Speaking as an outsider from Australia, the state of American politics from our perspective can be best represented as an open wound neglected of proper treatment. Under normal circumstances, the doctor and patient would reach an agreement on not just objective medical solutions, but the ultimate goal of healing the patient’s wound. In no uncertain terms, America is not operating under normal circumstances and is deserving of immediate humanitarian attention.
If the previous week’s scenario were applied to any third-world country — festering political division as parasitic populists stormed of the halls of Congress — it would be an international human rights scandal. If all nations were treated equally, there would be calls for diplomacy and intervention, all under the guise of protecting freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. And indeed, this did happen to some degree after Trump-supporting domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol Building on January 6th, 2021, attempting to overturn the presidential election to reinstate President Donald Trump based on a conspiracy. The difference is that no response could possibly be mounted against the world’s foremost superpower, and it demands correction.
Given that America operates as the world police, enforcing the legal norms of all matters social, political, and economic, there is an obvious interest in it being a stable governmental entity. The riot proved that this is not the current reality, resulting in the fallout that included five deaths, dozens of injuries, hundreds of arrests, multiple members of law enforcement being investigated and suspended, the safe detonation of two pipe bombs, several administrative officials resigning, the termination of countless social media accounts, including President’s, and an impeachment heading into the final days of the Trump administration. For all intents and purposes, the country is royally fucked.
An entire administration’s worth of scandals emerged overnight. But did these problems emerge from the mysterious ether, like some bunny from a magician’s hat?
Recently, I’ve been hearing people toss around the curious phrase “this is not who we are.” The line was even repeated by President-elect Joe Biden when he issued his own statement condemning the attack on Congress. On the contrary, I believe this is exactly the America of today — a country where hundreds of millions currently live alongside a growing number of fellow-citizens possessed by radicalism. To say otherwise is to neglect the problems at hand. Over the years, these people have fallen prey to a con-job orchestrated by the president, his party, and the social media giants who enabled them. We should not celebrate Silicon Valley for finally acknowledging that problem.
As argued by Al Jazeera contributor Andrew Mitrovica, focusing on Trump’s latest temper-tantrum with the tech companies is simply a “dangerous distraction [which] deflects necessary attention and energy away from where America’s attention and energy should be,” which is the fact the president “offered not-so-veiled rhetorical approval on Twitter and elsewhere to stage a coup d’état. Considered in this astonishing context, Trump’s ex-communication from Twitter is a reasonable, responsible injunction against a demonstrably unreasonable, irresponsible president who takes obvious glee and sick satisfaction in injuring his opponents and the country he claims to serve.”
In fact, I would add communication was the centerpiece for this infectious ideological game, which social media exploited to their own ends. “Since Friday, more than 70,000 accounts have been suspended as a result of our efforts, with many instances of a single individual operating numerous accounts,” Twitter said in a blog post. “These accounts were engaged in sharing harmful QAnon-associated content at scale and were primarily dedicated to the propagation of this conspiracy theory across the service.” From there, the pushback led to conservatives, fascists, and surprisingly, leftist commentators decrying the so-called “purge” as an extreme example of “political censorship,” suddenly pessimistic about the powers of Big Tech.
As someone who has heavily criticized Big Tech institutions for almost five years, I’m sorely disappointed by such reductive reasoning. For starters, it ignores the critical context of QAnon cultists, militia groups, and like-minded Trump supporters who used these platforms to organize insurrection against the most powerful country on Earth, which is quite arguably a much more pressing matter concerning political overreach. After all, these were not good-faith actors being censored for their speech, but rather hostile agents with their own agenda.
Consider the most recent report from The New York Times which found that the phrase “Storm the Capitol” was used over 100,000 times a month preceding this event, signifying there was some degree of public organization behind the attack. The study found major sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as well as smaller sites like Gab and Parler were often associated with viral posts openly discussing the logistical details of how to enter the building, which weapons to carry, which targets to hit, and how to secure access to all areas, such as one user encouraging posters to “pack a crowbar” and a plan to execute Vice President Mike Pence through hanging. All because the politicians rightfully denied Trump’s wishes to declare the election results null and void.
These were not conducted on private servers, encrypted channels, or terrorist cell cybernetworks shrouded from the watchful eye of administrative justice. No, these were just readily available forums where any Tom, Dick, and Harry could publicly ponder how to overthrow a sovereign state’s elected representatives and murder them. This type of radicalism has been a long time coming, as proven by the study from academic researchers across the US, Switzerland, and Brazil which found the “alt-right pipeline” on YouTube is legitimate, analyzing over 79 million comments spread across 330,00 videos from 360 channels which show “strong evidence for radicalization among YouTube users” as the result of “significant user migration” during the rise of Trump.
As I wrote towards the end of 2019, this proved to be one of the largest and most credible “quantitative audits” of social media platforms, specifically the Google-owned video platform YouTube, its data offering a comprehensive look at how online politics has formed from 2006 to 2019 with significant rises in fascist content, specializing in how so-called “renegade moderates” of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) and both alt-lite and alt-right personalities built their audience base, as well as how those bases shifted positions overtime. In particular, researchers found the rise in far-right radicalization was smaller between 2006 to 2012 when compared to 2015 to 2019, coinciding with the start of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“Our analyses show that, particularly through the channel recommender system, alt-lite channels are easily discovered from IDW channels, and that alt-right channels may be reached from the two other communities,” the report states. “YouTube is extremely popular, especially among children and teenagers, and, if the streaming website is actually radicalizing individuals, this can push fringe ideologies like white supremacy further into the mainstream. We show that the three communities increasingly share the same user base; which is that users consistently migrate from milder to more extreme content; and that a large percentage of users who consume ‘alt-right’ content now consumed ‘alt-lite’ and IDW content in the past.”
In 2018, for example, 40% of those commentators on alt-right videos could be traced back to consuming alt-lite or IDW videos, many of which leaned pro-Trump. “Moreover,” the report stated, “we can observe that, consistently, users who consumed Alt-lite or I.D.W. content in a given year, go on to become a significant fraction of the Alt-right user base in the following year.” This number is larger compared to users from mainstream news channels, which never surpassed 6%. “We argue this finding comprises significant evidence that there has been, and there continues to be, user radicalization on YouTube, and our analyses of the activity of these communities is consistent with the theory that more extreme content ‘piggybacked’ the surge in popularity of Trump, IDW and the alt-lite.”
It is, therefore, no wonder why academics studying the radical right have raised “alarm” that the US could see a “rapid rise in right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism following the 2020 presidential election”, according to an open letter from 17 extremist specialists given to The Independent. “We fear that should election violence or a contested outcome in the US come to pass, there could be a rapid increase in radical-right extremism, including increased risks of domestic terrorism,” the letter reads. “We fear that anti-democratic methods will become normalized in pursuit of still darker, radical-right agendas. As experts and practitioners on the radical right globally, past and present, we have seen this movie before.”
Considering that Trump has on a number of occasions refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, issuing a speech the day of the riot at the infamous “Stop The Steal” rally to walk to the Capitol and “show strength against the weak Republicans” who wouldn’t overturn the results, this is not hard to put together. In fact, Trump then sent out pro-riot tweets saying “this is what you get” when you disobey his wishes, followed by contradictory tweets calling on “peace and love” in response to “a stolen election.”
It’s clear that the pro-Trump crowd has interpreted this information in a very different way, particularly as the latest polls from YouGov found that 45% of Republican voters supported the riot, whereas 52% of those voters Republicans blamed Biden, not Trump, for inciting the riot. Two radical positions of a different strip.
“What remained in the digital spilt over in real life,” argued Ananda Mitra, professor of communication at Wake Forest University. “The spilling over is one of the most dramatic cases of them spilling over. It is an incredibly dangerous moment in human history this has never happened before. This has never happened where people are so siloed. People are so tunnel-visioned and that is now spilling out in real life.” In arguing social networks have caused a lot of people to fall in line with the radicalism, he states “all of that was fine as long as you are sitting in your basement and talking about whatever the heck you wanted to talk about, but now you are out on the streets, now you are in front of the Capitol and you entirely believe that narrative. It doesn’t matter who told you, that you’ve actually forgotten who told you the story. That story has become a part of your life. That’s how you are looking at reality.”
And why is this radical perception becoming reality? Well, Big Tech has done very, very well during the Trump years. They’ve benefited from a strong stock market, with corporations like Apple as well as Google's parent company Alphabet receiving some of the biggest benefits from the Trump tax cuts of 2017, where their corporate income tax rate dropped from 35% to 21%. In addition, another report from The Campaign For Accountability found Google’s ad serving platforms continues to generate substantial income by placing advertisements on websites responsible for fake news: partnering with hyper-partisan sites, allowing publishers to conceal their identities from advertisers, and continuing to have ads placed on these anonymous websites.
The CFA report analyzed 1,255 partisan news sites that partner with Google and found 184 of them (15%) hid their names from advertisers through Google’s anonymization feature. The anonymous websites were among the most profitable, contributing more than eight times as much revenue per publisher as compared to non-anonymized publishers. According to the report, these websites accounted for 60% of all of Google’s ad revenue from the sample. In particular, right-wing content publishers were responsible for publishing highly misleading content, which generated over $48.8 million dollars for Google.
These included sites such as Breitbart and the Drudge Report, both of which varied in their spread of the dangerous conspiracies which led to the riot. By contrast, only 4% of that revenue was from left-wing sites posting fake news. By all accounts, there is a clear financial incentive behind these companies continuing right-wing radicalism, whereas the left-side can easily be abandoned. The communications industry is the key to these personalities not just surviving, but thriving in this new political economy. You are simply more likely to reach people when you go to them, made much more effective by the ease of social media, advertising, and getting your message directly to the people. If this wasn’t the case, people wouldn’t freak out about Trump losing his most effective weapon, his Twitter account.
And it’s a two-way street of necessity. After Trump’s ban, for example, Twitter shares had tanked by more than 10% by Monday morning. And people are scared the outgoing president will take these radical claims elsewhere without proper control. “The risk is that perhaps Trump starts his own social networking platform or moves his content to a different platform, and now they [Twitter] have some sort of competitive pressure to the extent that user engagement for their platform goes down by some percentage point,” explained Tom Forte, a tech analyst who spoke to Yahoo Finance Live. “You could argue that is 10% earnings risk for Twitter on the notion that they may have a negative impact on their audience share and then that could have a negative impact on their ability to draw advertising against their audience.”
If the riot at the Capitol proved anything, it’s how fragile the nation is when it’s propped up by cards. Although President Trump’s role in instigating the crisis is clear, it doesn’t tell the whole story. One man alone cannot break democracy. With that said, democracy is only as strong as its people and the institutions which form them, and it demands correction. “For months,” writes Henry Olsen for The Washington Post, “he has lied to his supporters, telling them falsehoods about a “stolen election’ that are unsupported by serious evidence. He and his minions — especially once-honored former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — have spread rumors, calumny, and fanciful inventions in an effort to overturn the people’s will. At best they were reckless, ignoring the substantial and unjustified risk that their baseless accusations could ruin popular faith in democracy and result in violence. The seeds they planted grew into the tree whose fruits we now see.”