JP Observer: Conspiracy groups emerge as major domestic threat

An angry mob made up of thousands of members of various conspiracy groups and their believers burst through barricades, then windows, and into the fully occupied U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, waving weapons and flags and yelling their heads off.

From all over the country, including Massachusetts, believers worked in concert to do violence in support of the most publicized conspiracy theories of the year.

For two months before, and during a “wild” rally down the street just an hour before, their hero, President Donald Trump, insisted loudly that thousands of election workers, scores of state officials, 60+ judges, the entire Democratic Party—and, most recently, even his Vice President Mike Pence—must have conspired to “steal” the Nov. 3 election from him.

As the bizarrely costumed mob laid siege to the Capitol, it became clear that conspiracy theory groups that advocate and practice illegal behavior have become a major menace to our country and the rule of law. They succeeded that day in halting the counting of ballots that would show Trump lost and threw Congress into chaos for hours.

The Department of Homeland Security activated the terrorism alert system for the first time in more than a year in the aftermath of the riot. The warning, according to the Chicago Tribune, pointed to extremists “fueled by false narratives.”

The gallows the rioters erected for Pence’s neck, their hand-to-hand combat with police, their shouts of threats to kill Pence and Nancy Pelosi were supported by flagpoles (Trump and American ones, with a few Confederate thrown in) used as weapons, hockey sticks, gas masks, 2x4s, ax handles, and truncheons they brought with them. Once inside they also used doors, police shields, and fire extinguishers to battle police. Six people died as a result of their actions.

The FBI first identified “fringe conspiracy theories” as a domestic terror threat in May, 2019 in an intelligence bulletin from its Phoenix office obtained by Yahoo News. 

“The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document states. It went on to say the FBI thought conspiracy theory-driven extremism was likely to grow before the presidential election.

So, where were the FBI and DHS before and on Jan. 6? Investigations where that question should be asked have started in Congress.

We have known about conspiracy groups for years, especially self-styled militias and other white supremacists. It’s physically sickening to put on paper what many of the people and groups that ransacked the Capitol say they believe.

QAnon and the Proud Boys, who had lots of supporters in the Capitol mob, are on the FBI’s domestic terror list.

Two QAnon believers were recently elected to the U.S. House, causing much uproar. QAnon believes many Democrats and celebrities are pedophiles , and Trump was supposed to bring them down. Now some of them are saying Trump will be inaugurated president on March 4, and Biden will step down. Like most predictions by conspiracists, hilarious if not so horrid.

The Proud Boys are unashamedly violent and believe everyone is bad except white, extreme right, straight Christians.

Other conspiracy gangs that joined the riot, as compiled from various news reports, are: Boogaloo Bois, Last Sons of Liberty, Oath Keepers, Skin Heads (several local chapters), National Socialist Movement, Insurgence USA, Alex Jones (heads Infowars, famous for broadcasting all sorts of unfounded conspiracy theories; organized fundraising for the Jan. 6 rally). Cowboys for Trump (has advocated violence against Democrats), Plandemic (covid virus is faked by a conspiracy of CDC and others for profit), America First, Women for America First, Stop the Steal Movement, Pennsylvania Three Percent or Three-Percenters. 

Super Happy Fun America, a group that behaves the opposite of its name, was there, or at least two people from the Massachusetts group were. They held a “straight pride” parade from Copley Square to City Hall in 2019 led by a pro-Trump float. Leader Mark Sahady of Malden, who was arrested after the Jan. 6 riot, is also a member of a group called “Resist Marxism” that held a so-called “free speech rally” in 2018 on the Common. At both Boston events they were vastly outnumbered by counter-protesters.

So, how many conspiracists and groups—made up of people who express beliefs not backed by evidence, but by their own negative emotions like anger, fear, anxiety and hate—exist in this country? Have their numbers grown? Hard to know.

According to an article in the Feb. 15 Washington Post, “Since ancient times, pandemics have spurred sharp turns in political beliefs, spawning extremist movements, waves of mistrust and wholesale rejection of authorities.” It cites a recent NPR-Ipsos poll in which “nearly 1 in 5 said they believe Satan-worshipping, child-enslaving elites seek to control the world.”

  Joan Donovan, who studies media manipulation and extremism and serves as the research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy was quoted in the New Yorker on Feb. 2. “You don’t have to go to the dark corners of the web to find this [conspiracy theory talk and organizing] anymore,” she said. “Through these influencers, through these political propagandists, it’s all brought in through your news feed….”

Use and development of websites, social media, Youtube channels, email, messaging, Zoom and cellphones have burgeoned the last 20 years. They help conspiracy groups spread disinformation, recruit and gather believers and organize actions, including illegal ones like the riot, on local and national levels like never before, the FBI has noted.

Many rioters, subscribed to several unrelated conspiracy theories, including Ashlii Babbitt—the veteran who was shot and killed by a police officer as she tried to plunge through a broken window into the Capitol wearing a Trump flag tied around her waist and an American flag around her shoulders.

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” according to Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in UK quoted in an excellent article called “Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories” in “verywellmind,” a medically vetted mental health website.

Many in the mob at the Capitol accuse Democrats and anyone else not on the political right, of doing terrible deeds, some in the past, but also predicted for the future. The conspiracists express fears “the Left” will take over and do violence to the country. They are usually specific about the violence. “Antifa alert they’ll attack your homes if Joe’s elected,” said a poorly punctuated Trump email to supporters.

Conspiracists can be very intimidating. Witness the pro-Trump gangs that gathered outside at election officials’ homes to shout at and threaten them in November. How about the people who issued threats against impeachment managers and their families earlier this month? They were just plain attempting to intimidate people into cheating on election counts.

What to do? First, it’s well past time for law enforcement to stop treating lawbreaking conspiracists as though they are innocent protestors or kooks or political groups exercising what they call “free speech.” This applies to elected officials, candidates, and other VIPs as well. 

Conspiracy promoters need to be arrested or stopped whenever they break any law. No more militia displaying serious firearms in a statehouse. No more threatening people’s physical well-being. State and local police need training and support to start reining in lawless conspiracists no matter how “small” their infraction first appears.

The organizers of the Trump rally near the White House Jan. 6 had a rally permit but did not have a march permit. No one tried to stop Trump from announcing a march or the marchers from marching without one. What’s the point of requiring a permit, if those who don’t get one aren’t stopped? 

Arrested rioter Dominic Pezzola of the Proud Boys, wrote on Facebook, encouraging attendance at the Trump rally, that we now live in “a post-legal society.” He and other conspiracists might think so based on experience and observation in 2020.

Not taking legal action against upset conspiracy believers gives them the dual dangerous messages that 1) it’s really OK to do illegal things for a “cause” and 2) they are so tough and righteous, no one will try to stop them. 

Second, a great, old tactic has re-emerged against hate-spewing conspiracists: Users “inoculate” the public against them. They do it by foretelling what the conspiracists will probably do to try to poison people’s minds. 

According to an article in the Boston Globe on Feb. 5, now-Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) practiced inoculating Georgia voters before his election was in full swing. Warnock did a commercial saying that opponents were going to say he did and believed terrible things. They might even say he hates puppies. Then Warnock said he refused to take his focus off the real issues during the campaign.

“And by the way,” he said, hugging a beagle,” “I lo-o-o-ve puppies.”

Inoculation can be used in many ways. Early last summer now-President Joe Biden and a few media commentators warned people that Trump might refuse to engage in a peaceful transition of power if he lost. Though many pundits at the time said Trump can’t do that, and it would never happen, many thinking people went on the alert and prepared strategies for dealing with the problem if Trump lost. 

Third, and most important to stopping the disinformation landslide, is public education, in schools and also through mass media. Students should learn civics taught by well-trained educators, with curriculum about various levels of government, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. People need to understand conspiracy groups: how they think and recruit, what they do and why; and how to do critical thinking, including analyzing arguments. An excellent source if information is “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook” a PDF by Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook: (https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/ConspiracyTheoryHandbook.pdf). 

All of us need to pay better attention to the threat that conspiracy theories pose to this country at all levels. The most dangerous, as we saw broadcast on national television last month, comes from home-grown extremists who help coordinate individuals and groups to plan and carry out violence and intimidation against any idea, person, or policy with which they simply disagree.

Sandra Storey is the Founder/Publisher Emirita of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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