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Lawmakers’ false narratives could fan the flames of extremism, Senate told

Homeland Security plans review of how extremists have leveraged social media and other online platforms

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testify during Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testify during Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Corrected, 2:36 PM | Two top federal law enforcement officials said Wednesday that politicians who embrace false narratives could help fuel the possibility of violent extremism in America such as the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The testimony came the same morning House Republicans ousted their conference chair, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, for refusing to embrace former President Donald Trump’s continued lies about the 2020 election being stolen or fraudulent.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on domestic violent extremism, testified that false narratives create a lack of confidence in democratic institutions.

“And those false narratives can lead people who are predisposed to violence to commit acts of violence against our institutions,” Mayorkas said.

Such false statements “create strands of dialogue we see propagated on social media, and then we see those strands picked up on, and we are detecting connectivity between those strands and an intention to commit violent acts,” Mayorkas said.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said those who end up committing acts of domestic violence can get ideas from the internet, “where there are false narratives and false statements, and those can lead to violence.”

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen asked whether there is any evidence that statements from elected officials have contributed to those false narratives and violence.

“We do see, in the narratives that we have studied, the fact that false narratives attributed to public officials gain traction in social media,” Mayorkas said.

The Homeland Security Department plans to more comprehensively review how extremists have exploited and leveraged social media and other online platforms, and how online activities are linked to real-world violence, Mayorkas said.

Garland said President Joe Biden’s discretionary Justice Department budget request for fiscal 2022 seeks more than $100 million in additional funds to address the rising threat of domestic violent extremism and domestic terrorism for the FBI, U.S. attorney’s offices and more.

Garland also highlighted how Biden’s request includes $4 million more for the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department’s research agency, to further research the root causes of radicalization.

Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen pointed out that Cheney made a floor speech late Tuesday on how Trump “risks inciting further violence” with a new push to undermine confidence in the 2020 election.

Van Hollen said that fit with a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year that found “false narratives will almost certainly spur domestic violence to extremists to try to engage in violence this year.”

“I would just encourage all of our colleagues to recognize that words matter,” Van Hollen said. “I mean, people have a First Amendment right and they can say what they want, but they should also recognize the very dangerous consequences of the false narratives that continue to be peddled around this place, and coming from the former president.”

Trump’s post-election allegations about the 2020 presidential contest consisted mainly of a toxic mix of lies, misinformation, conspiracy theories and bogus legal arguments that state and federal judges, even those whom Trump appointed, quickly booted from court.

Eight senators and a majority of the House Republican caucus voted on Jan. 6 to reject votes from at least one state based on questions about the integrity of those elections, questions fueled almost entirely on Trump’s false narrative of fraud.

This report was corrected to accurately identify Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

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