Dissecting Attempted Insurrection
With the benefit of critical distance
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The attempted social media coup to overthrow the US Government on January 6th of this year will be an event studied extensively, or rather it already is and will continue to be. This is true not just due to the sensationalism of the event, but also due to the massive amount of data available.
For example, check out this latest NY Times video that syncs up police radio with video taken during the event:
What is interesting about this particular example of composite media is that it provides even greater glimpses and insight into what was a fast moving and comparatively chaotic set of events. There are lots of little details highlighted in this video that add both nuance but also reinforce the larger narrative of what transpired that day in DC.
For example, the strategic use of weapons by some members of the crowd, plays a crucial role in pushing security forces back, and breaking holes in the fence or police lines.
Add to this recent comments from a federal prosecutor involved in the DOJ’s inquiry:
We’re also coming to terms with who was in the crowd, and who was engaged in this attempted insurrection.
On the one hand we do have ample social media postings, even if there was widespread attempts to delete that data moments after these events too place. However on the other hand we also now have arrest data, which while it is but a sample of overall activity, it does reflect who is (currently) being prosecuted for their participation in this event.
On January 6, a mob of about 800 stormed the U.S. Capitol in support of former President Donald Trump, and many people made quick assumptions regarding who the insurrectionists were. Because a number of the rioters prominently displayed symbols of right-wing militias, for instance, some experts called for a crackdown on such groups. Violence organized and carried out by far-right militant organizations is disturbing, but it at least falls into a category familiar to law enforcement and the general public. However, a closer look at the people suspected of taking part in the Capitol riot suggests a different and potentially far more dangerous problem: a new kind of violent mass movement in which more “normal” Trump supporters—middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right—joined with extremists in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.
The dynamics of this attempted social media coup reflect a diversity of participants, but also a kind of role playing or novelty that is important to note. This research that comes out of the University of Chicago Project on Security & Threats, sheds further light on why we use the phrase social media coup.
For the past decade and a half, our research team at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats has conducted demographic studies of international and domestic terrorists. Four years ago, our study of 112 people who U.S. authorities suspected were involved with the Islamic State undercut a widespread assumption that supporters of the group were uneducated, isolated, and unemployed.
In recent weeks, our team of more than 20 researchers has been reviewing court documents and media coverage for information on the demographics, socioeconomic traits, and militant-group affiliations (if any) of everyone arrested by the FBI, Capitol Police, and Washington, D.C., police for offenses related to the January 6 insurrection. As of late last week, 235 people fell into that category, and the number is expected to grow.
Of these suspects, 193 have been charged with being inside the Capitol building or with breaking through barriers to enter the Capitol grounds. We focused our research on these 193. We compared our findings on these suspected insurrectionists with demographic data that we had previously compiled on the 108 individuals arrested by the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies around the country for violence related to right-wing political causes from 2015 to 2020. We used the same methodology to analyze both groups: Our team reviewed all court documents related to each arrest—which include criminal complaints, statement of facts, and affidavits—and conducted searches of media coverage of each arrestee. Four findings stand out.
Since the article is behind a paywall we’ll briefly summarize these four points:
“The attack on the Capitol was unmistakably an act of political violence, not merely an exercise in vandalism or trespassing amid a disorderly protest that had spiraled out of control.”
“The demographic profile of the suspected Capitol rioters is different from that of past right-wing extremists. The average age of the arrestees we studied is 40. Two-thirds are 35 or older, and 40 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs.”
“Most of the insurrectionists do not come from deep-red strongholds.” (They originated from all over the US).
And here is the chilling conclusion:
What’s clear is that the Capitol riot revealed a new force in American politics—not merely a mix of right-wing organizations, but a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority. Preventing further violence from this movement will require a deeper understanding of its activities and participants, and the two of us do not claim to know which political tactics might ultimately prove helpful. But Americans who believe in democratic norms should be wary of pat solutions. Some of the standard methods of countering violent extremism—such as promoting employment or waiting patiently for participants to mellow with age—probably won’t mollify middle-aged, middle-class insurrectionists. And simply targeting better-established far-right organizations will not prevent people like the Capitol rioters from trying to exercise power by force.
I became aware of this research via a podcast I listen to that features discussion and policy debates from the US Intelligence Community:
The language used by the researchers is refreshing if only because it treats these events as on par with other extremist phenomena but also as the unprecedented event that it was.
Unfortunately what is glossed over or neglected in a lot of this analysis is the social media methods not just used as part of this particular unsuccessful insurrection, but as part of contemporary violent extremist efforts.
The research notes that these are not your ordinary extremists, as many are affluent and middle aged. As a result they will not respond to typical CVE strategies, i.e. countering violent extremism. The researchers note this, but they don’t get into what these alternatives could be.
Yet if we reflect that social media plays a key role in the way these events take place and are organized, we get back into larger issues of social media governance, which remain murky and obscure.
Whether extremists or not, social media has become our political sphere, where communities and revolutionary cells alike can organize. How those platforms are organized or governed directly influences how the rest of society is governed.
Which is why we continue to regard the events of January 6th as an attempted social media coup. A coup both designed as a social media event, to help participants gain more followers. Yet also a coup designed to overthrow the government and leave in its place, not a new government, but the tyranny of social media.
After all, this attempted insurrection was not the work of an organized political party, but a movement largely comprised of narcissists seeking attention and the power to impose their insular reality upon others. Led by their narcissist in chief.
This frame not only helps us understand who was responsible for the political violence, but where it will come from next.
Meanwhile the pursuit of alternatives becomes a relevant and powerful antidote.
In the past few years, Big Social Media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have received intense scrutiny from intellectuals. This article critiques the dominant strain of criticism, the neo-Brandeisian School of antitrust, for its narrow focus on “regulated competition” as an appropriate means to “fix social media”. This essay calls for a socialist alternative: a democratic social media commons based on free and open source technology, decentralization, and democratic socialist legal solutions. It reviews how existing solutions like the Fediverse and LibreSocial work, and how they may provide answers for a better way forward.
Technology is inherently political, and the technology we use shapes the society we inhabit. Hence why the social media coup will return. Can the nation state survive?
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