Today’s historic and terrifying coup attempt by pro-Trump extremists in Washington, D.C. played out live the same way it was fomented — on social media. Once again Twitter, streaming sites and other user-generated media were the only place to learn what was happening in the nation’s capital — and the best place to be misled by misinformation and propaganda.
In the morning, official streams and posts portended what people expected of the day: a drawn-out elector certification process in Congress while a Trump-led rally turned to general protests. But when extremists gathered at the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, the country watched isolated flare-ups between them and police turn into a full-blown violent invasion of several federal buildings, including where Congress was holding a joint session.
Network news and mainstream sources struggled to keep up as people on both sides documented the chaos that followed. As extremists pushed into the outlying buildings, then the rotunda, then the House and Senate chambers, everyone from White House press pool reporters to political aides and elected officials from both parties live-tweeted and streamed the events as they happened.
Videos of outnumbered security guards retreating from mobs or trading blows were seen by millions, who no doubt could barely believe it was really occurring. Meanwhile, reports propagated from around the country as smaller invasions of government buildings took place.
On one hand, it further demonstrated the power of social media to serve as a distributed, real-time aggregator of important information. It is hard to overstate the importance of receiving information directly from the source, such as when people inside the Senate chamber posted images of the rioters attempting to break through a barricaded door while security inside pointed their guns through broken windows.
Representatives, aides and reporters posted live as they were evacuated from their offices, told to lie on the ground to avoid being shot or given gas masks in case tear gas or pepper spray was deployed. What might have seemed an abstraction when reported by a talking head on the National Mall was rendered shockingly visceral as these people expressed fear for their lives. The people to whom we have been trained to alert of such things, our elected officials, were the very ones being threatened.
However, social media also allowed for the amplification and normalization of these historic crimes as rioters streamed as they went and posted images to fringe sites like Parler and Trump-themed Reddit clones. It wasn’t hard to spot rioters apparently “doing it for the ‘gram” despite those images and videos comprising what amounts to a confession of a federal crime.
Meanwhile Trump and his allies downplayed the violence, blaming Democrats for using “malicious rhetoric” and repeating unfounded claims regarding the election.
Years of “we take this very seriously” by the likes of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg have done little to curb the activity by the likes of white supremacists, self-styled “militias” like the Proud Boys, and misinformation aggregators like “Stop the steal” groups. Despite constant assurances that AI and a crack team of moderators are on the job, it is still on these platforms that we find misleading and false information about topics such as COVID-19 and election security.
Tech leaders today voiced, not for the first time, their frustration with these companies, and while deplatforming has proven effective in some ways, it is not a complete solution. As the cost and difficulty of launching, say, a streaming site, continues to decrease, it is only to be expected that when a YouTuber gets kicked off that platform, they will land softly on another and their audience will follow.
The promise and the danger of social media were both on display today at their absolute maximum. One can hardly imagine such an event playing out in the future without the intimate details to which we were treated from the sides of both government and insurrectionists.
While Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have taken varying actions, of varying seriousness and permanence, it seems clear that whether or not they want to crack down on the worst of it, they may no longer be able to, either because they lack the tools, or the offenders have built a Twitter, Facebook and YouTube of their own.