The January 6 Insurrection was Powered By Social Media
So why has there been no move to require Big Tech to take responsibility for spreading the lies that make right-wing partisans ever more extreme?
There is so much politicial news this week. A search warrant served on an ex-President for the first time! Representative Scott Perry (R, PA-04) having his phone seized by G-Men while on vacation! I’m not tired of winning yet—but I did think it was time for a little context. If you know someone who wants to think more deeply about where we are as a country, please:
This post draws on an article I wrote for Alternet on October 14, 2021.
Last week, disinformation artist Alex Jones learned that he would be asked to pay almost $50 million in damages for spreading damaging falsehoods about massacred children. This lawsuit will punish Jones for a fraction of the lies he has either invented or perpetuated, and it doesn't even address how Jones and numerous others—Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson—have warped our political culture with racism, anti-semitism, and lies about our political system that have turned the Republican party into a conspiracist cult.
These people have turned the idea of free speech into a mockery of itself. Furthermore, Donald Trump’s success in channeling outrageous falsehoods directly into the political culture has emboldened others. After the Inflation Reduction Act passed on Sunday, Republicans took to social media to warn that the Democrats were building an authoritarian state: no American would evade its reach. “Today’s raid of Trump’s home is just another example of the growing weaponization of our federal agencies by the Left while people like Hunter Biden live freely,” Adam Laxalt, who would like to be the next senator from Nevada tweeted. Others tweeted that the bill raises taxes for the middle class (untrue).
But the biggest theme of the online propaganda machine is that the federal government is coming to get us, long a theme of the white supremacist militia, tax resister, and militant libertarian right. “What Nixon tried to do, Biden has now implemented,” Texas’s Republican Senator Ted Cruz raged online yesterday as the news broke that the FBI had served a search warrant at Donald Trump’s semi-legal home at Mar-A-Lago. “The Biden Admin has fully weaponized DOJ & FBI to target their political enemies. And with 87K new IRS agents, they’re coming for YOU too.”
But why can Republicans lie with impunity, spreading rage and anxiety among the MAGA faithful? Because social media still makes it possible, even though we have known that the effects of a wide-open internet have corrupted our political system since before Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
When 37-year-old Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress on October 5, 2021, she brought thousands of stolen documents with her. They were the most conclusive evidence yet obtained by Congress that the top social media company knows it profits from harming the public.
Like many whistleblowers, Haugen—a former member of the civic integrity team—took an exciting job only to be implicated in what she believesd to be an ethical catastrophe. Much was made of her statement on "60 Minutes" that teenage girls who use Facebook are more likely to suffer from depression and self-harm. Endangering children rightly grabs the public's sympathy and concern.
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But what about the consequences of social media for democracy? Haugen was the latest expert to directly implicate Facebook in the tsunami of disinformation that was instrumental to Donald Trump's victory in 2016 and four years later, his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Yet, shortly after November 3, 2020, as the political crisis that would culminate in the January 6, 2021 insurrection was building, Facebook dissolved the civic integrity team.
Six months later, a third of American voters still believed that Donald Trump won the election. As mid-June of this year, 70% of Republicans still do, largely because everything in their social media ecosystem—including elected officials who know better—tells them so. Aside from its function as a fountain of political disinformation, Facebook has been implicated, not just in the spread of global illiberalism, but in gun violence, youth suicide, genocide and a contemporary contagion of conspiracy theories. And, except for listening to Haugen's testimony, Congress has done nothing.
Although the right fulminates about censorship, and the left about Facebook's monopolistic practices, neither Republicans or Democrats seem content to let the company—which also owns the equally influential platforms WhatsApp and Instagram — regulate itself. Yet Haugen has revealed little that we, and presumably, Congress, did not know about Facebook already, and what Congress knows is that that all social media companies are doing a terrible job of stopping misinformation, even though they know who the the most dangerous culprits are.
Politicians have all the knowledge they need to act—or to demand action from these companies. Since 2018, media experts like Jaron Lanier and Siva Vaidyanathan have explained that Facebook (and all social media, really) promotes dark and destructive content because it is "sticky," keeping users on the platform for longer sessions that reap greater profits for the company. In their 2021 book An Ugly Truth, New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, using interviews with anonymous and named sources, recounted Haugen's charges in detail.
To understand why the political class does nothing, one could start with Federal Election Commission filings. AI s one example, Facebook employees donated almost $20 million to political campaigns in the 2020 cycle alone. While over 80 percent of that went to Democrats (Joe Biden was the top draw at over $1.5 million), Republicans got their share too. Facebook's PAC, the company's official political donor arm, consistently donates more money to Republicans than Democrats.
But there is, I suspect, something larger in play than money. It’s the fact that social media has transformed out political system over the last two decades, and no one—not consultants, candidates, or national committees—can remember how to run a campaign without it.
Social media has transformed politics: no twentieth century politician or political operative would recognize today’s never-ending campaign cycle, and both parties are implicated. It was Republican John McCain who mounted a brief, but robust, challenge to the powerful Bush money machine in 2000 by engaging voters live on a website with rudimentary video technology. In 2004, the almost unknown Howard Dean became a contender for the Democratic nomination by raising hundreds of millions in small donations in a few months, connecting to voters on blogs and organizing supporters in states other candidates didn't visit on MeetUp.com.
And in 2008, Facebook entered national politics through the back door. Co-founder Chris Hughes took a leave from the company to organize digital marketing for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Following Obama’s victory, the right took notice: in 2010, the Tea Party movement mobilized almost exclusively on Facebook to fight the Affordable Care Act, endorsing 129 Republican candidates for the House and nine for the Senate. A third of those candidates won, delivering the House of Representatives into the hands of a Republican majority also stripped of many moderate incumbents.
In the 21st century, it has become possible for "outsiders" who represent the most energetic and radical factions in both parties to succeed, at least in primaries. And career politicians in both parties now fundraise as if they were outsiders. Facebook and Twitter are the linchpins of a social media universe where it is always election season, and most candidates are screaming at the top of their lungs.
But this doesn’t have to be so. What would political campaigns even look like if social media platforms were, for example, uniformly restrained by standards of truth, restrictions on emotional content and algorithms, or the collection and sale of user data? How would the myriad small donations that power all campaigns, but particularly insurgent progressive and right-wing candidates, be collected? What new methods could mobilize grassroots supporters to demand, or refuse, change?
In a world where only 25 percent of twenty-somethings watch the news — but 70 percent of adults use Facebook — how would politics even happen if social media's reach was blunted? That’s the big unknown.
Since Donald Trump was kicked off Facebook and Twitter after the January 6 insurrection, conservatives have complained the loudest about Big Tech's power. But the truth is politicians are not just facing questions about regulation, public health and civic disorder when they confront Facebook's unethical behavior. They are facing questions about a political environment that has been transformed by the internet.
And they are facing ugly truths about themselves.
First, the FBI did not “raid” Mar-A-Lago, so ignore the headline—they were executing a search warrant. There is a legal and practical difference: for starters, agents don’t kick your door down at 3 a.m. Nevertheless, Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker interviews former federal prosecutor and F.B.I. general counsel Andrew Weissman about “why Merrick Garland was almost certainly involved in the decision to order the search, what criteria the government uses for asking a judge for a warrant, and the quickening pace of the Department of Justice’s January 6th investigation.” (August 9, 2022)
At her Substack, Jill Filipovic explores why, as it becomes clear that Donald Trump is a criminal, the GOP hugs him closer and portrays him as the victim of government persecution. “What’s particularly interesting,” Filipovic writes, “is the narrative conservatives and even prominent Republicans are latching onto: Not just that this was a politically motivated act, but that it was de facto unjust because it happened to their leader, Donald Trump. They don’t argue that Trump is innocent; they argue that he should be above the law. That’s telling: And it tells us that they don’t want a president to preside over a democratic nation; they want a strong-man dictator to impose his (and their) will.” (August 9, 2022)
At The Daily Beast, Julia Davis reports on the hysteria in Russia about their dear “Trumpushka” having his home searched by the FBI. Media in one of the world's leading dictatorships are, richly enough, screeching about despotism. “News of the raid landed in Moscow with a thud, as angry propagandists embellished the search with made-up details, claiming that `one hundred FBI agents’ and hordes of police dogs rummaged through Mar-a-Lago,” Davis writes. “On Tuesday’s broadcast of 60 Minutes, Korotchenko angrily condemned the raid: `There is a straight-up witch hunt happening in America. Trump, as the most popular politician in the United States—who has every chance of prevailing in the upcoming presidential election—was chosen as such a witch,’ he raged. `They won’t just be vilifying him, they will be strangling him. These raids, involving dozens of FBI officers and police dogs—this is worse than McCarthyism, my friends! This is a symbol of excessive despotism.’” (August 9, 2022)