Incendiary Speech That Spurs Violence is Rising in the United States
It is vital to keep millions of Americans from being captured by conspiracies, disinformation, and violent rhetoric.
By Dr. Susan Benesch
Faculty Associate, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society
The attack on Paul Pelosi was no surprise, if you were following far-right rhetoric in the United States, except for the hammer. In American vigilante fantasies and actual attacks by far-right extremists, a lone man usually brings powerful, frightening opponents to heel with a gun.
Attacker David DePape’s thoughts – from what he told Paul Pelosi, the police, and his longtime employer Frank Ciccarelli – are otherwise typical. Reading commentators like Tim Pool and Glenn Beck, DePape gradually turned from an innocuous loner into a man who saw Democratic leaders as such dangerous, malevolent monsters that he smashed his way into the Pelosis’ home. He wanted to make an example of the Speaker by breaking her kneecaps to terrify her colleagues, and that was only the start. He told her husband that “we’ve got to take them all out.”
Such rhetoric has recently ballooned in American discourse, not only, but overwhelmingly, on the right. It’s flourishing in the wake of the close midterm races, now that the country is on the brink of a long presidential campaign. Far-right politicians and commentators are relentlessly pushing the idea that elections are rigged – unless they win – from one election day to another, often with lightly veiled threats of violence. In response, their supporters are ready to act. “When do we get to use the guns?” a young man said into a microphone at a right-wing rally in Idaho last year, to applause from the crowd. “How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” A local Republican state legislator later described that as a “fair” question.
A few months later, Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, said of the 2020 vote, “[W]hen you have stolen, corrupt elections, you have serious consequences, even deadly consequences.” Last week she accused her state’s electoral officials of deliberately slowing down vote-counting to “delay the inevitable” i.e. the win she wanted, and said Arizona elections were being run “like we’re in some banana republic.”
When White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that “it takes time to count all legitimate ballots in a legal and orderly manner,” the far-right blogger Mike Cernovich asserted, indirectly but clearly, that the elections were being stolen: “Any other country pulled this and the state department [sic] and UN would call it a coup.” His remark was retweeted by many far-right influencers, including Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), who was just re-elected, and who was censured by the House one year ago for posting an animé video doctored to depict him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) with a sword, and then turning to attack President Joe Biden.
Almost all Republican leaders either chimed in with this kind of rhetoric, or stayed silent. For instance, only two Republican members of Congress – Liz Cheney (WY) and Adam Kinzinger (IL) – supported Gosar’s censure. And almost immediately after DePape fractured Paul Pelosi’s skull, dozens of highly influential figures from Tucker Carlson to Elon Musk, as well as at least eight elected officials, responded by spreading jokes, doubt, and outright lies about the attack.
This is the latest episode in two simultaneous shifts. First, “acts of political violence have skyrocketed in the past five years,” as Rachel Kleinfeld noted in 2021. Second, Republican political discourse has shifted toward condoning and even celebrating violence. The two are linked, as in other cases all over the world, in which discourse is an engine for violence by one group against another. Millions of Americans have come to see Democrats as mortal enemies, and to believe that physically attacking them is the right response.
More Americans will become newly convinced of such dangerous lies between now and 2024, absent vigorous efforts to prevent that. To preserve democracy and peace, it is vital to keep millions of Americans from being captured by conspiracies, disinformation, and violent rhetoric. From research and previous cases, we have some knowledge of how to do it. Moreover, the midterm election results offer a new opportunity to convince Republican leaders to take part: so many far-right, disinformation-spouting candidates were defeated that their rhetoric no longer looks like the way to win.
Recognizing and Naming Dangerous Speech
Speech that increases the risk of intergroup violence, often by describing one set of people as posing a mortal threat to an in-group, can make violence against those people seem defensive, necessary, and even virtuous. I have named this kind of communication “dangerous speech” to draw attention to the risk of violence and to find ways to forestall violence without impinging on freedom of expression, with my colleagues at the Dangerous Speech Project, a research team. Dangerous speech is a well-worn tool of unscrupulous political leaders and influencers because it works. No matter how vitriolic or false it is, it can be comforting to lonely, alienated people like DePape as it blames others for their troubles, and it invites them to become heroic figures by attacking the people they see as their mortal enemies.
We have found that dangerous speech is uncannily similar from case to case, across cultures and languages: it often features particular rhetorical devices like dehumanization, claiming that others pose a threat to vulnerable people (especially women and children), and questioning the loyalty of group members who dissent. American far-right discourse is full of all this: see for example QAnon and anti-LGBTQ activists’ allegations about child abuse and pedophilia, and the harsh repudiation of Republicans who question former President Donald Trump. American history is also full of such language and images, demonizing Black people for example, especially Black men. This kind of communication calls for violence clearly enough so that the intended audience understands, and indirectly enough so that the speaker can later deny responsibility for attacks. Trump is an expert at it, as are many of his admirers.
What is new and deeply alarming in the United States now is that such rhetoric is twisted together with disinformation about civic institutions, including the electoral system itself, as in the comments of Lake, Gosar, Carlson, and Cernovich. Millions of Americans who drink this toxic rhetorical cocktail now expect – and support – political violence.
Elections can be understood as sublimated war, after all: they are a system for persuading people to relinquish power peacefully to their opponents. The usual way, over the span of human history, is to wrest power from others by force. Dangerous disinformation has persuaded a startling number of Americans that it’s time to revert to that – and of course thousands have already tried, at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“Support for political violence is no longer only an extremist’s position,” wrote Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, the emergency medicine physician who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) at UC Davis Medical Center last year, noting “sustained upward trends” in gun purchasing, violence, and political extremism in the United States. Indeed, in a representative survey of adults in the United States this spring, he and his colleagues found that more than 20% considered political violence to be “in general at least somewhat justified.” That suggests more than 50 million Americans condone violence, and millions of those are not far from committing it.
Specifically, the VPRP researchers found, between three and five million would be “willing to commit violence against others because they are representatives of social institutions: government officials, election officials, health officials, members of the military or police. Three million would commit politically motivated violence against others because of differences in race/ethnicity or religion.”
Indeed, politicians are not the only imagined enemies of people like DePape. In his writings online, he crudely attacked Jewish people, journalists, Black people, transgender people, and tech company leaders. Reported hate crimes in 2020 reached their highest level in the United States in 12 years, and preliminary data indicates they have continued to increase, including high-profile attacks by white supremacists inspired by “great replacement” rhetoric. That rhetoric seeks to persuade people that they face an existential threat at the hands of another group. This is a common, powerful feature of dangerous speech since it makes violence, even mass violence, seem defensive and necessary.
And as Chile Eboe-Osuji, an international jurist and former president of the International Criminal Court, described in instructive detail for Just Security, such rhetoric has historically been followed by mass violence and genocide. At the Dangerous Speech Project we have documented myriad examples. Those risks are not unthinkable in the United States, if dangerous speech continues to move into the American mainstream, justifying and even encouraging violence.
Evidence-Backed Recommendations: How to Shift Discourse Norms
To shift American discourse against violence and in favor of peaceful democratic process, here are ideas based on research. There are two potential avenues for such efforts: one can try to stop influential people from inciting violence with dangerous speech, or try to make their audiences less susceptible by “inoculating” them against it. Both are needed.
It is possible to change the minds and behavior of some of the influencers. Even those who ardently believe in the disinformation they spread can occasionally be persuaded that it’s false. Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up picketing for the extremist Westboro Baptist Church that her grandfather founded, recounts her story of conversion away from the church and its ideas in her book, Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, and in a TED Talk in which she gives pointers for reaching people. She was a young influencer online, spreading the violent homophobic ideas of the church, when strangers began to reply to her. Most were hostile but she found herself having “heated but friendly arguments online” with a few of the strangers. “It took time but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me,” she said in her TED Talk.
Since she left the church in 2012, Phelps-Roper has been a part-time “counterspeaker” herself – trying to plant doubt in the minds of others like her former self. To do that, she uses (and recommends) four maxims: don’t assume bad intent (since many extremists think they are not only right, but good), ask questions, stay calm, and make the argument – even when it seems self-evident.
Other influencers are well aware they’re spreading dangerous speech. People who know them, too, may be able to convince them to stop. This can be attempted by calling them out publicly, or “calling them in” – contacting them privately. In each case, the best opportunities must be identified. “That’s Lobbying 101,” an experienced former Senate staffer told me. “Who needs to hear from whom?” Clergy and fellow members of religious communities, former teachers, family members, friends, teammates, members of a team one owns, business partners, even old classmates may all weigh in usefully with different individuals. It usually takes more than one attempt – after all, even the most persuasive inflammatory rhetoric converts people gradually, after they are exposed to it many times.
Another tactic is to punish influential liars with legal process. After Alex Jones viciously defamed the parents of children murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, claiming they had faked the massacre and leading some of his followers to threaten to kill the parents, they filed multiple lawsuits against him for defamation, and won several judgments for more than $1.4 billion. Last week in the latest ruling, Connecticut Judge Barbara Bellis wrote, “The record also establishes that the defendants repeated the conduct and attacks on the plaintiffs for nearly a decade, including during the trial, wanton, malicious, and heinous conduct that caused harm to the plaintiffs.” The families have vowed to pursue Jones relentlessly to collect damages from the fortune he has made from using his platform Infowars to persuade millions of people to believe false conspiracy theories, undermine their confidence in government and its institutions. The judgments against Jones will not undo that damage, unfortunately.
For persuasion, the identity of the messenger is often vital. Hillary Clinton and Biden spoke out eloquently against right wing rhetoric after the attack on Paul Pelosi, but they cannot sway the Republican base, especially when Republican leaders are silent. The latter must speak out.
Gabriel Sterling, a high-ranking Georgia elections official and a lifelong Republican, set a strong example in December 2020 when he spoke directly and publicly to Trump, who had been falsely claiming not only that the election was being stolen but that specific electoral workers were helping to steal it. “Mr. President…” Sterling said into a row of microphones in the state capitol, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed, and it’s not right.”
Sterling went on to demand that other Republican leaders, including Georgia’s two then-Republican senators, denounce the lies that were putting Sterling, his family, and his colleagues in danger. “This is elections, this is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word, are complicit in this.”
One could not have said it better, and Sterling was right about complicity. Dissenters like Sterling have been described by the right wing of their party with the term “RINO” – Republican in name only – now a powerful slur. In June, Eric Greitens, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Missouri, released a campaign ad in which he and a squad of heavily-armed men in military fatigues smash their way into a house to go “RINO-hunting.” Carrying a rifle himself, Greitens says in the ad, “Get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit. No tagging limit. And it doesn’t expire — until we save our country.” Greitens lost the primary, but noted proudly that his ad got millions of views online.
The practice of attacking Republican election officials who don’t deliver Republican victories continues, but like Gabriel Sterling, some are pushing back. In Arizona after the midterm election they spoke out against Kari Lake’s baseless claims of fraud in Maricopa County, and county chairman Bill Gates called on his fellow Republicans to “tone the rhetoric down.”
Lake lost but refused to concede, announcing on Thursday that she is assembling a legal team to “correct the many wrongs that have been done this past week.” In this she is mimicking Trump – and giving other Republicans a great opportunity to get it right this time by publicly calling on Lake to concede. They should also acknowledge that the elections were fair, and reject conspiracy theories. The midterm results, in which so many far-right candidates clearly lost, should help to convince other Republicans to do this. Already some of them are stepping off Trump’s bandwagon.
Leaders outside the political parties such as well-known musicians, actors, athletes, and religious leaders have spoken out on matters of great public concern in the past, at key moments. This is one of those.
Finally, it’s possible for ordinary strangers to favorably influence other ordinary strangers, especially, of course, those whose views are not (yet) extreme. This is vital, since those people are the majority – the ones whose moderate views keep society running on relatively peaceful rails even when a growing minority adopts extreme views.
Some have made a part-time job of responding to hatred. For example, thousands of people in more than a dozen countries have taken it upon themselves to respond to online hatred collectively, as part of national groups of volunteers who work in their spare time. The Swedish journalist Mina Dennert started the first such group, naming it #jagärhär (Swedish for “I am here”), in the wake of a surge in xenophobic comments online in 2015, as Syrians fled their country for European countries including Sweden. #jagärhär grew rapidly to more than 100,000 members, including a core of hundreds who counterspeak regularly, following a strict set of rules from Dennert, requiring for example that group members remain civil, and that they take on content, not the person who posted it. Sister efforts in other countries such as the German #ichbinhier also have tens of thousands of members. The U.S. based #iamhere group, started in 2021, has about 600 members.
Dr. Cathy Buerger, the Dangerous Speech Project’s research director, interviewed many #jagärhär members in detail and produced the first ethnographic study of a group of people responding collectively to online hate. Her work and that of other researchers suggests that such groups can shift discourse away from hatred and violence, though more study lies ahead.
Another group effort is the Lithuanian Elves. Named for mythic troll-fighting elves, since 2014 they have been countering Russian online disinformation that fosters intergroup conflict. Twenty founding Elves were soon joined by others in 13 Central and Eastern European countries, and they now claim more than 4,000 members. All operate anonymously, due to the danger of taking on the Russian government. In one example they disavowed a rumor, apparently Russian in origin, that a German NATO soldier had raped a teenager. The story began in 2017, and began circulating again after Russia invaded Ukraine. As one Elf told Buerger in an interview, the group’s goal is to reach the “common people.” “We hope they are understanding what they are reading. We are trying to make them not be poisoned by the fake news and the propaganda.”
Many other people respond to dangerous disinformation and hatred on their own. I’ll describe dozens of them with Buerger in a forthcoming book. One is Hasnain Kazim, a well-known journalist who was born and raised in a small German town and frequently receives political and cultural vitriol from readers who tell him, for example, that his name and skin color disqualify him from being an authentic or proper German. Since 2016 he has responded to hundreds of such attacks, sometimes with patient explanation, and sometimes with mordant humor that helped make his responses wildly popular among other readers, and led him to write books on the subject. Sometimes his attackers apologize. Kazim responds even to messages in all caps, with innumerable exclamation points (though he has proposed that such excessive punctuation be criminalized). It’s necessary to respond, he writes, because “a lot of people are reading it”:
We probably don’t convince our actual disputant, but we strengthen the backs of many others, support those affected and provide them with arguments for their own dispute. Only by opening our mouths, by intervening, joining in, arguing, countering, do we not leave the public space – be it the internet, be it somewhere in analog reality – to the splitters and agitators.
That’s a good working description of the marketplace of ideas, a conceptual plinth on which democracy perches – delicately.
Originally published by the Just Security, 11.21.2022, New York University School of Law, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs-NonCommercial license.