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Experts warn of rise in extremism, ease of online radicalization

Capitol riots
Posted at 5:46 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 00:17:08-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — New, disturbing videos of the deadly riot on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol emerged this week as lawmakers present evidence before the Senate in the second impeachment trial of former President Trump.

The videos show a mob breaking windows and breaching the Capitol, rampaging through the halls of Congress, and attacking police on the Capitol steps.

Some of the individuals from those images wore Proud Boys apparel or “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts, while others who participated in the insurrection waived QAnon flags.

The Proud Boys are considered a white supremacist hate group by the southern Poverty Law Center and the Auschwitz reference invokes one of the most notorious Nazi concentration and extermination camps, where historians say more than 1 million people died during World War II.

QAnon is a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that espouses Trump was "waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media," according to the BBC.

Experts tell 41 Action News the riot on Jan. 6 showcased how extremism is on the rise.

“The sheer amount of activity we are seeing right now is unprecedented,” Devin Burghart, the executive director for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said.

Burghart's Institute is a nonprofit organization that tracks and monitors far-right extremist groups.

“The number of individuals who have gotten involved in far-right causes and have been radicalized by far-right discourse is unlike anything our organization has ever seen before,” Burghart said.

It also has started getting more attention from national law enforcement, including the arrest Thursday of three alleged Proud Boys from the Kansas City area who participated in the Capitol riot.

After the attack on the Capitol, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning of a continued threat from domestic violent extremists.

The Homeland Security bulletin did not cite any specific threats but said “information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.”

Donald Haider-Markel, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies political extremism, believes the pandemic helped turbocharge the far-right radicalization.

“What was happening was already in progress; what the pandemic tended to do was speed a lot of things up,” Haider-Markel said. “We have this unusual confluence of events. The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the movement for social justice really disrupting every aspect of American life. That really brought the forces out of the woodwork on both the right and the left.”

Social media also played a large role in radicalizing, organizing and mobilizing extremists by allowing individuals to consume endless content from a variety of sources and create virtual communities, our experts said.

“What used to take years for somebody to become more radicalized is now taking months or weeks and that is really concerning to us,” Burghart said.

Mainstream social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have belatedly started to try and disrupt extremism by taking down pages or suspending accounts.

Parler, which went dark in January when Amazon Web Services pulled its support, and other social media platforms have been taken offline since the Capitol riot, but Burghart warns that it actually could make tracking extremist groups more difficult, as groups move their communication onto encrypted apps.

“I wish my job would get easier as we go forward, but there are so many threats we are facing on so many different fronts,” Burghart said.

Senate Democrats finished presenting the case for Trump's impeachment earlier Thursday, arguing that the Capitol riot was incited and encouraged by his false and violent rhetoric.