On Wednesday, supporters of President Trump mounted a violent insurrection against the US Capitol and the legitimate election of Joe Biden. The mob overpowered security barricades, livestreamed their invasion of the Senate floor, and took selfies with police officers inside. They tore signs from the walls of House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, erected a gallows outside the Capitol building, and forced lawmakers and staff to evacuate before the DC National Guard was deployed to disperse them. Though the major platforms have cracked down on seditious rhetoric, even locking Trump’s accounts after he continued to praise the insurgents online, social media is awash with their digital souvenirs today.
For many Americans, Wednesday’s riot came as a surprise. Photos of shirtless men dressed as Vikings taking the Senate dais and international leaders making cracks about the fragility of US democracy do make for an odd Twitter feed. But researchers who study far-right movements have been expecting—and warning—of the likelihood of violence around either the Electoral College vote or the upcoming inauguration since Biden’s victory, especially since Trump and right-wing media outlets have been stoking baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud for weeks.
Wednesday’s riot appears to be part of a global trend that has been escalating for a year: right-wing extremists attacking political targets like parliament buildings, state capitols, and governors’ and judges’ residences instead of civilian ones like synagogues and mosques. “After the Oklahoma City bombing, there was a fragmentation of the anti-government part of the far-right spectrum. It led to a strengthening of the white supremacist side, which targeted minority ethic groups,” says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at American University who studies radicalization. “What we’re seeing now is a swing back toward anti-government extremism, and it’s creating odd coalitions.” The Capitol insurgents weren’t just die-hard Trump supporters, they were an amalgam of anti-government militia, white supremacists, anti-maskers, and QAnon devotees. Now that they're all working together, they could form stronger alliances.
So even now, after the riot has been quelled and President Trump has pledged a peaceful transition of power, experts remain concerned. “The threat of [a coup] isn’t my fear,” says Shannon Reid, who researches street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte. “My fear is that this moment will die down and everyone will think we’re OK. Really this [riot] was a recruitment tool, a part of a mythology that is going to grow.”
At least online, there is no sign of shame or remorse. At most, squeamish MAGA fans are saying that the insurgents must have been antifascists in disguise. Participants are defiant, and doubling down on their claims that the presidency has been stolen from Trump and that their sedition was patriotism. The four people who died storming the Capitol, particularly the woman who was shot by law enforcement, have become martyrs. “The hardened neo-Nazis on Telegram are over the moon that this all happened,” says Megan Squire, a computer scientist studying online extremism at Elon University. “They feel like it’s going to radicalize millions of boomer-tier people. They’re kind of scolding the boomers: ‘You tried to work through the system, but now you’re radicalized along with us.’”
See, while it's highly unlikely to usher in an ethno-state the way the Telegram white supremacists hope, Wednesday’s riot does make a better recruiting tool than previous far-right insurgencies like the standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge. First, it wasn’t fomented by a niche concern, and it was encouraged (implicitly and otherwise) by the president, his allies, and Republican lawmakers. Second, the insurgents won’t have to work nearly as hard to cobble together a victorious narrative as defeated far-right mobs have in the past. “You can write your own narrative online,” Reid says. With the open embrace of conspiracy theories and widespread distrust of mainstream media, conditions are perfect for the influencers among the mob to supply a counter-mythology and be believed. Reid estimates that the results of that heightened recruitment might come to bear in about five years, and it could look like increased street-level far-right agitation and disruption of local governance.
In response to the insurrection and Trump’s failure to condemn it, activists, business leaders, and lawmakers are calling for his impeachment and for social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to be held accountable. But while the president has stoked violence and conspiracy theories and big tech companies have been far too slow in curbing their spread, Trump and Facebook misinformation are only symptoms of an illness far older than either. “Trump is the thing they’re rotating around right now, but it’s beyond him,” Reid says. “People aren’t going to be OK now just because he told them to go home.”
While mainstream social media platforms’ attempts to curb misinformation are wan at best and their censure of Trump overdue, it’s also important that this week’s riot was not planned or even really celebrated solely on platforms like Facebook. As major social media platforms have grown more hostile to extremists over the last few years—especially since the crackdowns on the Boogaloo Boys, QAnon, and militias in 2020—far-right agitators have moved on to less regulated spaces and to a more fractured strategy. In 2017 the white nationalists behind the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, primarily used two platforms: Discord to organize and Facebook to spread propaganda. The Capitol riots were planned and played out across social media platforms ranging from Parler to DLive to Twitch to Wimkin to MeWe to YouTube to Telegram. “It’s like looking through a stained glass window now,” Squire says. “You have to look through each pane and see it in each color to keep up with what’s happening. It’s still better than having them on mainstream platforms, though.”
Of these platforms, it’s Telegram and DLive that worry Squire most. Many of the niche sites frequented by extremists are half-broken and janky where Telegram and DLive are relatively sleek and functional. DLive even allows fans, many of whom were only in middle school when Unite the Right happened, to pay the streamers they follow. “This is something to take seriously. It’s not just dumb kids talking,” Squire says. “They’re routinely paying each other tens of thousands of dollars per day.” Extremists have always been very online, but Squire emphasizes that online activity is now the main event rather than a way to supplement in-person meetups. In a way, Wednesday’s riot was a kind of dark VidCon for far-right streamers—an opportunity to meet fans in meat space. Deplatforming Trump won’t undo that.
According to experts, three big things need to happen to prevent a repeat of the Capitol riots. The one everyone’s calling for already should be first: a thorough investigation of law enforcement’s failure to prepare for and respond to the riot, particularly when their response to Black Lives Matter protests in DC this summer was so extreme and militarized by comparison. “If anything, I hope this is a wake-up call for police,” Reid says. “These people aren’t showing up unknown. They’d been posting about their plans online. It’s not an unwillingness to keep track of people online—the police track gang members and Black Lives Matter and antifa—it’s who they’re willing to keep track of.” High-profile Capitol law enforcement resignations are already underway, but it will take more than that to retrain a system that flies military helicopters over peaceful protesters but takes selfies with insurgents.
Miller-Idriss and others are also calling for increased caution during this fragile period before president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration to ensure that the peaceful transition of power President Trump has promised actually happens, and for social media companies and the incoming Biden administration to prioritize large-scale digital literacy campaigns to combat an epidemic of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. If the Capitol riot is going to become the heroic linchpin of future far-right propaganda, the American people need to be able to tell fact from fascist myth.