The Role of Social Media in the Capitol Insurrection

By Akshara Karthik (‘22) 

On January 6th, 2021, many Americans watched in horror as a violent mob of rioters stormed the United States Capitol. Personally,  I was awestruck and speechless. I never fathomed that something like this could ever happen, especially in this day and age. But, what if I told you that there were hundreds of signs prior to the insurrection? 

At this point, it is common knowledge that the perpetrators of this insurrection were a faction of Trump supporters, motivated by the former President himself, as well as some of his loyal Republican political figures, like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. However, many of us failed to realize that there was another key culprit: social media. 

The dangers of social media misinformation were highly prevalent throughout the Trump presidency, with the president even using his own Twitter platform to spread false information, including this past presidential election, where he claimed that the election was rigged among many other things. Evidently, Donald Trump’s key weapon for rallying support for his campaign and maintaining that support during his presidency was social media. 

As of early last year, there are over 3.80 billion social media users. Beyond just connecting people, social media also brings users in touch with the news, as well as the  ideals and beliefs of others. According to the Pew Research Center, of the 86% of adults who use their smartphones to read the news, approximately 53% get their news solely from social media. This is alarming, given the fact that we do not truly know the reliability of news sources on social media. For example, social media profiles can easily be created in the name of news, and rather than convey factual reports, they can readily spread misinformation. And misinformation is the exact idea Trump and his most loyal supporters latched on to. 

In fact, The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab was able to compile a timeline of significant events that focused on the “Stop the Steal” efforts that escalated the red versus blue divide in America and ultimately threatened the face of democracy in America. What’s more interesting, is that “Stop The Steal” was already brewing amongst far-right organizations. 

Beginning on September 7, 2020, according to JustSecurity, far-right personalities utilized Periscope, a lifestreaming platform, as well as Twitter to promote the idea that the election was stolen from Trump. Pro-Trump Facebook pages, which together have the ability to contact millions of people, also began using the phrase “Stop The Steal” that same day. As the “movement” started to gain more steam, the first debate of the 2020 presidential election prompted a lot of conversation across the entire country, because of former President Trump’s inability to denounce white supremacy and for telling the Proud Boys,  a white nationalist organization that played a significant role in inciting the capitol riot, to “Stand back and stand by”. While many Americans were shocked, the Proud Boys rejoiced on Parler, a social networking site that mainly comprises conservatives and right-wing extremists, since they experienced a surge of new followers and even started  selling shirts with Trump’s remarks. By October of 2020, leading conservatives began spreading misinformation all over different social media platforms, namely Twitter, about how Trump supporters were being targeted by extremists with violence. Nevertheless, On group chat platform MeWe, far-right extremists on a group chat called “American Civil War 2.0”  detailed the bloodshed they would unleash if Biden won. In early November, ahead of election day, The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab noted that there was a significant organization in “online organizing and heated rhetoric among right-wing extremist groups…particularly in unlawful militia groups.”

Following election day and Trump’s premature declaration of victory, prominent far-right personalities, including freshman Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, started chiming into “Stop The Steal” and tried to raise funds for their beloved President. As a result, many Facebook groups, including Women for Trump and Women for America First, form to raise awareness for the “Stop the Steal” effort. As the “Stop the Steal” movement began taking over Facebook, Trump supporters became more and more vocal regarding their belief that the election was rigged and stolen from Trump. Further driving this idea, Donald Trump tweeted “STOP THE COUNT!” on November 5, 2020, prompting Trump supporters all over the nation to protest, organize rallies, plan marches, storm state capitols, and pressurize ballot-counting locations. All of these events were publicized through Twitter, Instagram, and more social media platforms that connected Trump supporters from all over the country together. According to The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, these events continued from November a right up to January 5th, 2021, when radical Trump Supporters stormed the United States Capitol. 

Overall, social media provided a sect of American citizens with the power to defy democracy. The worth of social media has always been heavily debated since its conception, but is this a sign that social media may do more harm than good? 

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