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Some local GOP leaders fire up base with conspiracies, lies

February 26, 2021 GMT
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FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on in Washington. Lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories related to the 2020 election are gaining traction among local, county and state Republicans, who are using their online platforms to disseminate many of the same dangerous messages that led to the violent insurrection at the Capitol last month. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on in Washington. Lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories related to the 2020 election are gaining traction among local, county and state Republicans, who are using their online platforms to disseminate many of the same dangerous messages that led to the violent insurrection at the Capitol last month. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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.

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“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, 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, 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, but instead they acted of their own volition. “The lawyers need our help,” she posted.

Gatt is among many conservatives organizing on Twitter, Facebook, Parler, Gab and Telegram, and is working on a digital strategy going forward 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.”

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Although Democrats have also 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 huge Republican fan base even after leaving office.

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 and Facebook barred people from posting extremist content and disinformation.

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 their 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 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 to a Jan. 13 statement from 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 Trump, referred to her legal strategy as “the kraken,” powerful enough to destroy Biden’s presidency. However, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected a handful of cases related to the 2020 election filed by Trump and his allies in five states.

Another recent Regan Facebook post: “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 of himself on Facebook with Donald Trump Jr., commenting “TRUMP 2020, Stop the Steal.”

Beck told AP he went to a meeting at Trump International Hotel that night with Trump Jr., Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Trump adviser Peter Navarro and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and attended the Trump rally the next day but stayed far from the Capitol building.

AP confirmed that Trump Jr. and Tuberville attended the gathering. Navarro denied attending, and 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 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.”

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 multi-year 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, California, 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 “You all will die.”

Riley was subsequently forced to resign and arrested for his involvement in the insurrection. Riley and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Experts warn that if left unchecked, this type of rhetoric could again incite violence.

“What I care about is the potential loss of life, and preventing what appears to be a pretty massive extremist movement that is growing right now,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who was a DHS assistant secretary under Trump. “The only way to stop this, aside from law enforcement, is to get the GOP to acknowledge how they have contributed to its growth and get them to speak out about it. Things cannot continue this way.”

Many GOP officials told AP that Democrats and the media are ignoring, demeaning or even mocking millions of Americans’ legitimate concerns about the election outcome, rather than seriously engaging with them. And they pointed to angry posts from Democrats they said had led to dangerous and costly consequences.

Some of the GOP officials AP surveyed have tempered their online speech in the past month since social media platforms began banning accounts more aggressively and the FBI ramped up investigations tied to Jan. 6.

Still, a rift is opening in some local Republican circles as those who embrace disinformation about election fraud clash with those who recognize Biden’s win.

Following Trump’s acquittal in his second impeachment trial, Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, called the claims that the former president won the election “wild myths” and said the insurrection was “a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole” online, laying the blame at Trump’s feet.

Couy Griffin, a commissioner in Otero County, New Mexico, founded the group Cowboys for Trump, and shows up at rallies on horseback, waving a large American flag. Griffin entered the Capitol grounds Jan. 6, then kept posting on Parler about his support for continuing the fight for Trump. When he got back to New Mexico, he told his fellow county commissioners that he planned to bring his “.357 Henry big boy rifle” and ”.357 single action revolver” to the inauguration Jan. 20, according to court documents.

Griffin was arrested near a security checkpoint in Washington before the inauguration and is charged with entering a Secret Service-restricted area without permission. The Republican Party of New Mexico has distanced itself from Griffin, and a recall effort is underway. Griffin told AP he didn’t bring guns to DC but he will protect himself.

“I’m not going to be threatened and harassed and bullied,” Griffin told AP in an interview. “There’s many of us who will continue to take a stand for our freedom and continue to raise our voices and demand that our voices be heard.”

Others have faced political consequences.

Hours before Parler was taken offline on Jan. 10, Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase posted an image she said was from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop. “Make no mistake,” posted Chase. “The 2020 Presidential Election was stolen by the Democratic Party with the help of our enemies. She’s the traitor and leader of the insurrection and coup against the USA.”

Chase, who is seeking this year’s GOP nomination for Virginia governor and was at the Jan. 6 rally but said she did not go to the Capitol building, has been censured by the Virginia Senate for an alleged “pattern of unacceptable conduct” and is suing.

In a phone call, Chase initially said the post calling Pelosi a traitor didn’t sound familiar and could have been the work of an imposter. But after the AP emailed her a link of an archived webpage, Chase confirmed it was indeed her post, and said she “stands by it.”

“It’s my free speech right. I can say all day long that the election was stolen, that’s my right to believe that,” Chase said. “And for the press, or for other people to try and cancel the free speech of others who have that opinion is un-American.”

About two-thirds of Republicans say — contrary to all evidence — that Biden was not legitimately elected president, according to a recent poll by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Free speech advocates say the legal definition of inciting violence is extremely narrow, and over-policing online posts, including those spreading misinformation, could undermine democracy.

“We need to be very careful about not painting with an overly broad brush what incitement to violence is, because it’s going to have serious consequences if we allow that exception to get wider,” said Nora Pelizzari, spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship. “We can’t allow anger at people in power to become punishable.”

AP found plenty of anger. Parler posts containing the word “revolution” increased five times faster than the overall rate of message traffic after the election, the analysis found. Also, about 84% of posts referring to the hashtag “#1776″ occurred on or after Election Day, according to AP’s analysis. Post-election references to “treason” and the QAnon slogan “trust the plan” both increased by about 10 times the overall rate, the data showed.

Republican Ryan Kelley, a planning commissioner in Allendale Township, Michigan, recently announced he’s running for governor and started organizing for his campaign on Telegram, saying “the funny biz in the 2020 election that the left brushed under the rug.. Patriots want answers,” and pledging to watch a conspiracy theory video pushing Trump’s claims of election fraud.

Kelley had made headlines last spring after he organized a protest in Michigan’s Capitol, inviting heavily armed militiamen who crowded into the Lansing statehouse. Over the summer, he posted an article about the Michigan Liberty Militia on Parler saying, “Love seeing our Militia highlighted and shown as the good guys they are. #militia” Two members of that group later were charged in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. On Jan. 6, Kelley went to the U.S. Capitol but says he was only outside.

Kelley told AP that militia members are “law abiding, lawful citizens that love this country, and maybe you get a couple of them that are bad apples. Question for you is, are bad apples pretty much in everything that we have as far as groups?”

As for his social media use in general he said, “Somebody might look at my posts and think oppositely, think, ‘Oh wow, I’m offended by that,’ or, ‘Oh, man, I feel intimidated by that.’ I might look at somebody else’s posts that take oppositely of me and think similar things,” he said. “The question is, No. 1, is any of them unlawful?”

He said he’s simply looking to open conversations with his posts.

New Hampshire state Republican Rep. Terry Roy also continues to push the theory that Biden is not the legitimate winner of November’s election.

“THIS guy won 80 million votes? Not in this universe,” he posted on the social media platform Gab earlier this month. “I’m busy trying to keep New Hampshire free during the day and preparing for Red Dawn by night.” In the 1984 movie “Red Dawn,” American teenagers fought Russian invaders.

Roy joined Gab last month, uploading an introductory post showing himself shooting a high-powered bolt-action rifle and displaying a symbol and slogan, “Molon Labe,” favored by gun-rights advocates and some members of the militia group the Oath Keepers. Molon Labe translates to “come and take them.”

He said the symbol is meaningful for Second Amendment supporters, and that extremist groups can’t “hijack” it. He said he referenced “Red Dawn” in part because the film’s premise is that citizens can face a foreign invasion, which echoes his beliefs that Americans should embrace gun rights.

After speaking with AP, Roy asked his Gab followers, “Do ANY of you take anything I have ever said to be a call to initiate violence against the Government or anyone else?” Most who responded said no, though several took the opportunity to share their own views involving right-wing conspiracy theories.

Roy said he’s now more introspective about what he says online.

“I think it does give me a little pause to just make sure and double-check that hyperbole doesn’t run over into encouragement of something that would be illegal,” he said. “I always want to make sure that while trying to fire up my base, I don’t unnecessarily fire up the crazies.”

In Arizona and Illinois, prominent Republicans who refused to support Trump’s bid to overturn the election have been rebuked in recent weeks by the state GOP and a central committee, respectively. Last month, the Texas GOP’s Twitter account urged people to follow the party on “free speech” social media app Gab using the slogan “We are The Storm,” despite its association with the Qanon conspiracy theory.

After the November election, Manhattan, New York, Republican Party chair Andrea Catsimatidis asked on Parler: “Is Joe Biden planning a coup by trying to create his own parallel government?” Earlier this month, she retweeted: “Corporate America helped rig the election.”

Reached by phone, Catsimatidis said she believes it is the duty of political officials to share their opinions and reach as many people as possible.

“Political leaders have influence, and the fact that I have developed a social media following is exactly what you should be doing as a political leader,” she said. “And I want to make sure that I can get information out.”

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Contributing to this report are Associated Press data journalist Camille Fassett in Santa Cruz, California, and AP writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho; Michael Householder in Detroit; Helen Wieffering in Minneapolis; Avery Yang in Phoenix; Haleluya Hadero in Atlanta; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; Michelle Smith in Providence, Rhode Island; and Thalia Beaty in New York.

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Contact AP’s Global Investigations team at investigative@ap.org