Extremist groups continue to ‘metastasize and recruit’ after Capitol attack, study finds

In the year since the 6 January insurrection, many US extremist groups haven’t fully recovered from blows landed by increased scrutiny of law enforcement and purges from big tech social media platforms, a new report has found.

The research, by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, found that 12 months after the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob some far-right groups had been gripped by paranoia as authorities traced and arrested participants. But others had reorganized, often with an emphasis on local-level politics and a developing eco-system of far-right social media.

The report warned some groups have “made troubling progress by shifting to alternative online platforms, embracing rhetoric to engage more broadly with the mainstream conservative base and engaging in new political activities, particularly public health and education issues at the local level”.

The report’s author, Jared Holt, combined investigative reporting along with monitoring and analysis of open source information to produce a report on the characteristics of US extremism movements a year after the Capitol attack.

The report details how extremist movements were riddled with paranoia following the capitol riot, with members holding widespread suspicion of each other and law enforcement, leading many members to be discouraged from attending public events.

Big tech companies also purged many extremists off their platforms, forcing them to disperse across the internet on to smaller, more obscure sites, without a unifying place to congregate online. The Guardian has reported how the adoption of smaller platforms and less sophisticated alt-tech made extremists vulnerable to data scrapes, breaches and hacks.

The report links how some entrepreneurs have responded by creating alternative platforms, independent from current mainstream digital providers. The report quotes the Gab chief executive, Anrew Torba, who says he is trying to build a “parallel Christian economy”.

The report warns of the rise of far-right influencers inside these alternative social media platforms and the dangers that they could bring.

It said: “These developments offer extremists sufficient conditions to continue metastasizing and recruiting. Though most online tools adopted by extremists enable them to reach smaller audiences than those possible on mainstream social media, they may be more effective in intensifying the radicalization of individuals already engaged with them.”

Some extremist movements have tried to re-enter the mainstream by hitching on to suburban conservative causes, even adopting traditional political methods like forming non-profits, phone banking and hosting conferences.

“As fruitful opportunity for creating outrage and hate, extremists have embraced emotionally charged social issues as an entry vehicle into mainstream online discourse,” the report said.

Far-right figures like the former top Trump aide Steven Bannon have encouraged a “precinct by precinct” strategy, a ground-up approach that focuses on local politics. The Guardian recently reported how far-right groups have shifted their focus to local communities.

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