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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

It will take an all-out national effort to dismantle the radicalization pipeline that has planted conspiracy theories in the heads of millions of Americans and inspired last month's attack on the Capitol, experts tell Axios.

Two key measures that could make a difference:

  • Keeping extremists out of the institutions where they could do the greatest damage — like the military, police departments and legislatures.
  • Providing help for those who have embraced dangerous ideologies.

Online platforms, meanwhile, must be unwavering in their commitment to root out conspiracy theories and lies that undermine faith in democracy, according to experts interviewed by Axios.

  • Radicalization and counterterrorism experts broadly applaud tech companies' efforts, now underway, to remove this material and the accounts that spread it off their platforms, despite heavy blowback from conservatives.
  • Twitter's decision to ban Donald Trump is seen on its own as a major asset in the fight to slow or reverse radicalization.

The U.S. needs a "Marshall Plan against domestic extremism," Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, told Axios.

  • "The spread of extremist conspiracy theories in the United States is the second most dangerous pandemic the country faces right now," he said. "The damage that's been to the U.S. in terms of community and social cohesion will be immense and will be lasting."
  • The radicalization is happening in a multitude of online spaces and right-wing media channels, pulling people into an alternate reality that posits, among a growing swarm of other false ideas, that the 2020 election was stolen.
  • When it comes to coordinated deradicalization efforts, the U.S. is behind most European countries by 25–30 years, Koehler said.

The latest: Twitter's ongoing purge of far-right conspiracy theorists who have spread the lie that Trump won the 2020 election continued apace over the weekend, as the company suspended the account of Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft.

A key part of breaking extremists' rising mainstream influence will be making it unacceptable for white nationalists, anti-government extremists and conspiracy theorists to serve in the military, in police forces or as lawmakers.

  • Experts worry that the GOP's tacit and sometimes explicit approval of extremists will hamper efforts to keep police forces and legislatures free of conspiracy theorists.
  • "At DOD, it will go well and they will quash it," said former FBI counterterrorism analyst Clint Watts. "It's a lot of sheriffs' departments that make me nervous, because they're elected. Politics means you go with party."

Yes, but: A purely punitive, security-minded approach alone is likely to prove ineffective and invasive at best, experts say. At worst, it will only fuel extremists' sense of persecution and push them closer to violence.

Instead, experts agree serious resources need to be mustered toward providing an offramp for people who have been drawn into extremist ideologies.

  • New federal programs would likely be doomed to fail, experts say, because distrust and hatred of the government is already a core tenet of far-right extremism.
  • Instead, private and public-private programs are more likely to be effective, particularly if they're able to get endorsement and funding from federal and state governments.
  • Those could include anti-extremism counseling programs and support groups; education programs that work with schools to identify risks and signs of incipient radicalization; and rehabilitation organizations that work with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

One idea, courtesy of Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi leader who founded the Free Radicals Project, which works to help people leave violent extremist groups: a "single entry point" akin to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline "that people recognize, that people trust, that people understand."

  • Something like a national hotline or online portal could steer people to local resources to help them or loved ones escape the radicalization pipeline, he said.

The bottom line: "Any sort of solution is going to have to be holistic and is going to have to have empathy at its core," said Jared Holt, a visiting research fellow with the Atlantic Council.

Go deeper

59 seconds ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."

UN warns of "catastrophic" climate change failure without more emissions cuts

UN Secretary-General António Guterres at a news conference. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

A United Nations report released Friday warned that the planet will likely warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century unless governments take extra steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it matters: The report, released just months ahead of November's UN Climate Summit, highlights the growing pressure on global leaders to crack down on emissions to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Pentagon approves request for 100 National Guard troops for "Justice for J6" rally

Security fencing has been reinstalled around the Capitol. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved a request from Capitol Police to provide 100 D.C. National Guard troops in case law enforcement requires additional support at Saturday's "Justice for J6" rally at the Capitol.

Why it matters: Security preparations have ramped up ahead of the pro-Trump demonstration, where hundreds of protesters sympathetic to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack are expected to gather.

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