Extremism experts sound the alarm as Trump supporters threaten civil war on TikTok

Experts say the posting of public threats creates a ‘false consensus’ that drives extremists to carry out violence, writes Richard Hall

Thursday 18 August 2022 22:45 BST
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The videos share a few common themes: they are filmed by an excitable solo protagonist. That protagonist is often addressing fellow “patriots” and asking them to prepare for something very big to happen. They include some veiled or explicit threat of violence in response. And many of them are posted on TikTok, the short-form video app made popular by dancing teenagers.

In the wake of the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, threats of violence against federal agents from Donald Trump’s supporters have skyrocketed, according to extremism monitors. Warnings of civil war and veiled threats of violence against politicians have also increased.

In a departure from the norm, many of those threats are being made in the open, on social media platforms like TikTok, with no attempt to hide their identity.

A collection of TikTok videos collated by one Twitter user included numerous calls for violence against the FBI and the government from Trump supporters.

“I seen what happened to Trump,” one person says in a video while a weapon and ammunition can be seen on a bed behind him. “Yea, it’s go time. Everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about,” he adds.

Other videos include conspiracy theories about IRS agents coming to take their weapons.

In the days after the Mar-a-Lago search, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint internal bulletin warning of “an increase in threats and acts of violence” towards federal officials, according to CBS. The bulletin also noted that the names and home address of FBI agents have been posted online, the Associated Press reported.

The bulletin referenced one case in which online threats had resulted in real world violence — the attack on the FBI’s Cincinnati field office in Ohio by a man armed with an AR-15 style rifle and a nail gun. Ricky Shiffer, 42, had posted on Mr Trump’s Truth Social after the search on Mar-a-Lago for supporters to ​“get whatever you need to be ready for combat” before carrying out the attack. He was shot and killed in a standoff after fleeing the scene.

In another case, the FBI arrested a Pennsylvania man on Monday for making threats of violence against FBI personnel. Adam Bies, 46, posted violent threats towards the FBI and law enforcement on the Gab, a social media site popular with white supremacists.

“My only goal is to kill more of them before I drop” and “If You Work For The FBI Then You Deserve To Die,” Bies wrote, according to the Justice Department.

According to court documents, on 10 August, Bies allegedly wrote: “Every single piece of [expletive] who works for the FBI in any capacity, from the director down to the janitor who cleans their [expletive] toilets deserves to die. You’ve declared war on us and now it’s open season on YOU.”

The spike in violent rhetoric has come at the same time as Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked the FBI and Department of Justice since the search of his Florida residence.

“This is an assault on a political opponent at a level never seen before in our Country,” Mr Trump wrote Monday in a post on his Truth Social. “Third World!” In other posts he claimed that an “army of agents” “raided” his home for political reasons.

The search of Mr Trump’s home by the FBI is part of an investigation into the former president’s handling of classified records taken from the White House following his departure. A property receipt from the search that was unsealed by a federal judge revealed that the FBI had removed 11 sets of classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, including some marked top secret and "sensitive compartmented information." A warrant that was also unsealed revealed that Mr Trump was being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act.

The rising threats of violence in open forums has raised concern among extremism researchers. Dr Gina Ligon, director of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Centre (NCITE) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, called them “deeply troubling.”

“The calls for violence on open platforms like Tik Tok against FBI-specific symbols of the government are deeply troubling and reminiscent of the calls for violence from ISIS adherents against US military” in 2014 and 2015, she told The Independent.

“Why it matters is that in nearly every case of mass shooters, the plotter had leaked some aspect of his plan beforehand[...] One of the top five indicators from the national counterterrorism centre that someone is actually going to mobilise to violence is sharing a plan publicly against a specific target. These videos are doing just that,” she added.

A further danger of the online calls for violence is the creation of a “false consensus”, Dr Ligon added, which is “the psychological feeling that everyone else agrees that violence is the only answer and must be done. We saw this with ISIS supporters in 2014 — it wasn’t that all the people online engaged in violence, but they created the illusion that they agreed someone should and thus gave the psychological permission — in fact almost implored direction — for others to actually carry out an attack.”

The multitude of threats prompted FBI director Christopher Wray, appointed by Mr Trump in 2017, to publicly denounce them as “deplorable and dangerous.”

“I’m always concerned about threats to law enforcement,” Mr Wray said on Wednesday. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”

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