We now have evidence that the greatest threat to American democracy was not the violent rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, but the evil Republicans who work in the Capitol and who spent two months telling the “big lie.” to stir up in which the elections were stolen first place. We also have evidence that ex-President Donald Trump could never have threatened democratic self-government without the help of social media companies. And we now have a case study of what happens to insurgents when private companies refuse to use these platforms to recruit, organize and incite violence.
The cowards melt away. Deplatforming works. Delegitimizing people like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Trump works. The day of the inauguration proved this.
My fear of inauguration violence by President Joe Biden did not materialize – thank goodness. The day went smoothly. Covid-19 made this inauguration look different from all other non-white supremacists with red hats. Biden still had to hit Al Roker with his fist. Katy Perry has to sing Fireworks to fireworks. It was a beautiful day.
It’s fair to say that putti 25,000 soldiers on the ground and the Washington, DC lockdown for a week likely played a bigger role in securing the inauguration than Twitter’s temporary suspension of Majorie Taylor Greene. And one can only hope that the militarization of the ceremonial functions of government does not become a “new normal” that we must all endure.
But there was no analogous demonstration of force in state capitals that threatened to attack the Capitol insurgents and other extremist groups. While state governments were strengthening pre-inaugural security, they did not deal with the full military burlesque. However, on the day of reckoning, after months of threats and maskless protests and conspiracies to harm elected officials, no one showed the grudge. There was no “storm”. There was no “Kraken”. There was none West Side Story– Just the “sound of silence”.
Well, I shouldn’t say “nobody”. One appeared in Albany, New York, to protest the election. A handful turned up in Sacramento, California to do the same. A man has shown up in Vermont … to protest this injustice automated customer service from AT&T. I tried to document the “protests” in the state capitals nationwide on inauguration day because it turns out “Lone Trump Supporter” is my favorite phrase in English right now.
What changed between January 6th, when these people gathered in significant numbers to invade the Capitol, and January 20th, when these people could not maintain the intensity of? John Cusak in Say something?
There are many factors, but I would argue the biggest one is that the social media companies have taken their toys away. A protester in the state capital of Texas in Austin even said so. Kaley Johnson, a reporter at The Fort Worth star telegramquoted a man who said he “I expected more people to be here but got banned from Facebook and didn’t know if anything was planned. ”
This is a truth that social media companies have always denied to justify making money from democratic forces. Twitter, and especially Facebook, behave like neutral platforms that are not responsible for the recruitment and aggregation of violent extremists. But we saw report after report by radicalization experts who demonstrated how social media platforms are tools for coordinating violence.
January 20th is what happens when these platforms take minimal steps to deter violent extremists from their services. After the siege of the Capitol, Facebook finally decided to lock QAnon accounts. You haven’t even banned that many accounts: Reports suggest They have restricted around 2,000 Facebook groups and around 10,000 Instagram accounts, which barely affects their overall user base. But barely two weeks after some of the most obvious bad users were removed, the “violent insurgents” are reduced to a few randos rallying around the state capitals with arts and crafts projects wondering where the party has gone.
Facebook and Twitter also removed the most notorious bad user: Trump. In the last ten days there have been no insane complaints about the election and no terrible love letters to white supremacists.
And see what happened. The New York Times Reports that the Proud Boys, who signed to “Emperor Trump” less than three months ago, are now calling him a “total failure”. Removing Trump from his Twitter account for just two weeks has already created a rift between the militant forces of white supremacy and the leader of the Republican Party.
I will always believe that if Twitter had blocked Trump’s account when he started lying about the election results, five people would not have died in a riot at the Capitol. I will also believe that if Twitter had blocked Trump’s account when he started lying about the coronavirus, hundreds of thousands of people could have been saved from this disease. And I’ll always believe that if Twitter had banned Trump’s account when he started lying about Barack Obama’s birth nation, he would never have been president.
That tells us a lot more about Twitter and the social media universe distorting reality than it does about Trump. After all, it’s not that the man was “silenced”. It is not that he or anyone else whose accounts were suspended after January 6th have had their initial customization rights revoked. In fact, for me the best thing about these protests in the state capital over the inauguration was not the glee, but like these protests proven that the first change is alive and well and that people exercising their rights are not a real threat to free elections or democratic self-government.
A man showed up in the state capital of Idaho hold up a sign it read: “Legalize arson.” To the best of my knowledge, he was not arrested or injured by the government. In Georgia, Two people were spied on with a sign that reads “I hate my government”. There was no constitutional crisis. A man in North Carolina had a sign calling the new president a cheater”. Another man in Washington brandished a sign calling him a traitor.” No Tomahawk missiles were sent to their locations.
That’s the first change in action, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s wonderful to live in a country where you can go to the seat of government, scream “I hate you” for a few hours, and get home safely in time for dinner. The people who object to the state have the right to express their objections. The government must not curtail the right to peaceful assembly.
What we are not going to do, however, is halt the difference between government criminalizing political language (which it cannot) and private corporations banning violent extremists from their services (which they should already have been). What we are not going to do is for private corporations to provide a platform for Republican elected officials for those officials to provide help, comfort and legitimacy to these violent extremists. What we certainly won’t do is make people who are literally speaking into a cable news microphone whine about being “silenced”. The first change was not made to allow Republicans with presidential ambitions to get a foothold with extremists while maintaining a plausible denial. If Republicans want to connect with these people freely, go and connect and let everyone know what you are doing. Nobody will stop them. Just don’t cry to Twitter because it’s harder to slip into their DMs.
What stopped the Proud Boys, who were banned from social media, from showing up in person in state capitals? What prevented the congressional Seditionist Caucus from protesting alongside their people on the day of inauguration instead of Participation in the ceremony Inauguration of a new president who you have been claiming for two months is inadmissible? What stopped Trump from holding a press conference in the room in his old house that was reserved for something like this after he was banned from Twitter? Twitter only went live in 2006. How do all these people think protests were organized in 2005? Do those white wing nuts believe Paul Revere came home one night and said, “Honey, I’m disappointed. Nobody’s going to sell me a saddle. Curse you, King George, you crazy brilliant bastard.”
No, the people who tried to rebel against the government on January 6th had the same set of First Amendment safeguards that were available to them on January 20th. What they lost in the past two weeks was courage. And nerves. And the false sense of importance that comes with spending your life in an online echo chamber. There is no “fun” planning the violent overthrow of the government when no one can “like” your rebellion. It’s not “cool” to share baseless online conspiracies when your employer fires you the next day. It is not “strong” to share memes about harming elected officials if you are kicked out of the force.
These people will of course be back because social media companies have a business incentive to bring them back. The platforms want to create echo chambers and message silos in which extremists feel “safe” and their worldviews can be confirmed by the wisdom of the like-minded crowd. When you tell people you’re right, they’ll get stuck on the screen, share their information, and see advertisements. If you tell people, “You are a crazy nut job,” they will feel “sad” and put down their phones. I don’t think people like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey learned anything from the uprising they helped to keep from making the same mistakes in the future. Even if this is the case, there will always be another technology brother who wants to capture the “underserved” market share of the white supremacists.
Social media companies can never again pretend they are just neutral players in the marketplace of ideas. They created tools that can be used to radicalize people into violence. They created a way for strong men (and conmen who play against strong men) to mobilize an uprising against the government. If they refuse to monitor the forces they unleashed, our country will continue to be inundated with lies and violence.
However, these problems are not unsolvable. The forces that led to Trumpism are not meant to thrive. Flush the violent leaders of these movements out of their hiding holes online and let their troubled followers protest in peace. We can survive the people who are actually ready to stand up to protest. We cannot survive the people who were sent to mount a rebellion. Showing up in protest is a right that requires a certain amount of courage. The appearance of a riot is a violation of that right and must be punished with accountability and justice.
It is not a right to stimulate a mob online through social media. It’s a privilege. One that social media companies should repeal. After four years of Trump, we now have evidence that de-platforming liars and violent extremists can save the country.