Experts say that high tensions could lead to a combustible situation this week.
Police departments across the country are bracing for civil unrest this week — and they’re not alone. Online posts by left- and right-wing extremists show that both sides expect the other to instigate violence on or after Election Day, according to data analytics company Babel Street.
“Both the right and left sides of the political divide ardently believe they are correct and the other side will cause mayhem and chaos, including the inciting of violence in the event of an unfavorable outcome,” writes Babel Street in a new brief out on Monday.
The company’s analysts looked at posts across social media sites as well as less popular forums like Telegram, and the more right-leaning Gab, Voat, 4chan, and 8kun, where right-wing extremist groups such as the Boogaloo Bois and proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory are increasingly congregating as they are purged from mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter.
How many people are commenting and posting in these forums?
“We were able to pull back tens of thousands of results,” said McDaniel Wicker, Babel Street’s vice president of strategy. “It’s not a small group. There are sizable populations out there.”
The report was “consistent with what I’ve heard from former colleagues in law enforcement and other open-source intelligence groups,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who served as Assistant Homeland Security Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention until her high-profile resignation in April.
Neumann said a planned, organized, violent attack by an illegal militia or other domestic extremist group was a low- to medium-likelihood event.
“For something to be organized by a group of people, it usually takes planning and that usually gives law enforcement an opportunity to identify and thwart the threat,” she said in an email.
Both sides, but particularly right-wing groups, have called on followers to arm themselves in anticipation of election-day violence; but, so far, neither side is urging followers to actually instigate violence, only to be prepared for it to occur and possibly take steps to quell it.
Said Wicker, “On the right, you saw more of, ‘Go get your ammunition now, take up arms if necessary.’...Not to say we didn’t see some on the left.”
The Babel Street analysts also suggest that neither side will accept an election result they don’t like as legitimate.
“A lack of faith in U.S. institutions also adds to the problem; a perception of impropriety or bias could inflame the situation regardless of any actual maleficence. The simple fact that online communities (and the real-life people who populate them) believe the system is rigged or the vote might be unfair may be enough to stir people to action, especially if given the right push,” they conclude.
It all underscores the historic tension of the 2020 election. “The worrying thing,” said Wicker, is that … “with so much tension and anonymity on both sides, the slightest spark could set things off in a big way.”
Neumann said she saw a high likelihood of unplanned violence as different groups go out to protest the election results — or even the challenges to those results. “The concern is the ‘dry tinder.’ It's easy for a spark — even an inadvertent spark — to ignite violence. This potential for violence can be lessened if leadership on whichever side feels ‘wronged’ calls for calm and patience; it will be amplified if leadership does nothing or adds fuel to the fire with conspiracy theories and anger.”
She said she saw a medium- to high-likelihood that some groups like the Boogaloo Bois might look at unplanned violence as an opportunity to sow more chaos. The goal for law enforcement in that event will be to quickly determine which group is more likely to act on threats.
“I think we should expect to see some violence akin to what occurred during the George Floyd protests in May and June. Notably, it's not always apparent who causes the violence and this creates more opportunities for division,” she said.
She noted that the FBI arrested several members of the Boogaloo Bois and other right-wing groups during the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, a fact that strikes against a widely held perception that left-wing groups were solely responsible for looting and property damage.
“By all appearances, the FBI, working with state and local law enforcement, is actively tracking multiple threats and thwarting as appropriate. They should continue to do so,” she said. “To the extent federal law enforcement is needed to support — this should be in extreme circumstances only — it should be very limited and not appear to ‘federalize’ the situation. Trump’s administration has managed to create mistrust in everything the federal government does — so there’s almost no scenario where federal government actions in a law-enforcement situation help during a protest,” she said.