#StopTheSteal: From behind a screen to sporting riot gear

Insurrection @Leah Millis/Reuters

How social media fueled the insurrection at the Capitol

By Ada Baser.

Shock, disgust, and chaos seem to be common sentiments following the insurrection on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. For some people on online chat rooms, however, the decision to storm a building that symbolizes the democratic institutions of the nation was nothing if not premeditated. Based on ex-president Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged and “stolen,”  some of his supporters from around the nation convened in Washington D.C. in protest of Congress’s proceedings to confirm the results of the Electoral College, which would establish Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States. Thousands gathered, many sporting MAGA (Make America Great Again) merchandise as well as Confederate flags and riot gear. Participants included members of Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group; QAnon, a conspiracy organization; and other extremist groups. Around 2 P.M., hundreds of rioters had infiltrated Congress, an occurrence which has not transpired since the War of 1812 against Great Britain.

Even minutes after news of the insurrection hit mass media, people started questioning not only the motivations of the participants, but also the responses of the police force. First of all, the United States police force, known for being systematically racist, was brought under fire through side-by-side comparisons of its response to the insurrection beside the numerous peaceful Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year. Social media posts following the event prompted people to question what the insurrection would have looked like if the instigators had been people of color. Would the five deaths have been doubled? Tripled? Would the number of arrests have been the same? Secondly, the inefficiency of the National Guard in protecting one of the nation’s most sacred symbols of democracy and the countless lawmakers and aides therein reveals the politicized nature of the country’s security forces. Is it not the first and foremost responsibility of the government to provide security to its people and their representatives? In that case, what justifies the three hour gap between the official request for the National Guard and their arrival at the scene, long after the height of the violence had died down?

Yet in order to understand the conflict, the origins must be inspected. Hundreds of thousands of people had been messaging about a desire to breach the Capitol and #StopTheSteal of the 2020 election, which was allegedly stolen at the hands of the Democratic Party through fraudulent election practices, a claim supported by Trump and disclaimed by Congress. The original plan, outlined on online platforms like Gab and Parler, was to stop the vote from the Senate, which would later validate the Electoral College. If there was previous knowledge of this breach, why was the police response so low? Ruth Steinhardt, in an article for George Washington University Today, postulated that one reason was “institutional reluctance to take online conversations seriously as actions plans.” Although this is true to a certain extent, it is naïve to take for granted that the online world will always stay online. History has shown time and time again that legitimate violent attacks have arisen from “mere” texts, tweets, or posts, and that social media has even helped in the creation of new neo-fascist organizations like Young Boys. In fact, social media and online agitators further pushed for violence, even during the riots.

So, where do we go from here? The threat of an attack is far from over. One of the participants in the insurgency, a domestic terrorist, might convert to extreme violence to highlight their point. Predicting an assassination or attack is terrifying, but the responsibility for preventing such occurrences is twofold: monitoring social media activity and holding responsible people accountable. The FBI must treat the threat on chat rooms like Parler and Gab as they treat foreign terrorist threats to US soil and assets. Although deplatforming individuals from online resources does not stop the threat completely, especially due to COVID-19 restrictions for organization in person, it is absolutely necessary to take the online component seriously. Regarding accountability, not only must the instigators of such attacks that spread false facts (albeit promoted by Trump) face the criminal justice system, but also platforms which allowed such extremist discussions to go unchecked must be, for the lack of a better term, “checked.”

Furthermore, the elected officials that supported such claims and in turn offered legitimacy and a platform to these terrorists must be held accountable for supporting an insurgency, whether intentionally or not. Some have argued the direct impact that the now ex-president had on the insurrection. However, Gab threats against former Vice President Mike Pence appeared directly following Trump’s critique of Pence through Twitter for not “do[ing] what should have been done” by invalidating the Electoral College, which Pence rightfully asserted was beyond his Constitutional abilities. The appearance of “unrest” and related terms on social media started rising at the start of Trump’s rally earlier that day, and only spiked with the breach of the Capitol. It was only after the mob assault that Trump was blocked from Twitter, yet his misinformation, perpetuated by other politicians,  had already circulated the Internet. People in positions of power, politically and economically, have seldom been limited from social media networks in the case of misinformation and the consequent instigation of hateful movements.

A grimmer consideration—will the conflict and violence continue after Biden’s few weeks of presidency? Sites like Parler have been shut down, but what’s to stop another application from popping up in the next few days, weeks, months? Simply expecting private companies like Facebook and Twitter to block extremist content is not sufficient in eradicating the issue—on the Internet, any single post can be screenshotted and circulated through a multitude of different platforms. Moreover, information can be taken out of context when communicated through the 280 characters of a Tweet. So, what does the future look like? Former FBI analyst Daniel Jones foresees increased violence; in fact, the priorities of the FBI in upcoming years might even shift towards monitoring these instances of domestic terrorism.

In this day when we rely so heavily on social media to get information and stay connected with friends despite lockdowns, it is perhaps difficult, but even more so, important to note how violence can build up online and spill out into the streets and into national buildings. Will this event change how we view the role of social media? Will the Biden administration be able to reassure democracy in the United States? Only time will tell.

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