Despite a dramatically strong start to 2021, things have not exactly gone according to plan for right-wing conspiracy theorists, QAnon cultists, white supremacists, and their assorted, sordid sympathizers. The Great Awakening appears much delayed, Trump has not reclaimed his “rightful” seat in the Oval Office, race wars remain elusive, and JFK Jr. is still nowhere to be found. It makes one wonder — what have reactionary extremists been doing with all their unexpected free time?
The answer: Growing increasingly paranoid, plotting their next strategic moves, and rebranding to (barely) distance themselves from the January 6 riot. Unfortunately, they apparently have been very successful at achieving all those goals.
Shaken and stirred — According to a new, meticulously documented report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, those involved in the January 6 Capitol Hill debacle have done quite a bit of soul-searching in the wake of their domestic terrorist incursion. Of course, said soul-searching hasn’t resulted in any changes of heart, but rather a doubling down on their dangerous beliefs.
When they weren’t getting arrested for storming the Senate, many leaders in these various movements have continued working to rewrite the narrative, changing these literal definitions of violent, deadly insurrectionists into brave, peaceful patriots expressing their very legitimate concerns about the nation’s direction. In part spooked by federal authorities’ investigations, groups like the Proud Boys, various Three-Percenter organizations, and neo-Nazis have encouraged followers to realign their efforts towards local issues like “critical race theory” and running in municipal elections instead of planning further large scale events like January 6.
Textbook rebranding — The DFRLab’s paper also sheds a great deal of light onto how many right-wing extremists continue their attempts to “normalize” and whitewash their beliefs to make them more palatable to conservative audiences of channels like Fox News and OANN.
“By forming nonprofits and conducting traditional political activities like phone banking and hosting conferences, extremist movements have sought to establish political legitimacy within mainstream conservative circles to attract support,” explains Jared Holt, author of DFRLab’s analysis. Other tactics include inserting themselves into contentious social issue debates to provide “an entry vehicle into mainstream online discourse.”
These kinds of efforts have already proven disturbingly successful, as Fox News pundits like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham repeatedly parroted talking points and dog whistles like White Replacement Theory and spurious Antifa scaremongering.
“This week Tucker Carlson redpilled 4 million people and there is nothing liberals can do about it,” white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes tweeted following one of Carlson’s episodes last April. “Can you feel it? We are inevitable,” he tweeted in a follow-up message.
Constructing an alternate reality — As mainstream social media platforms slowly took some responsibility over the past year via banning misinformation purveyors and conspiracy theorists, many right-wing followers have taken to alternative apps like Gab, Parler, and Telegram in droves. These venues allow virtually unrestricted speech platforms for domestic extremists to spread their messages and recruit new adherents. Although still nowhere near as popular as sites like Twitter and Facebook, these services allow fringe groups to construct their own alternate realities and economies.
As Holt explains, “Many of these calls effectively build on growing antigovernment sentiment... and drive action toward disengaging with society on a broader scale to weaken the United States,” during the Biden administration.
Although it is unlikely social media apps like Gab, GETTR, and Telegram will ever top mainstream options, these venues provide ample space for extremists to hone their messages and plans for the future. Meanwhile, their retreat into smaller scale, local issues and political battles enable a grassroots approach to radicalization. Societal response to the January 6 riots was enough to sow disarray within these reactionary groups, but they appear ready and willing to adapt as needed for what’s ahead.