Online Threats Didn’t Lead to Violence in Miami. Why? – BCB #55
Also: Losing friends and civil war, and where you live determines which politics you fear
In the run-up to Donald Trump's arraignment, former Congressional candidate Kari Lake implied that protesters would defend the president with guns, and there was a surge of angry chatter online. Miami police prepared for up to 50,000 demonstrators. Yet, when the day arrived less than 500 upbeat supporters showed up and were eventually outnumbered by reporters. There were no reports of violence.
So when should we take online threats of violence seriously, and when are they more likely to fizzle out?
According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) online discord doesn’t always result in physical mobilization, the way it’s sometimes portrayed in media accounts.
This panic is often driven by non-expert pundits and sensationalist media outlets who lift hand-picked comments from the internet — such as talks of civil war or fantasies of executing politicians – and strip them of crucial context, leaving their audiences with incomplete pictures of a threat environment. Though dehumanizing and violent rhetoric online is concerning, the presence of such language is not always a promise of the offline havoc it is thought to precede.
Jared Holt and Katherine Keneally lay out six factors that indicate when concerning posts might translate to real-world violence.
“What communities are most likely to react?” Predicting how certain groups might act requires knowing what they’ve done in the past and how they currently feel about taking action offline.
“How important is the event to the targeted communities?” A community’s response is often proportional to how important they think the event is, especially if they see it as a threat to their way of life. We saw this with Trump’s supporters during and after the 2020 election. This time, they may not been as moved by Trump’s arraignment.
Many participants in the January 6th Capitol riot believed that the election was stolen and the country needed to be saved. Responding to the 2020 election via mass mobilization was understood by some as imperative to the future of the United States.
“How specific are the calls for action?” Violence is more likely if the group has clear and specific calls for action, including logistics and goals. While there were calls for action last Tuesday, they were short on specifics.
“Is there support for mass mobilization from high-profile, trusted figures?” When trusted politicians, media figures, and social media influencers stand united and endorse the group, it legitimizes and amplifies their calls for action. While various high-profile Republicans defended Trump, only Lake seems to have mentioned a potentially violent response.
“How do these online communities perceive violent rhetoric?” Violence is more likely when an online community frequently engages with discussions or depictions of it.
“Do the calls for action have significant reach across platforms?” The appearance of calls for action across different platforms suggests a higher possibility of meaningful offline engagement. This must happen repeatedly over a period of time, which was unlikely in this case given that the indictment was announced a week ago.
Overall, Holt and Keneally argue that it takes more than a flurry of tweets or online posts to generate mobilization in the real world.
With proper risk analysis of online environments surrounding an event or incident, researchers, media, and law enforcement alike can better assess whether large-scale mobilization is likely to occur, better informing their decision-making and abilities to anticipate and deter potential violence.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election not only reshaped the nation's politics, but also ripped apart friendships and ignited fears of a civil war. For some reason, Card Against Humanity decided to capture the political landscape in three months of surveys in late 2017. Alex Leavitt and George Berry took the data further to understand the connection between our negative perceptions of those with different political identities and the growing fear of an impending war.
They measured the relationship between two questions,
Do you think it is likely or unlikely that there will be a Civil War in the United States within the next decade? In the sample, 67% said it was unlikely, and 33% said it was likely.
Have you lost any friendships or other relationships as a result of the 2016 presidential election? In the sample, 14% said yes, and 86% said no.
There’s a strong connection between these two questions: someone who has lost a friend is almost twice as likely to feel concerned about a larger social conflict. This data can’t be used to prove causality; maybe people who are worried about war also want to avoid out-partisans, but it also seems reasonable that losing a friend can make you pessimistic about politics. Or both.
Some other interesting factors that correlate with concern about civil war are having a lower income, being Black, being a woman, and not having a university degree. It’s worth noting that the survey included mostly middle-aged adults, over half of whom had a college education.
But has the risk of civil war actually increased since 2016? It’s hard to argue that the US domestic conflict hasn’t intensified in recent years; it’s clear that we’ve been in an escalation cycle. However, support for political violence is somewhat tricky to measure, and surveys suggesting 40% of people would support political violence greatly overstate the case. True support is actually pretty low when surveys are constructed and analyzed carefully:
Despite media attention, political violence is rare, amounting to a little more than 1% of violent hate crimes in the United States. … Prior estimates overstate support for political violence because of random responding by disengaged respondents, the use of broad measures that inadvertently capture general levels of support for all types of violence, and reliance on hypothetical questions instead of questions on specific acts of political violence. Concerns of partisan violence, while real, we find are overstated.
We’re hesitant to try to put an actual percentage on the chance of civil war in the next few decades, though we think it would be a low number; on the other hand, conflict can be destructive in all sorts of ways long before then – like losing friends and family due to politics.
CNN CEO Chris Licht was asked to leave a few weeks ago, after a lengthy interview with The Atlantic where he explained his politics and the idea behind that weird Trump town hall. It’s something of an epic media story, and there’s a great deal to say about how journalism is or should be done in a polarized context (next issue!) but for now we draw your attention instead to one insightful reaction.
Perry Bacon Jr. says that Licht’s politics follow a larger trend. Most of the top professionals in media, tech, and politics live in Blue coastal cities. And in these cities, the excesses and failures of leftish politics seem a lot more troubling, leading to what Bacon calls “anti-woke centrism”:
If you are in a red state, like me, you are constantly in fear of your state government adopting conservative policies — such as new limitations on reproductive freedom, transgender rights and honest education about race. But if you live in D.C. New York City or San Francisco, a much more realistic concern is that a “woke” liberal with whom you don’t agree gains political power — or sharply criticizes you in public.
In other words, regional and social proximity play a crucial role in shaping our political reactions, which may not reflect the broader sentiments of the nation. While we’re not fond of “anti-woke centrism” as a term – see our previous issue on “woke” – Bacon’s critique is on-target. Indeed, here at the Bulletin attacks from the left could be a lot more socially damaging to us than attacks from the right. Maybe we skew Red in reaction like Bacon suggests; on the other hand, maybe we skew Blue to fit in with the locals. Either way, your social context deeply shapes your political instincts.
Quote of the Week
Not only is support for violence low overall, but support drops considerably as political violence becomes more severe. The most serious form of political violence—murder in service of a political cause—is widely condemned.