The Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics’ Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience and Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) recently released a report titled, “NCRI Assessment of the Capitol Riots: Violent Actors and Ideologies Behind the Events of Jan. 6, 2021.”
John J. Farmer, Jr., director of Eagleton and the Miller Center, discussed the events leading up to and on Jan. 6, as well as the findings of the report.
“When (the Jan. 6 event) happened, we were getting a lot of questions about … who did this? Who are these people?” he said. “We did a quick dive into social media … mostly to dispel the rumors that were starting to spread that it was Antifa behind the Jan. 6 protests.”
Farmer, along with Alex Goldenberg, the lead intelligence analyst at NCRI and Joel Finkelstein, the director of NCRI, discovered seven causes for the riots, according to the report.
Some of these causes included violent vanguard elements coming from far-Right fringe groups, former President Donald J. Trump’s speech being interpreted by some to be a call to march at the Capitol, other high-profile figures inciting violence and explicit plans to occupy the Capitol already circulating on social media before the day itself, according to the report.
They also confirmed that, despite rumors, there is no credible evidence that activists associated with Antifa, an anti-fascist protest movement, were leading or part of the crowd storming the Capitol, according to the report.
“It would have been a very convenient way to deflect responsibility away from supporters of Trump to the Left-wing extremists … I do not know who was (spreading the rumor), but the motivations were pretty clear,” Farmer said.
Farmer, Goldenberg and Finkelstein found real memes and message threads on 8kun, a website associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory, that indicated the willingness of some people to storm the Capitol, with one message reading, “Bring handcuffs and zip ties to D.C. No more tolerating ‘elected’ officials,” according to the report.
“The violence speaks to … just how deeply divided (and) segregated these groups are from mainstream America, to the point where their frustrations have boiled over, and they have become willing to seek answers outside the political process,” Farmer said. “(The Jan. 6 riots were) an attempt to abandon the political process and frustrate the operations of our Constitution.”
This is the fourth collaboration between the Miller Center and NCRI, an independent third party whose mission is to track misinformation and manipulation over social media, after approximately a year of working together, he said.
Goldenberg and Finkelstein first approached Farmer about research they were doing on a previous report titled, “Cyber Swarming, Memetic Warfare and Viral Insurgency: How Domestic Militants Organize on Memes to Incite Violent Insurrection and Terror Against Government and Law Enforcement,” which Farmer co-authored and wrote the foreword.
Since then, some reports they have worked on together include topics such as the QAnon conspiracy, attempts by both the Left and Right to interfere with Black Lives Matter protests and anti-Chinese sentiment online, Farmer said.
“It is fair to say … that social media has been an accelerant to the polarization that was already occurring,” he said.
Farmer said the algorithms of social media platforms are designed to reinforce individuals’ preferences, which has caused completely isolated forms of communication unlike anything this country has witnessed since the pre-Civil War era.
“The obvious ramification of (these algorithms) is that they are driving … people into these cul-de-sacs of isolated beliefs,” he said. “One of the challenges for President (Joseph R. Biden, Jr.), if he is really going to try to reunify the country, is that. What do you do when the polarization is embedded in the structure of how people communicate now?”
While Farmer said the team is still tracking the groups, the essence of the report focused on the events leading up to and on Jan. 6.
Looking to the future, Farmer said that Biden has to address the structural causes of polarization before he can work on reunifying the country.
“If left to its own, our system is (going) to continue polarizing people, so I think they have to do something to regulate these social media platforms,” he said. “You have to address the structural problem. Good will by itself is not going to get it done.”