Violent threats against Jan. 6 witnesses spread on fringe sites

In the hours after former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson shocked the country with her testimony before the House Inquiry Committee into the January 6 attacks, people on the farthest corners of the internet began plotting their revenge.

“It would be fun to smash them… with a hammer,” wrote one user on the anonymous forum 4chan.

“Cassidy Hutchison needs to get the death penalty, that’s all,” another person said on the pro-Trump forum

“Ropes, folks, more ropes,” said one user who claimed to be at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The person stated in a later post that they traveled to Hutchinson’s home.

The attacks on Hutchinson are part of a broader pattern of violent threats in fringe social networks aimed at witnesses testifying before Congress about the Capitol riot. Since the committee held prime-time hearings in June, the nonprofit organization Advance Democracy has identified a spate of stinginess in online forums, which have a reputation for promoting extremism and right-wing views, targeting key witnesses and prominent lawmakers from the dated committee January 6 aims. These include Gab, the .win forums, and Truth Social, former President Donald Trump’s social media company.

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Some of these social networks and their offshoots also waged violent threats against election officials and lawmakers in the weeks leading up to the January 6 attack.

Advance Democracy’s findings show that these threats continue to thrive online, jeopardizing the committee’s efforts to obtain a clear account of the attack on democracy. Some of the posts and comments include calls to organize armed groups and suggest a willingness to engage in another violent insurgency.

The committee has examined the role online platforms, from fringe sites to Facebook and Twitter, played in instigating violence in the Capitol that left five dead, dozens of police officers injured and hundreds prosecuted. The continued violent rhetoric is a worrying sign of what may be to come, especially as Trump and his allies spread false narratives about Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, researchers say.

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“Just a few years ago these views were marginal, but now, with the widespread promotion of these narratives by political leaders, elected officials and media personalities, the threat of political violence has never been more significant,” said Daniel Jones, President of Advancing Democracy , a non-partisan non-profit organization that conducts investigations of public interest. Jones previously worked as an investigator for the FBI and Senate, where he authored the Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

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According to free speech nonprofit PEN America, federal law prohibits using the Internet to harass or stalk someone, or to make threats across state lines. However, it is unclear what investigations into the threats have been undertaken.

The U.S. Capitol Police referred questions about their investigation into threats to the Justice Department and the FBI. Capitol Police said they are not commenting on possible investigations for security reasons, but added in a statement that their investigators “take all threats and statements of concern seriously.”

The FBI declined to comment on whether it had opened a specific investigation, but said in a statement it also takes all threats of violence “seriously” and is working with other law enforcement partners to investigate them.

The January 6 committee declined to comment on the security arrangements in place for witnesses.

The Advance Democracy report provides several examples of online threats that called for the execution or torture of the witnesses and lawmakers, and suggested that they deserve to be hanged for treason or killed by firing squad.

“We must treat everyone involved in the imprisonment and torture of the J6ers as we did the guards and leadership of the Nazi death camps. Public executions,” one user wrote on in August, the report said.

After the committee aired video of Army General Mark A. Milley outlining the Pentagon’s communications with Vice President Mike Pence, a Gab user wrote that the defense official “must be charged with treason, prosecuted, and then executed.”

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Russell “Rusty” Bowers, the Republican Speaker of the Arizona House, has faced violent attacks on the Truth social app and on, where a user who previously claimed to be a Proud Boy on the forum called out “a fall down stairs”.

Spokespersons for the sites where the threats surfaced said they are working with law enforcement to investigate threats. Gab CEO Andrew Torba said in an email that if an “unlawful threat” is posted on the site, the company “will promptly respond to any legal process served on us by law enforcement.”

Truth Social spokesperson Shannon Devine said the platform is “a family-friendly platform for free speech that does not tolerate violent threats or incitement.”

How to protect yourself from online harassment

The committee has sought to highlight how Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election results threatened election officials across the country with violence both offline and online. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) described receiving “close to 4,000 text messages in a short period of time” after Trump retweeted his phone number and pressured him to change the state’s election results. Other witnesses described threats in their homes. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) testified that someone tried to break into his daughter’s home. Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” votes to overturn his defeat in a recording of a phone conversation previously reported by the Washington Post.

Experts studying online harassment and extremism are not surprised to see violent rhetoric festering on these social networks, which have positioned themselves as an alternative to the mainstream social networks, where policies have restricted violent and hateful rhetoric and where technologies have been developed to recognize them.

But the threats are still taking their toll, despite the places where they appear are comparatively small, experts say. The largest is 4chan, which averaged nearly 6 million unique visitors per month between June and August, according to analysis by SimilarWeb. The .win forums are slightly smaller –, the most popular .win forum, had an average of 403,295 unique visitors per month during the same period.

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“It’s meant to intimidate them,” said Danielle Citron, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied cyberstalking and online harassment. “It increases the price of witnessing reality, political violence.”

Citron warns that fringe networks will continue to foment violence without law enforcement making any further efforts to enforce existing laws or a change in regulations that would reward social media sites for better monitoring their sites.

The continued violent rhetoric comes after Democrats vowed to create new internet regulations that would address the role social media platforms played in inciting the mob that descended on the Capitol. But 21 months after the attacks, Democrats have been unable to use their tight control of Congress to deliver on those promises.

Facebook and Twitter could face punitive regulation for their roles in the US Capitol riots, Democrats say

Lawmakers have been widely expected to consider changes to Section 230, a decades-old piece of legislation that protects social networks from lawsuits over photos, posts and videos people share on their services. But no proposal to update the Counter-Extremism Act has been put forward in Congress amid partisan disagreements over the role tech companies should play in policing online speech. The White House has called for legislative reforms and hosted forums focused on online extremism and gender-based harassment. But the Biden administration has not endorsed any specific proposal to change the law.

In a proposal circulating among Democrats in Congress, Citron called for Section 230 to be updated so that websites enjoy legal immunity in cases of harassment and stalking only if they can show they have taken “reasonable steps” to address it to prevent such abuse. She also argues that protection should not be extended to websites that intentionally encourage or allow such activities.

Citron warns online extremism could get worse in the meantime.

“We will see escalations,” she said. “The threats to democracy will become more acute than they already are.”