Last May the research team at the National Contagion Research Institute in Princeton was finalizing what it considered a vital report. It would lay bare a grave and undetected threat that was on the verge of erupting in America: Far-right extremist groups were not only growing exponentially, but their online dispatches were also becoming radically more militant and violent.
The researchers had analyzed troves of online social media data and were zeroing in on QAnon, which at the time was considered a fringe conspiracy movement spouting an ideology that claimed then-President Trump was working in secret to overthrow a cabal of blood-drinking, Satan-worshipping Democratic pedophiles. It was no longer a peripheral collection of wackos, they discovered — QAnon had doubled in size in recent months.
Part of QAnon’s success in spreading was that its messages exploited the public protests against COVD-19 restrictions and for Black Lives Matter, which were erupting on city streets across the country. QAnon, and its believers, turned the demonstrations into a battle cry — “to draw populist support for increasingly violent and apocalyptic confrontations against the lockdown, law enforcement, and an ill-defined ‘elite,’” the report said.
Equally disturbing, it noted, “QAnon conspiracy now abounds with references to a ‘Q-army’ complete with military-style badges.” QAnon adherents were now sharing instructions on how to prepare pipe bombs. They were conducting kidnapping exercise. They were livestreaming lethal hunts against law enforcement officers.
Duty-bound to alert Twitter
NCRI founder and executive director Joel Finkelstein decided he was duty-bound to make one phone call before he issued the report. He dialed up some executives at Twitter.
In that call, he relayed a sober warning, he said: Extreme ideology “was brewing on Twitter, and it was increasingly turning toward the militarization and a messianic arc that was calling for an insurgency and revolt against lawmakers,” he said in a recent BBC interview.
Finkelstein thought Twitter needed to know about the dangerous product it was selling. “We wanted them to be part of the solution,” Finkelstein told NJ Spotlight News, adding: “We also told them that the White House Twitter feed was being used to share and amplify some of these troubling posts.”
He declined to elaborate on the call, insisting his aim is to find solutions, not assign blame. But Twitter executives offered no response, according to John Farmer Jr., director of Rutgers’ Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience, which has since partnered with NCRI. And Finkelstein said he received a similar non-response after he offered a similar briefing to the U.S. State Department. But the NCRI report that followed later that month provide plenty of clues about what the Twitter phone call sounded like.
“QAnon conspiracies are increasing across Twitter, doubling from April 22nd to May 2nd, and operationalize similarly to the boogaloo, including themes of militarization, an all-at-once go signal, and an ominous, apocalyptic conflict,” the report stated. “Trends of mass militarization denote a dangerous change in the conspiracy toward the potential realm of revolt.”
Events of January 6 ‘weren’t an accident’
The writing was on the wall, Finkelstein said, but it would be mostly ignored.
“The events that occurred on January 6 — they weren’t an accident,” he said. “They didn’t come out of nowhere. They were inevitable.”
It would not be NCRI’s final warning.
Co-author of that prescient May 2020 NCRI report was John K. Donohue, the former chief of strategic initiatives in the New York City Police Department and a nationally recognized expert in cyber security and counterterrorism. He too had joined NCRI’s leadership team. He was also a fellow at Rutgers’ Miller Center when he testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism last July.
Donohue’s message was stark and clear.
“Revolutionary extremists have federal, state and local law enforcement squarely in their sights. The outcomes are not predictable, and the time for acknowledging this phenomenon and rapidly working to preserve civil society is upon us,” he testified. “America is at a crossroads; the intersection of constitutional rights and legitimate law enforcement has never been more at risk by domestic actors as it is now, as seditionists actively promote a revolution. … How we ultimately move forward together as a country, as Americans, depends how we negotiate this moment in history.”
Donohue then proposed a tactical solution that Finkelstein and Farmer had been pushing for months.
“There needs to be better coordination among law enforcement intelligence capacities, supported by appropriate Department of Justice entities and social media companies to rapidly respond to hate-driven seditious rhetoric where the content and context clearly demonstrates unlawful activity is about to occur, is occurring or is being planned,” he said.
“What is needed,” he testified “is technologically akin to a social media NORAD, a monitoring station that is technologically capable to generate finished intelligence rapidly and at a massive scale that can perceive imminent threats before they emerge, and detail them, as the work at Rutgers and the Network Contagion Research Institute seeks to do with such tools.”
His testimony was not covered by any media outlets — until after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.
Using law enforcement as a recruiting tool
In September, Donohue and Farmer authored another NCRI report, which revealed an escalation of ideological attacks against law enforcement being employed as a recruitment tool for white supremacist groups. It suggested that a “vital infrastructure may be fomenting, and even indicate the possibility of a mass-casualty event.”
That report also showed that some left-wing groups, including antifa, were employing similar social media tactics, including memes and humorous catchphrases, to spread their messages and possibly help coordinate offline activity, though nowhere near the magnitude of the extreme-right actors.
Shortly after that report, Donohue testified before another congressional committee, essentially reiterating his previous testimony. But one side comment he offered proved to foreshadow an ominous event in which he would find himself right in the middle: “Intelligence also requires answering the questions about the unknowns: Are the intentions of the group or subgroups to engage in violence? If so, will weapons be involved? … What are their intentions?”
Those were the very questions Donohue faced, as it turned out, after being hired as director of the U.S. Capitol Police intelligence unit in December. Three days before a coalition of Trump supporters, white supremacists and militia groups assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6, he issued an internal report that warned of the event that was about to take place.
“Supporters of the current president see January 6, 2021, as the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election,” the memo said, according to a Washington Post report. “This sense of desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent. Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter-protesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th.”
Why was the intelligence not heeded?
Farmer, and now the Senate Judiciary Committee, wonder why that intelligence was not heeded.
“He couldn’t have given them a more clear warning than he did,” Farmer says. “The question is: What the hell happened? I guess they didn’t take it seriously… or did they just screw up?”
Now, as the Senate Judiciary Committee investigates why Capitol Police operational commanders did not listen, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also promising a broader, independent investigation — a la the 9/11 Commission — to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“I think some form of nonpartisan review is necessary to provide the kind of thorough fact-finding that was missing from the impeachment trial,” Farmer says, referring to the impeachment trial of former President Trump. “To be taken seriously, the panel would have to be independent, possess subpoena power, be funded, and be given adequate time to do its work.”
So, what would Donohue’s “NORAD” system look like? Finkelstein puts it this way:
It would be called the Center for Disinformation Defense, and be an autonomous, quasi-public agency, funded by both government and civil society. It would be tasked with fighting disinformation by using the tools of science to track it like a disease, akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It would aggregate various existing databases and be given the authority to collect its own data. It would create a large and centralized data repository — a “data trust” — to be used only by clinical disinformation experts. Their analyses would be shared with the public and also shared with Congress and intelligence agencies when terrorist or security threats become acute.
Finkelstein thinks NCRI can provide the foundation for that public institution.
New agency needed to combat disinformation?
“The best analogy would be something like a public utility, but instead of supplying electricity or water, it would provide information,” Farmer says, “a means for the public to educate itself with information as it occurs. … It would certainly have the government’s stamp on it, in that it would be regulated, but at the same time it would be private.”
Addressing the issue in a published Op-Ed, Farmer poses this logical question: “If computer engineers can devise algorithms that reinforce predilections, it follows that they can devise algorithms that direct us to contrasting views. Why not require an algorithm of fairness?”
He is equally concerned by the way broadcast news outlets, particularly TV, have become complicit in the spread of misinforation, with stations taking on the role of partisan advocates. He suggests a revival of the lost Fairness Doctrine, established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949 during the last great technology revolution. It required radio and television stations to air controversial issues of public importance — and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced.
“That all went out the window with cable television,” which wasn’t beholden to the Fairness Doctrine, Farmer said. That led to the FCC eliminating the policy in 1987, guided by the rationale that a great variety of differing viewpoints was now at the public’s disposal.
“What we’ve learned in the past 30 years is that people don’t switch back and forth; they tend to zero in on one or two outlets for their information with the content they tend to believe in,” Farmer said.
QAnon pivots to COVID-19 conspiracies
“What has to happen,” he said, is “some kind of re-creation of the Fairness Doctrine for social media.”
In the meantime, hate moves quickly. It meanders, Finkelstein says. It’s fickle.
After some QAnon prophesies didn’t materialize — most notably that on Jan. 6, members of a satanic cabal would be exposed and arrested in an event known as the Storm and Trump would be returned to power — QAnon promptly “rebranded,” Finkelstein said in a recent 60 Minutes interview.
“The new target for the conspiracists is the (COVID-19) vaccine.” They must morph, he said, because “conspiracies are what give them their power. … that’s their oxygen.”
“Conspiracy theories have gone through changes rapidly, especially since the arrival of COVID-19,” Finkelstein elaborated to NJ Spotlight News: “Insurgency conspiracies, anti-Asian hate and COVID bio-weapons, followed by QAnon disinformation of a near messianic and utopian fervor leading up to the election.
“Anti-vaccine propaganda,” he adds, is merely the latest “flavor of the week.”
Farmer, though known for his preference toward understatement, believes America’s current challenges have reached an existential junction not seen in scope since the Civil War. Addressing them, he says, will require both mettle and prudence — and an informed public.
“We need to be careful because democracies are fragile, and we just saw a glaring example of that,” he said. “If January 6 wasn’t a wakeup call, then what will be?”
Major funding for Exploring Hate has been provided by the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Antisemitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund and Patti Askwith Kenner.