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Trump's online supporters remain muted after his indictment

Supporters of former US President Donald Trump protest near the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 30, 2023.
AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of former US President Donald Trump protest near the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 30, 2023.

Republicans quickly jumped to support former President Donald Trump after news of his unprecedented indictment by New York prosecutors came out on Thursday evening. After Trump's defeat in the 2020 election, his supporters rallied online, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. But this time. The former president's supporters on far-right social media platforms appear less enthusiastic about coming to his aid.

"There's not as much talk about 'we've got to stop this'; there's not as much talk about 'we should do something,'' says Eric Curwin, chief technology officer of Pyrra Technology, a company that monitors platforms such as Truth Social, Gab, Kiwi Farms and Bitchute that Trump supporters flocked to after Facebook, Twitter and others suspended Trump and some of his followers after Jan. 6.

The progression of events so far resembles when Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence was searched for classified documents last summer, says Jared Holt, a researcher at nonprofit Institute of Strategic Dialogue monitoring extremism. "The same kind of claims that the government or the legal system is being weaponized against Trump to undermine his election chances...some vague commentary from random users being like, 'Oh, let's go, let's do it.'

"From our early reads on this, we can't, you know, haven't been able to really pick out a whole lot of solid plans to actually mobilize large crowds around this " Holt says, " I say that with the caveat that in the weeks to come that can always change."

Instead, the online responses focused on other themes, Curwin says. One strand zeroed in on philanthropist and major Democratic donor George Soros's donatons to the campaign of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Others promoted the notion that Trump's indictment was a deliberate distraction from other recent news events, and that indictment was a trap by law enforcement to lure Trump's out to protest so that they could be arrested.

Soros is wealthy and Jewish, and his Open Society Foundation donates to projects around the world. That might be why he has been a long-time target of conspiracy theorists who see him as a shadowy political puppetmaster, says Holt. The difference this time, says Curwin, is that Soro's role is more specific. As the Washington Post reported, Soros did donate to a group that supported Bragg's campaign.

Holt says it's easy for GOP politicians to use Soros as a bogeyman when attacking Bragg without having to address any substantial issues in the legal argument. "The political left's equivalent of George Soros would be like the Koch brothers," says Holt, "It's a convenient rhetorical device at its most base level."

One reason why the online response to Trump's indictment - which began in earnest after Trump announced he was likely to be arrested on March 19- is that his most fervent supporters might be wary of organizing protests after seeing many of the January 6th rioters have been arrested and sentenced to prison time, says Holt.

Many in the community think the online spaces they have used to organize are now under surveillance, Holt told NPR in an interview. "Any time somebody suggests anything too crazy, a lot of them just yell at each other and accuse them of, you know, accusing each other of being federal agents, trying to entrap each other."

"As long as those kinds of dynamics are in play, there's going to be a pretty big hurdle to any sort of mass organizing on Trump's behalf."

Some of those supporters also blame Trump for not giving them enough support after the arrests and may also believe that the judicial system is biased against them.

Even though Trump's support within the GOP has ebbed somewhat, his rhetoric has permeated the Republican party. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential rival of Trump's the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, called Bragg "Soros-backed" in a tweet, and described the prosecution as "The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.