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Giffords Report Uncovers Months of Online Conversations Among Extremist Groups about Armed Insurrection

The conversations on social media platforms, often led by gun extremists, didn’t produce Election Day violence but laid the foundation for the assault on the United States Capitol  

Washington, D.C. — A new memo released by Giffords, the gun safety group co-founded by Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, uncovered months of online conversations among extremist groups about armed insurrection if Trump lost the 2020 election. Thankfully, the charged rhetoric, driven in large part by far-right gun activists, did not produce significant violence on Election Day. But the patterns of calls to attack opponents, particularly politicians with opposing views, were a major factor in spurring the violent actions of the mob at the United States Capitol on 1.6.21. 

The thorough analysis of these warning signs was conducted for Giffords by GQR Digital. For months, GQR monitored social media on major platforms, looking for rhetoric that had the potential to lead to real-world violence. The research found at least 17 million mentions of guns or related terms on social media including, explicit threatening language along with images of guns, memes and jokes about violence. This is likely a small sample of the overheated conversations taking place in private or encrypted spaces. While major outbreaks of violence didn’t happen on Election Day, Giffords flagged more than 80 posts that threatened poll workers or people standing in voting lines.   

Peter Ambler, Giffords Executive Director: 

“The warning signs for the attack on January 6, 2021 were there all along—all you had to do was look online. During the 2020 election, instead of joining voters in participating in the democratic process to determine the country’s future, insurrectionists created a furnace of hate. The fire was fed with written threats, horrifying images, and plans to overpower politicians who didn’t do Trump’s bidding. 

“This apocalyptic vision became an unsettling reality when the Capitol was overrun, with lawmakers and staff hiding in fear from white supremacists. This report underscores why it would be foolish to view this violence as a one-time occurrence. It should be a wake-up call to policymakers across the country that immediate action must be taken to stop armed insurrectionists before any more blood is shed.”  

Robyn Thomas, Giffords Law Center Executive Director:

“We must develop a system to address credible threats of violence made online and back that up with laws that prevent white nationalism from spreading and turning deadly. This difficult moment in our country’s history must be met by leaders who have the courage to fight for policies that can make a difference. That starts by acting swiftly to make sure the US Capitol isn’t desecrated, stopping insurrectionist violence before it starts, and ensuring the peaceful transition to power that is central to a healthy democracy. ” 

A constellation of Second Amendment absolutists joined with President Trump and his political allies to whip their followers into a frenzy all year long. This centered on militarized language about how Joe Biden, and Democrats generally, would do away with the Second Amendment and confiscate firearms from law-abiding gun owners. These false narratives led to real-world consequences, with armed white supremacists storming state capitols earlier this year to intimidate lawmakers enacting COVID-19 restrictions and Kyle Rittenhouse shooting and killing an unarmed man at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, protest over police violence. 

While Trump and his backers fanned the flames of hate, social media platforms were slow to respond. Even with a range of new methods to try and restrict harmful language, extremist rhetoric and conversations about carrying out violence often stayed online for far too long. Many individuals and groups openly plotted carrying out attacks in person. 

This culminated in the insurrection on 1.6.21, a brazen and shameful attack on America’s democracy. In the days since, the FBI has warned members of Congress of credible threats to their safety and has warned of armed protests at all 50 state capitols on or around Inauguration Day. 

As bad as the violence was on 1.6.21, Washington DC’s strong gun laws reduced the prevalence of firearms among the insurrectionists and helped prevent the violence in the US Capitol from becoming even more deadly. Very few states across the country have gun laws that are as strong as the District of Columbia’s. Our memo analyzing this grave threat ends with a set of recommendations for elected officials and the media, aligned with the set of actions Giffords recommended in the aftermath of 1.6.21. 

These include, but are not limited to: social media companies developing a system for reporting credible public threats of gun violence to appropriate law enforcement, holding social media companies accountable for failing to remove threats of gun violence, providing election workers and voters with resources and training on how to address situations with guns at polling locations, and a bipartisan commitment to prioritizing addressing gun violence in the larger regulation effort of social media platforms in early 2021.