A faction of local, county and state Republican officials is pushing lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that echo those that helped inspire the violent U.S. Capitol siege , online messaging that is spreading quickly through GOP ranks fueled by algorithms that boost extreme content.
The Associated Press reviewed public and private social-media accounts of nearly 1,000 federal, state, and local elected and appointed Republican officials nationwide, many of whom have voiced support for the Jan. 6 insurrection or demanded that the 2020 presidential election be overturned, sometimes in deleted posts or now-removed online forums.
“Sham-peachment,” they say, and warn that “corporate America helped rig the election.” They call former president Donald Trump a “savior” who was robbed of a second term — despite no evidence — and President Joe Biden, who garnered nearly 7.1 million more votes than Trump, a “thief.” “Patriots want answers,” they declare.
The bitter, combative rhetoric is helping the officials grow their constituencies on social media and gain outsized influence in their communities, city councils, county boards and state assemblies. And it exposes the GOP’s internal struggle over whether the party can include traditional conservative politicians, conspiracy theorists and militias as it builds its base for 2022.
Earlier this month, the FBI knocked on the door of the Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan vice president Londa Gatt to ask where she was on the day of the Capitol attack.
Gatt, a Bikers for Trump coordinator who roars, leather-vested, alongside political rallies on her Harley-Davidson /zigman2/quotes/207565294/composite HOG -0.15% , had helped organize busloads of Trump supporters to join her in Washington on Jan. 6. She says she climbed the scaffolding outside the Capitol building that day “to take a picture of the whole view.” And she said she gladly told FBI agents that she did nothing wrong, and left the scene right away as things turned violent.
Since then, Gatt has shared hashtags tied to QAnon conspiracy theories online and posted that she has Trump’s personal email. She recently asked her Facebook friends who participated in Capitol intrusions to send messages directly to Trump explaining that he didn’t incite them, and that they had acted of their own volition. “The [Trump] lawyers need our help,” she posted.
Gatt is among many conservatives organizing on Twitter, Facebook, Parler, Gab and Telegram, and she is working on a digital strategy under different monikers.
“We were cheated out of our legit president, and we have no voice because our vote didn’t count,” she told the Associated Press. “I’m getting ready to start opening up some new pages, focus on getting out people who voted against Trump and replace those with conservative Republicans.”
Although some Democrats have used incendiary and aggressive language online, AP focused its research on the GOP because court documents show the overwhelming number of people arrested in association with the Capitol insurrection are longtime supporters of Trump, who has a significant Republican fan base even after losing the presidency and decamping to his private-club residence in Palm Beach, Fla.
Working with Deep Discovery, an artificial-intelligence company, AP also helped build a classification algorithm that matched officials to accounts on the right-wing aligned Parler, a social-media platform that recently returned after being taken offline for several weeks . AP reporters hand-verified each match using an archived Parler dataset. That archive of 183 million posts and 13 million user profiles, provided in advance of publication by New York University researcher Max Aliapoulios, was captured between August 2018 and Jan. 10, 2021, when Parler was taken offline .
AP also surveyed officials’ use of alternate social-media sites such as Gab and Telegram, whose active users have soared in recent weeks since Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -2.22% and Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -0.53% barred people from posting extremist content and disinformation concerning, for example, voting processes and the election’s results, as well as the coronavirus-borne disease COVID-19 and vaccines.
The AP reached out to GOP officials in many states, and sought comment from those named in this story. Several posted portions of email exchanges with the reporters or discussed the interviews on social media.
Collectively, state and local Republican officials like Gatt play a major role in shaping the party’s future, in part because they recruit and promote candidates to run for office and help control the party’s messaging.
Even after the bloody insurrection seven weeks ago at the Capitol showed the deadly consequences of online ire, many Republicans continue their furious push to delegitimize the new administration. Experts say it’s more dangerous, and influential, when those messages come from elected and appointed GOP officials rather than anonymous gadflies.
“We still have people in this country talking about civil war. I’m talking about high-ranking officials in state governments and elsewhere, talking about civil war, talking about secession, talking about loading up with ammunition,” Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert and adviser at the RAND Corp. think tank, recently told Congress.
Republican National Committee press secretary Mandi Merritt didn’t answer AP’s specific questions about the online rhetoric but referred it to a Jan. 13 statement from party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel: “Violence has no place in our politics. Period.”
Last week, Idaho’s Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan posted on Facebook: “People who DON’T own a gun should register and pay a fee. Per the Idaho Constitution Article 14 Section 1, all able bodied males between the ages of 18 and 45 are part of the militia and should arm themselves … That is the LAW.”
That posting followed Regan’s online messaging in early December, when he boosted a Parler post on his feed: “SIDNEY POWELL’S “KRAKEN” IS DOD CYBER WARFARE PROGRAM! WE ARE AT WAR! – THE MARSHALL REPORT.” Powell, a lawyer who had supported and advocated for Trump, referred to her legal strategy as “the kraken,” powerful enough to destroy Biden’s presidency. Courts throughout the country, including the Supreme Court’s rejection this week of a handful of cases related to the 2020 election filed by Trump and his allies, have not been persuaded by the legal arguments being made against Biden’s election or, in some cases, the cases’ right to be filed.
Another recent Regan post on Facebook: “The thing I object most about democrats is that they incite my base instincts to retaliate in kind.”
When AP asked about his posts, Regan said: “My message on social media, print media, and in person is consistent: ‘Pray for serenity. Be the eye of the storm. Stay calm. Think clearly. Don’t panic. Stay peaceful while demanding integrity and honesty.’ “
On Jan. 5, Idaho RNC delegate Doyle Beck, who sits with Regan on the board of a libertarian policy group called the Idaho Freedom Foundation, arrived in Washington, where he posted a photo on Facebook of himself with Donald Trump Jr., commenting “TRUMP 2020, Stop the Steal.”
Beck told AP he went to a meeting at Trump International Hotel in Washington that night with Trump Jr., Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and attended the Trump rally the next day but stayed away from the Capitol building.
AP confirmed that Trump Jr. and Tuberville attended the gathering. Navarro denied attending. Giuliani said he couldn’t remember and would need to check his diary.
On Feb. 2, Beck reposted on Facebook a statement reading: “Why Would You Have To Impeach A President That Lost? Unless Of Course He Didn’t. Then You’d Have To Silence Him. Oh, Wait….”
More than a month after the insurrection, Beck told AP that he believes the election was stolen and that he might switch to Parler because he thinks his posts are being censored on Facebook. “Parler is honest,” he said. “They don’t try to do this fact-check bullcrap.”
Key Words (May 2020): ‘Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth,’ Zuckerberg tells Fox News
Some Republican officials are posting theories related to QAnon, which the FBI has called a domestic terrorism threat. And the Department of Homeland Security has warned of the potential for lingering violence from extremists enraged by Biden’s election and emboldened by the Capitol attack. On Thursday, Homeland Security designated domestic violent extremism as a top priority for the first time, and pledged at least $77 million to study extremists’ use of social media to recruit and radicalize people, calling the Jan. 6 attack one example of a multiyear pattern of violence by domestic extremists. But even as Twitter, Facebook and others are rapidly removing, freezing and suspending accounts, the clamor continues.
Two days after he joined the Capitol attack, Sacramento, Calif., Republican Assembly President Jorge Riley, posted on Facebook: “I won’t say I stood by. Come take my life. I’m right here.” Then he posted his home address, according to court documents, followed by this admonition: “You all will die.”
Opinion (January 2020): QAnon and ‘Stop the Steal’ rioters will be in a world of hurt as the law crashes down on them