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Violent extremism spiked online after FBI Mar-a-Lago search


We're going to start today by taking a closer look at a story that dominated news coverage this week, the FBI search of former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. Yesterday, a federal judge in Florida unsealed the documents related to the search. Those documents show that FBI agents were looking for evidence related to possible violations of federal law, and they seized items that included government documents identified as classified and top secret. Before information about the reason for the search became public, though, Trump allies reacted with outrage, with some office holders making demands to rein in and even defund the FBI.

But some Trump supporters went even further, reacting with violent rhetoric and conspiracies, some of whom went so far as to liken the FBI to Nazi Germany. And on Thursday, an armed man attempted to attack an FBI field office in Ohio. While authorities have not yet identified a motive - officially, anyway - social media accounts under the suspect's name show violent threats in response to the FBI's search at Mar-a-Lago.

We wanted to make sense of this kind of violence and ways to address it, so we've called Brian Murphy. He is a former top Department of Homeland Security official, where he focused on intelligence and counterterrorism, and he's long sounded the alarm on the rise of domestic extremism. Brian Murphy, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

BRIAN MURPHY: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I want to mention that you spent some years at the FBI before joining Homeland Security. I wanted to ask you, what stood out to you about the attack on that FBI field office? What did you notice?

MURPHY: So what stood out to me about this attack is just the level of rhetoric is something I've never seen when I was in the FBI, DHS or at the private company that I'm at now.

MARTIN: How do you gauge the volume of it? Is it the fact that it went to that level so quickly in response to so little information? Is it like the number of people who seem to want to participate in that kind of dialogue? How do you gauge the volume of something like that?

MURPHY: I think you kind of touched on two of the ways. One is just the number. And so, you know, in the company I'm at now, we have the - I have the benefit of looking at a diverse set of social media platforms, and from a wide range of those, we just saw the - you know, almost right after the search was announced publicly, the number of people talking about very violent things against the FBI. I thought that was very alarming.

MARTIN: One of the things that interests me is that these individuals are continually sort of described as lone wolfs, as it were - you know, that the sort of implication is is that, you know, this is just an individual who took in under his own, you know, under his own authority to go act in a certain way. Like, I'm thinking about the Comet Pizza incident, which, you know, because we're in Washington, D.C., where this man decided that people weren't adequately responding to - despite the fact that we have thousands of law enforcement officials in Washington, D.C., sworn law enforcement officers, he decided that he alone had to rescue, you know, fictional children from, you know, child predator ring, which, of course, is ridiculous, didn't happen.

But he took a weapon into a crowded pizza restaurant, and he could have killed somebody. And thankfully, he didn't, and, you know, he subsequently kind of recanted those views. But it's like, over and over again, we seem to see these as individuals. And I just wonder, why do we keep seeing these as individuals? I mean, is it - is - you know, and it seems like when other people engage in this kind of conduct, we see them as part of a broader movement. Is there a way to - should we change our thinking about this?

MURPHY: Yeah. I think - I know I have. I'm glad you brought that up. I don't think it about the individuals anymore. I think about the narrative. And what we're looking at is how these narratives coalesce in really these filter bubbles of the like-minded. And from these narratives, you'll start seeing a subnarrative, which will be the more violent people encouraging each other, right? So there's a subtext that develops where you get the truly violent people who are encouraging each other. And then more and more, we see the switchover from social media into the real world, where real, physical violence occurs. And that is - you know, you can't - I can't say it's a guarantee every time, but it certainly is happening almost every time where we see that frequency of a switchover into the physical world. It's you - can almost predict it, unfortunately.

MARTIN: Does there seem to be sort of a collectively urgent response to this among law enforcement and, frankly, citizens across the country? Because they seem to keep popping up in different places - and I just wonder, is there a sense of urgency around this?

MURPHY: I - well, I don't know if I would say there's this sense of urgency that I would agree with. But what I have seen over, you know, a decade plus is there has been a shift, which gives us hope, I do believe, both within the executive branch and also at social media companies. And I'm not going to give them a pass either, but I think they're doing more than they were just, you know, a year ago. So I think, you know, we're on a good path. It's just that we're not - as we described a little bit earlier, it's not urgent enough, at least for where I think we need to be.

MARTIN: That's Brian Murphy. He's the former undersecretary for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security. He's now continuing in this work in private practice. Brian Murphy, thank you for joining us and sharing this expertise with us.

MURPHY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.