Joanna Mendelson is the Los Angeles-based associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which monitors extremist activity, hate and terrorism in the U.S., both online and on the ground. She spoke with J. about the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., how antisemitism and conspiracy theories fueled the action, and what might be next.
J.: Pictures and rhetoric coming out of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol have been frightening. How do antisemitic beliefs converge with the kind of right-wing extremism that led to the violence of that day?
Joanna Mendelson: Our team across the country was tuning into [right-wing] livestreams to help gauge reactions and activity. Overwhelmingly, on many of the extremist livestreams that we viewed, there was antisemitic content. It notoriously, and predictably, dominated the live-feed streams.
Conspiracies and disinformation are essentially what help to foment this fear, and ultimately violence, that manifested at the Capitol. Conspiracies have become the lifeblood for this worldview. If you look in particular at QAnon [there was a strong presence at the Capitol of believers in this conspiracy], adherents believe that there is a global cabal of individuals helping to manipulate and control the world — namely, the progressives and the Democrats. And according to this conspiracy, President Donald Trump is positioned to take on these forces head-on. We do see a strain of QAnon adherents who ascribe antisemitic elements to this cabal, and so they’ll specifically talk about this global conspiracy being controlled and manipulated by the Jews.
We [also] saw antisemites and anti-Zionist thought leaders deride pro-Trump extremists as fighting for the “Zionist quo.”
That’s a strange take. Can you explain that further?
[Extremists] are not monolithic in their views. We see from right-wing extremists and antisemites a potpourri of perspectives on this administration. Some lambaste Donald Trump as being a friend of Israel, as having Jewish family members, as making real-world actions that have supported the State of Israel. As a result, he’s been demonized by some right-wing extremists for being a puppet of the Jews.
We now know there were plenty of warnings that violence was coming. ADL monitors online extremism. Did you see evidence something like this could happen?
We wrote a memo a week prior [to Jan. 6] saying we were concerned about the violence and the rhetoric, and unfortunately, we read the tea leaves too well. In some ways, this was all predictable. This is not something that happened in isolation. There were very clear indicators, and real-world events that took place across the nation [in 2020], that lent themselves to an understanding that what happened at the Capitol wasn’t new.
Why didn’t the platforms that host this extremist talk take action beforehand?
For far too long, platforms were giving ample space to help elevate extremist, racist and bigoted voices. They were even profiting off of that. To curtail and denounce and take action against some of these elements on their platforms was bad for business.
This is a whack-a-mole game, it really is. Extremists scurry to other spaces. That is what we saw with Parler [a Twitter alternative popular on the right]. Parler was — and I say “was” because it was shut down — in some ways a little bit of an echo chamber for the right, a social media site that was increasingly popular among conservatives while simultaneously attracting this substantial range of extremists. Right now, we’re looking at the next platform where they’re going to crop up, and the next space they’re going to [use to] mobilize and recruit.
What do you “read in the tea leaves” for the next few weeks?
We’re seeing violent chatter and calls to arms. The rhetoric is there. No credible threats currently, but certainly there are calls for violence. And violent actions are perceived as justified. The concept of “now or never” — that is what they’re talking about.
Are the threats being taken more seriously this time?
We saw a dark historical moment that our country sunk to, and I think this served as a clear wake-up call. No one wants mud on their face in the weeks to come, so as a result we’re seeing mobilization, we’re seeing engagement, we’re seeing [authorities] taking these threats very seriously.