In the hours after former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson shocked the country with her testimony to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks, people in the extreme corners of the internet started plotting their revenge.
“cassidy hutchison must get the death penalty that is all,” said another person on the pro-Trump forum, Patriots.win.
“Ropes, folks, more ropes,” said a user who claimed to be at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The person indicated in a later post that they were traveling to Hutchinson’s home.
The attacks against Hutchinson are part of a broader pattern of violent threats on fringe social networks directed at witnesses testifying before Congress about the Capitol insurrection. Since the committee began hosting prime-time hearings in June, the nonprofit Advance Democracy has identified a tide of vitriol targeting key witnesses and prominent Jan. 6 committee lawmakers on online forums with reputations for fostering extremism and right-wing views. They include Gab, the .win forums and Truth Social, former president Donald Trump’s social media company.
Some of these social networks and their offshoots also hosted violent threats against election officials and lawmakers in the weeks before the Jan. 6 attack.
Advance Democracy’s findings show those threats continue to flourish online, jeopardizing the committee’s efforts to obtain a clear accounting of the assault on democracy. Some of the posts and comments contain calls to organize armed groups and suggest a willingness to engage in a further violent insurrection.
The committee has been probing the role that online platforms, ranging from fringe sites to Facebook and Twitter, played in inciting the violence at the Capitol that left five people dead, dozens of police officers injured and hundreds facing prosecution. The continuing violent rhetoric is a troubling sign of what could come, especially as Trump and his allies push false narratives about President Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, researchers say.
“Only a few years ago these views were fringe, 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 more significant,” said Daniel Jones, the president of Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that conducts public interest investigations. Jones previously worked as an investigator for the FBI and the Senate, where he wrote the Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
Federal law prohibits using the internet to harass or stalk someone or making threats across state lines, according to the nonprofit PEN America, which advocates for free expression. But it is unclear what investigations have been undertaken into the threats.
The U.S. Capitol Police referred questions about its investigation of threats to the Justice Department and the FBI. The Capitol Police said it does not comment on potential investigations for safety reasons, but added in a statement that its investigators “take all threats and concerning statements seriously.”
The FBI declined to comment on whether it had opened specific investigations, but said in a statement that it, too, takes all threats of violence “seriously” and that it works with other law enforcement partners to investigate them.
The Jan. 6 committee declined to comment on what security arrangements had been made for witnesses.
The Advance Democracy report includes multiple examples of online threats that called for the execution or torture of the witnesses and lawmakers and suggested they deserve to hang or face death by firing squad for committing treason.
“We need to treat everyone involved in the jailing and torture of the J6ers like we did the Nazi death camp guards and leadership. Public hangings,” one user wrote on Patriots.win in August, the report said.
After the committee aired a video of Army Gen. Mark A. Milley outlining the Pentagon’s communications with Vice President Mike Pence, a user on Gab wrote that the defense official “needs to be charged, prosecuted, and then executed for treason.”
Russell “Rusty” Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House, was subject to violent attacks on the Truth Social app and on TheGreatAwakening.win, where a user, who had previously claimed on the forum to be a Proud Boy, called for him to “fall down a set of stairs.”
Spokespeople for the sites where the threats appeared said they cooperate with law enforcement investigating threats. Andrew Torba, Gab’s CEO, said in an email that when an “unlawful threat” is posted on the website, the company “will promptly respond 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 tolerate violent threats or incitement.”
The committee has sought to highlight how Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election results opened election officials across the country to threats of violence both offline and online. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) described how he received “just shy of 4,000 text messages over a short period of time” after Trump retweeted his phone number, pressuring him to change the state’s election results. Other witnesses described threats at their homes. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) testified that someone tried to break into his daughter’s home. 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 aren’t surprised that violent rhetoric is festering on these social networks, which have positioned themselves as alternatives to mainstream social networks where policies limit violent and hateful rhetoric and technologies have been devised to detect it.
But the threats still take a toll even though the sites where they appear are comparatively small, experts say. The largest is 4chan, which had an average of nearly 6 million unique visitors a month between June and August, according to analysis from SimilarWeb. The .win forums are smaller — Patriots.win, the most popular .win forum, had an average of 403,295 unique visitors a month during the same time period.
“It’s designed to intimidate them,” Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has studied cyberstalking and online harassment, said of the threats. “It raises the price of bearing witness to reality, political violence.”
Citron warns fringe networks will continue to foment violence without more efforts from law enforcement to enforce existing laws or a change in regulation that would reward social media sites for better policing of their sites.
The continued violent rhetoric comes after Democrats promised to create new internet regulations that would address the role that social media platforms played in inciting the mob that descended on the Capitol. Yet 21 months after the attacks, Democrats have been unable to use their narrow control of Congress to follow through on those pledges.
Lawmakers were widely expected to consider changes to Section 230, a decades-old legal provision that protects social networks from lawsuits over photos, posts and videos that people share on their services. But no proposal to update the law to address extremism has advanced in Congress, amid partisan divisions over the role tech companies should play in policing online speech. The White House has called for updates to the law and hosted forums focused on online extremism and gender-based harassment. But the Biden administration has not endorsed a specific proposal to change the law.
In a proposal that has been circulated among Democrats in Congress, Citron has called for Section 230 to be updated so that websites would enjoy legal immunity in instances of harassment and stalking only if they can show they took “reasonable steps” to prevent such abuse. She also argues that the protections shouldn’t be extended to sites that deliberately encourage or permit such activity.
Citron warns that in the interim, online extremism could get worse.
“We’re going to see escalations,” she said. “The threats to democracy are going to become more acute than they already are.”