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Online threats against pro-Palestinian protesters rise in wake of Sen. Tom Cotton's comments about protests

Dozens arrested in Columbia University protests
Dozens arrested during pro-Palestinian demonstration at Columbia University 02:09

Online threats and hateful rhetoric against pro-Palestinian protesters have accelerated since Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas encouraged people affected by the mass protests to "take matters into your own hands," according to a report obtained by CBS News.

Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts public interest research, says it found that there has been a surge in calls for violence against pro-Palestinian protesters across social media platforms this week after Cotton's comments, with users threatening to kill or injure protesters.

The report found many of the threats were in direct response to Cotton's post, as well as to right-wing accounts and personalities who shared the post online, including Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.

"RUN THEM OVER!" one user wrote on Truth Social, the social media platform owned by Trump Media, which is majority-owned by former President Donald Trump. "They are terrorists and should be shot," wrote another. Others suggested mugging, hanging, executing, zip tying, or throwing the protesters off of bridges they are occupying. 

To counter protesters who sometimes glue their hands to roads, one user on far-right social media site Gettr suggested that their arms be ripped off or that they should have their hands cut off. 

"I encourage people who get stuck behind the pro-Hamas mobs blocking traffic: take matters into your own hands. It's time to put an end to this nonsense." Cotton posted on X April 15, before editing the post six minutes later to add "to get them out of the way." Cotton accused the protesters of being pro-Hamas, though he offered no proof of this. 

Earlier in the day before Cotton's comments, protesters demanding a ceasefire in Gaza had shut down major roads and bridges in multiple cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Dozens of protesters were arrested, but there were no reports of violence.

Cotton continued to encourage a vigilante approach in interviews with Fox News and NBC News, telling Fox News that "if something like this happened in Arkansas on a bridge there, let's just say I think there'd be a lot of very wet criminals that have been tossed overboard — not by law enforcement, but by the people whose road they're blocking." He told NBC News that if people are blocked by the protesters, "they should get out and move those people off the streets."

It is not the first time Cotton has used charged language to describe how nationwide protests should be handled. 

In a 2020 op-ed published in the New York Times, Cotton advocated sending in National Guard troops to stop nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. After monuments around the country were vandalized by protesters, Cotton called those who defaced or destroyed statues during the Floyd protests "mob vigilantes" who "may come for you and your home and your family."

"The Senator's comments encouraging violence against protesters are irresponsible and dangerous. They not only complicate the work of local law enforcement, but they have also directly led to a surge in calls for violence against the protestors online," Daniel Jones told CBS News. "The failure of other elected officials and political leaders to immediately condemn these comments — regardless of political party — only serves to further normalize divisive and violent rhetoric, which is directly linked to real-world violence."

CBS News reached out to Cotton's office via phone and email Friday night for comment. 

Advance Democracy, founded by Daniel J. Jones, a former U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee investigator, including on the Intelligence Committee, conducts weekly monitoring of far-right media, foreign state media, and select social media platforms. 

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