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Violent online rhetoric heats up after Colorado ballot ruling on Trump

The Colorado Supreme Court in Denver hears arguments on Dec. 6 regarding former President Donald Trump's eligibility for the state's primary ballot.
David Zalubowski
The Colorado Supreme Court in Denver hears arguments on Dec. 6 regarding former President Donald Trump's eligibility for the state's primary ballot.

Violent rhetoric is up in some online spaces where supporters of former President Donald Trump are reacting to news that he is ineligible to appear on Colorado's primary ballot.

Personal information, including phone numbers and addresses, of the Colorado Supreme Court justices who ruled against Trump are circulating on some far-right platforms. So, too, are calls for his base to take up arms.

"We saw trending the terms 'insurrection' and 'civil war' really within hours of the Colorado decision," said Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest research group based in Washington, D.C.

To extremism researchers who monitor online spaces for indications of planned violence, the uptick is not surprising. Since Trump left the White House and as he has come under greater legal pressure relating to his personal businesses and the events of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, these spikes have become somewhat predictable and more frequent.

"Each incident, each indictment of former President Trump, every negative development that's related to him, every time even something happens with President Biden or the Democratic Party, where people think that the Bidens have gotten away with it, has contributed to this environment [where his supporters think] that the current government is out to get supporters of Trump," said Katherine Keneally, who heads threat analysis and prevention at the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue-U.S., which monitors the threat landscape online.

Keneally said the most incendiary posts were found on alt-tech platforms such as Gab, Truth Social and Patriots.win. But Jones said it was also worth noting that some of the chatter bled onto X, formerly known as Twitter.

"We're seeing the normalization of violent rhetoric, the dehumanization, this idea that democracy is broken," he said.

Both experts said that they have, so far, not seen anything online to suggest a credible or imminent threat. But they said that in an environment where an increasing proportion of Americans believe violence may be warranted to save the country, vigilance is still needed. As an example, they cited the case of a man who attacked an FBI field office in Cincinnati after the FBI executed a search warrant at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.

And even separate from the concern over violence, there is also growing alarm that the normalization of threats, harassment and vitriolic attacks may be eroding American democracy.

"One of the goals of this type of inciting rhetoric or encouraging or even allowing dangerous speech to flourish is that you can make people feel less comfortable participating in day-to-day democracy," said Shannon Hiller, executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University. "The proliferation of violent rhetoric like this and the unwillingness of leaders to condemn it can create that chilling effect."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.