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News brief: Ill. shooting probe, Georgia subpoenas, U.K. government resignations

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Highland Park shooting suspect has been charged with seven counts of first-degree murder and more charges are likely to come.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The investigation into the shooting at a July 4 parade is in its early stages, but details are emerging about Robert Crimo III's online habits. The 21-year-old posted violent memes, photos, rap videos and music on multiple online platforms. Extremism researchers say his digital footprint fits into an emerging profile of violent extremists.

MARTINEZ: NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef joins us. Odette, you've been looking through this online content. What are you seeing?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Well, A, what's most striking is the violence and gore that appear throughout. In one music video posted last year, there's a cartoon figure that appears to be him involved in a bloody armed confrontation with law enforcement. He's depicted with a long gun, which is also the type of weapon allegedly used in Monday's deadly attack. But there is no clear political message or ideology to read into his online presence. It's really kind of a dark, stylized mishmash of various online subcultures with themes of violence, nihilism and a kind of blurring of what's real and what's not.

MARTINEZ: Blurring - when you say blurring of real and not real, what do you mean by that?

YOUSEF: So this is exactly that emerging area of violent extremism that you mentioned. It revolves around communities that come together over collaborative fiction, lore and alternate reality games. They most often start on the website 4chan but then migrate to other deep parts of the web, and they can be quite immersive. Alex Newhouse at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies is at the cutting edge of researching this.

ALEX NEWHOUSE: The idea is that everyone within these communities sort of lose track of what is real and what is fake, and they start fantasizing about and fetishizing violence as sort of this end-all, be-all of the essence of existing, rather than any sort of, like, ideological or political aim wrapped around that.

YOUSEF: Newhouse says these communities can destroy a person's sense of identity and detach them from any grounding in reality. And he goes so far as to call this phenomenon a sort of mass shooter creation machine.

MARTINEZ: Wow. Have other mass shooters been connected to this type of content?

YOUSEF: Well, A, Newhouse puts the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a school shooting in Oxford, Mich., in the same category. So that would be three in the last year alone. And what's alarming is that this online milieu that gives rise to the violence is designed to be super viral. It uses memes billed as jokes or ironic but which ultimately numb people to violence. And it has a unique aesthetic designed to appeal to young people.

MARTINEZ: So then if this content isn't associated with a specific group or ideology, it seems like it would be very difficult to prevent. What do we know about that?

YOUSEF: Well, Newhouse says it would take lots of information sharing between tech companies, experts and journalists who can flag items for content moderation. But even with that, it will be challenging.

NEWHOUSE: Where is the line between someone engaging with an alternate reality game and then suddenly getting detached from time and space and wanting to commit violence? And that's still - like, we're still at the very, very, very nascent stages of that.

YOUSEF: You know, Newhouse says these kind of dark online milieus have really taken off in the last two or three years, and the group particularly at risk are 13- to 24-year-olds.

MARTINEZ: NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef. Thanks a lot.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: An investigation into potential criminal interference in Georgia after the 2020 election is heating up.

FADEL: A special grand jury in Atlanta filed documents seeking to compel seven people with close ties to former President Trump to testify behind closed doors. That includes Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

MARTINEZ: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting is here to put it into context for us. Stephen, we mentioned Giuliani. Why does this special grand jury want to speak with him?

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Well, A, he's the biggest name because he's Trump's personal attorney and one of the lead lawyers in the efforts to overturn the election in Georgia and other states. He spoke to Georgia lawmakers in several unsanctioned hearings in December 2020, and he made a ton of false claims about the state and its election procedures, even after officials knocked them down as untrue. There's also John Eastman and Jenna Ellis, both attorneys who pushed the fringe legal theory that then-Vice President Mike Pence could reject slates of electors and pick Republicans to win. Eastman told Georgia lawmakers at some of these hearings it was their, quote, "duty" to overturn the election.

Then there's other figures like Kenneth Chesebro, who worked with Georgia's chair of the Republican Party to enact a secret plan to meet with a fake slate of electors; Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer on the phone with Trump during the infamous call to Georgia Secretary of State; and Jacki Pick Deason, who introduced a video of vote counting in Georgia at State Farm Arena and claimed it showed massive evidence of fraud. Elections officials quickly debunked those claims. And they want to talk to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina about calls he had with the secretary of state about rejecting absentee ballots. We don't yet know if anyone will cooperate.

MARTINEZ: Now, Trump lost by about 12,000 votes. The outcome stayed that way. What specifically is this special grand jury looking at from a criminal angle?

FOWLER: One of the biggest takeaways we can glean from these documents seeking to have these people testify behind closed doors is an interest in comments made during these off-book hearings with state lawmakers. They weren't official meetings. The witnesses weren't required to testify under oath. And facts were definitely not followed in these one-sided discussions. One of the potential charges the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., could look at is making false statements to state or local governmental bodies. And court watchers say Rudy Giuliani in particular could be a target. Then, of course, there's that fake slate of electors organized by the Georgia GOP and others that are of interest, too. We don't really yet know where this will lead, particularly because of how prevalent the attacks on Georgia's election results were but also because this jury is meeting behind closed doors, and many witnesses are having to be compelled to testify.

MARTINEZ: And, Stephen, what about Donald Trump? How does he fit into all this? Because members of the House committee are investigating January 6, and they say they're weighing criminal referrals to the Department of Justice. So is he maybe in legal trouble in Georgia?

FOWLER: Well, this week's court filings are the closest we've seen to Trump, but we haven't seen any indication yet that he himself is the target of the investigation in the same way these other lower-hanging-fruit-type conversations are with more clear-cut roles. Trump's call to the secretary of state to, quote, "find votes," as well as a call he made to the state's top election investigator have been discussed and could be where the former president faces his biggest liability. But also, the fact that he is the former president could make it harder to charge if the DA ultimately decides to do so. And it's something we're definitely going to be watching as more information comes out in the coming weeks here in Georgia.

MARTINEZ: Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler. Stephen, thanks.

FOWLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is once again in a familiar position - clinging to power.

FADEL: Two of his key Cabinet members resigned after Johnson apologized for promoting a lawmaker he knew had been accused of sexual misconduct. Despite scandal after scandal, the Houdini of British politics shows no signs he intends to step down.

MARTINEZ: For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is just outside of London. Frank, Boris Johnson has faced so many scandals. So let's recap. What is this particular one about?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Good morning, A. This is about a guy, a lawmaker named Chris Pincher, and he was promoted in February to be deputy whip. That helps, you know, organize the votes in the House of Commons. Pincher has had a history of sexual harassment allegations. Johnson said he wasn't aware of a complaint back in 2019, so he appointed him to the job. Turned out, A, that's not true; Johnson did know. And so once again, Johnson has appeared to basically be caught in a lie, which has happened a lot in his career. Now, the scandal before this one, which is still kind of going on, Johnson said that everybody in his - you know, his whole staff in the government followed COVID rules when, in fact, his staff was partying at No. 10 Downing Street. And he hasn't really fully recovered from that scandal when this one came along in the last few days.

MARTINEZ: So how does Johnson continue to hold on to his job?

LANGFITT: That's a great question. There are two reasons that explain basically how he survived last night. Basically, he plugged the dike. He lost these two very high-profile Cabinet members. One is a guy named Rishi Sunak, who's basically the treasury secretary - or was - and Sajid Javid, the health secretary. Other ministers have quit, A, but there hasn't been kind of the avalanche of high-profile resignations that really would have sunk Johnson. And Johnson signals he intends to stay. He's replaced Sunak and Javid overnight. Another question is why didn't more people leave? And I think it may be that there are some people in the Cabinet who owe their jobs to Johnson and know that under another leader, they wouldn't have jobs. Others may be calculating when's the right moment to leave. And the other big problem, I think, for the party is there's no obvious consensus successor to Johnson, who remains a big political figure on the stage here.

MARTINEZ: What do people think about all this?

LANGFITT: I think there's a lot of fatigue and disbelief. I mean, I think I've had many of these conversations with MORNING EDITION over, you know, the last many months. If you look at a tracking poll from YouGov, 62% of people here think Johnson should quit, and that was before the scandal. And I was taking a look, A, at the headlines today in the newspapers. The Daily Telegraph, they say - their headline is "Johnson Hanging By A Thread." The Sun, the tabloid here, says - calls this "The Last Chance Saloon." And then the Daily Mail, the inimitable Daily Mail, says this - "Can Even Boris The Greased Piglet Wriggle Out Of This?"

MARTINEZ: So can he wriggle out of this?

LANGFITT: I - you know...

(LAUGHTER)

LANGFITT: It's hard to say. I have watched him defy the odds for years here. So nobody ever counts him out. There are rebels in his conservative party. They held a no-confidence vote last month - 148 voted against him, but that wasn't enough to get rid of him. By rules, they can't challenge him again until next summer, but they could move to change the rules. These are party rules. And I think today in particular, we'll be watching for more resignations, and the prime minister will face questions in the House of Commons. And what will be really interesting, A, is to see how many of his party rank and file comes out and really goes after him.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Hey, great to talk, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.