee lawmakers on forums. websites known to promote extremism and right-wing views. They include Gab, the .win forums, and Truth Social, former President Donald Trump’s social media company.

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Some of these social networks and their offshoots also hosted violent threats against election officials and lawmakers in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack.

Advance Democracy’s findings show that these threats continue to proliferate online, undermining the committee’s efforts to get a clear account of the assault on democracy. Some posts and comments contain calls to organize armed groups and suggest a willingness to engage in another violent insurgency.

The committee investigated the role that online platforms, ranging from fringe sites to Facebook and Twitter, played in inciting violence at the Capitol that left five dead, dozens of police officers injured and hundreds making the subject of prosecution. The continued violent rhetoric is a troubling sign of what could be to come, especially as Trump and his allies push false narratives about Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, researchers say.

“Only a few years ago these views were marginal, but now, with the widespread promotion of these narratives by political leaders, elected officials and media personalities, the threat of political violence has never been greater,” said Daniel Jones, president of Advancing Democracy, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts public interest investigations. Jones previously worked as an investigator for the FBI and the Senate, where he wrote the Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

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Federal law prohibits using the Internet to harass or stalk someone or make threats across state lines, according to the nonprofit organization PEN America, which advocates for free speech. But it is unclear what investigations have been undertaken into the threats.

The United States Capitol Police referred questions about their investigation of the threats to the Justice Department and the FBI. Capitol Police said they do not comment on potential investigations for security reasons, but added in a statement that their investigators “take seriously all threats and statements regarding.”

The FBI declined to say whether it had opened any specific investigations, but said in a statement it also takes all threats of violence “seriously” and is working with other enforcement partners. laws to investigate them.

The January 6 committee declined to comment on security arrangements for witnesses.

The Advance Democracy report includes multiple examples of online threats that called for the execution or torture of witnesses and lawmakers and suggested they deserved to be hanged or face death by firing squad for have committed treason.

“We must treat everyone involved in the imprisonment and torture of the J6ers as we did with the guards and leaders of the Nazi death camps. Public hangings,” a user wrote on Patriots.win in August, according to the report.

After the committee released a video of Army Gen. Mark A. Milley describing the Pentagon’s communications with Vice President Mike Pence, a Gab user wrote that the Defense official “must be charged, prosecuted, then executed for treason”.

Russell “Rusty” Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House, has come under fierce attack on the Truth Social app and TheGreatAwakening.win, where a user, who previously claimed on the forum to be a Proud Boy , called him. “fall down a flight of stairs”.

Spokespersons for the sites where the threats emerged said they were cooperating with law enforcement investigating the threats. Andrew Torba, Gab’s CEO, said in an email that when an “unlawful threat” is posted on the website, the company will “respond promptly to any legal process served on us by law enforcement.” .

Truth Social spokeswoman Shannon Devine said the platform is “a family-friendly free speech platform that does not condone violent threats or incitement.”

How to protect yourself from online harassment

The committee sought to highlight how Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election results have opened election officials across the country to threats of violence, both offline and online. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (right) described how he received ‘just under 4,000 text messages in a short period of time’ after Trump retweeted his phone number, urging him to change state election results. Other witnesses described threats to their homes. Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (right) testified that someone tried to break into his daughter’s house. Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” votes to overturn his defeat in a recording of a phone call previously reported by The Washington Post.

Experts who study online harassment and extremism are not surprised that violent rhetoric is spreading on these social networks, which have positioned themselves as alternatives to traditional social networks where policies limit violent and hateful rhetoric and where technologies have been designed to detect it.

But the threats continue to wreak havoc even if the sites where they appear are relatively small, experts say. The biggest is 4chan, which averaged nearly 6 million unique visitors per month between June and August, according to an analysis by SimilarWeb. .win forums are smaller — Patriots.win, the most popular .win forum, had an average of 403,295 unique visitors per month during the same period.

“It’s designed to intimidate them,” said Danielle Citron, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied cyberstalking and online bullying, of the threats. “It increases the price of the testimony of reality, of political violence.”

Citron warns that fringe networks will continue to foment violence without more law enforcement efforts to enforce existing laws or regulatory change that would reward social media sites for better monitoring of their sites. .

The continuation of the violent rhetoric comes after Democrats promised to create new internet regulations that would address the role played by social media platforms in inciting the crowds that descended on Capitol Hill. Yet 21 months after the attacks, Democrats have been unable to use their tight control of Congress to follow through on those promises.

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Lawmakers were expected to consider amending Section 230, a decades-old legal provision that shields social networks from lawsuits for photos, posts and videos people share on their services. But no proposal to update the law to combat extremism has advanced in Congress, amid partisan divisions over the role tech companies should play in monitoring online speech. The White House has called for law reforms and held forums focused on online extremism and gender harassment. But the Biden administration has not approved a specific proposal to change the law.

In a proposal that has been circulated among Democrats in Congress, Citron called for Section 230 to be updated so that websites only have legal immunity from harassment and harassment if they can show that they have taken “reasonable measures” to prevent such abuses. She also argues that protections should not be extended to sites that deliberately encourage or permit such activity.

Citron warns that in the meantime, online extremism could get worse.

“We’re going to see escalations,” she said. “Threats to democracy will become more acute than they already are.”

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