The insurrection at the Capitol last week was inspired by social media, organized on social media and finally, recorded on social media. The images of right-wing extremists sitting at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, their triumphant selfies and videos as they push into the Capitol and smash windows, are seared into our brains. In some ways, that was the goal of the insurrection: for pro-Trump extremists to prove to their social media followers that they were there, and to recruit others to further acts of violence. Even as photos and videos are being taken down all over the internet, they are, for the moment, propaganda for the movement.
I spoke about it with Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Wendy Schiller: I think there’s certainly a strong element of wanting to be recognized and wanting to be heard. And that is what Donald Trump has promised his core base of supporters since he announced for president in 2015: that you will be heard. And now we can add that you will be seen. Of course, you know, everybody who’s on all social media, whether it’s innocuous, or it’s to promote your career, or whatever else it is, it’s all designed to get attention. You want people to know who you are, what you look like, what you sound like and to reward you for it. And that’s exactly what we saw on Wednesday. And that will encourage more people to get out there and do that that need that kind of recognition.
Molly Wood: I mean, there’s value in this kind of performative rioting, right? How effective do you think this will be as sort of future recruitment, even as we’re seeing some of these images be taken down?
“As [these images] get replaced by things like mug shots or arrest photos, the incentive to be that person who is on video, breaking the law, will go down.”Wendy Schiller, Brown University
Schiller: For the purposes of short-term recruitment, these images will be very powerful. However, as they get replaced by things like mug shots, or arrest photos, the incentive to be that person who is on video and on audio breaking the law will go down. Because after a while, law enforcement and and the justice system will impose penalties. And those will also be economic. In your personal life, you might lose your job. And that is going to eventually diminish the incentive for joining this movement in such a public and viral way.
Wood: Right, the value in being an insurrection influencer doesn’t last very long.
Schiller: Well, even supporting the challenge to the certification of Joe Biden as president of the United States is now costing Republican legislators, at least in the House, campaign contributions. You’re seeing the largest, some of the biggest, richest banks in America, the largest corporations, saying they won’t give any more campaign contributions to the people who voted for this, who encouraged it. So you can imagine if the largest corporations in America are cutting off campaign money, and the largest tech corporations are cutting off infrastructure to communicate your message, you can see some very powerful forces seeking to shut this down and defuse that enthusiasm and turn it on its head.
Wood: I mean, this feels like a really unique moment, where, you know, technology is at the heart of all of this, the behaviors we’ve been developing throughout the pandemic and on social media, a heavy dose of canceled culture, some influencer grift. It sort of feels like everything is coalescing into what I feel like we’re going to be studying for a long time.
Schiller: There’s no question that technology, particularly obviously artificial intelligence — the ability to create reality with no counterpoint — and our dependence not just on social media for self-promotion, but on quote-unquote, the old fashioned word, the internet, to do everything we’re doing, particularly in a pandemic — buying groceries, buying essentials for our home. We are so dependent on these huge tech giants, not just to voice our political opinions, but to live our lives, the economy. Everything is dependent on these particular corporations and these particular vehicles. So we see the intersection of economics and politics and the expression of speech and the ability to protest all coming together in ways that they have never come together before. They’re more intertwined than ever in our history that it’s unclear to me that the government will have any power to untangle them in the near future.
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Wendy Schiller mentioned that some of these images are being taken down and many others are being archived for use by law enforcement. Gizmodo reported Monday that an anonymous hacker has archived all of Parler. Parler, of course, is unavailable to its users since Amazon cut off its web hosting Monday morning. The app’s CEO and investors have since sued Amazon for taking it offline. On Twitter, the hacker said she had downloaded all its content: posts, pictures, videos, user IDs and metadata for the photos and videos, including potentially location information from where they might have been taken. Parler users were posting about the mass download before the app went down on Sunday.
Obviously, it should be said here that the privacy implications of this database are staggering. Not everyone on Parler was organizing violence, and the truth is we’re going to have to come up with a better way to deal with hate speech and moderation online, because even Germany’s Angela Merkel said that Twitter’s ban of President Donald Trump’s account was problematic, as did other European leaders. The thing is, we basically let a bunch of big companies set the rules, didn’t set any rules ourselves, like, say, Europe’s actual laws against hate speech, and now the companies are putting in all new rules as they see fit. And while you may feel a sense of relief that it’s happening now in the hopes of preventing more violence and radicalization and targeted harassment and death threats, it still gives companies more power than government has, and these are companies that let radicalization and targeted harassment and death threats and organizing violence become a pretty common feature of our actual national politics just because it was good business. So we shouldn’t assume they’re any wiser now than they were back then.
Put simply, just because you think it’s working now doesn’t mean this is how it should work.
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