The seventh committee hearing on January 6 showed how a trio of elements led to the violent assault on the Capitol: a president calling for action from enraged supporters; a crowd of staunch supporters who believed the “big lie” that the election was illegitimate; and violent extremist groups galvanizing a crowd into action. The three elements took advantage of an online ecosystem to spread misinformation, plan a violent attack, mobilize a crowd and stir up anger.
While the hearings themselves are important in documenting and holding accountable those responsible for the attack, they will not prevent the next wave of political and extremist violence.
While the hearings themselves are important in documenting and holding accountable those responsible for the attack, they will not prevent the next wave of political and extremist violence. To do this, we must seriously tackle the toxic online worlds in which disinformation thrives – with as much energy and time as we have spent untangling the roads that led to January 6 to begin with.
Former President Donald Trump and his supporters have effectively taken advantage of social media platforms that have allowed misinformation to flow freely, online networks that can quickly mobilize millions to take action on dedicated pro-Trump websites and on sites like Parler, 4chan and Gab, and a population ill-equipped to separate fact from fiction, especially when false information comes from people who are supposed to be reliable sources, like the US President.
This week’s hearing documented how, after being told by his closest advisers that there was no evidence to support voter fraud, and after other options to void the election were ruled out , Trump summoned his supporters with a late-night shoutout now infamous on social media. “Be there, it will be wild,” he tweeted at 1:42 a.m. Dec. 19, calling on supporters to come to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and challenge the electoral vote count. That tweet served as what Special Committee Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., described as a “call to action and in some cases a call to arms for many of President Trump’s most loyal supporters.” . It has “electrified and galvanized” members of militant extremist groups, in the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
That call came after weeks of mass radicalization to belief in the patently false but widely publicized claim that the election was illegitimate. Two witnesses described the impact of this propaganda as they explained how they were swept away, through social media and in person at the rally, into the “big lie”. Former Trump supporter Stephen Ayres described his decision to go to the Capitol after the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally as just following orders given by Trump, saying he was motivated by Trump’s words that day -the. Ayres also noted that he and other supporters left when Trump told them to go home, which only happened after the attack lasted for hours. He suggested he would have left earlier if Trump had asked them to.
The hearing also documented how militant extremist groups viewed Trump’s words as legitimizing their goals.
The hearing also documented how militant extremist groups viewed Trump’s words as legitimizing their goals. Former Oathkeeper Jason Van Tatenhove, who called the Jan. 6 plans an “armed revolution,” described his sense that Trump had “directly or indirectly conveyed” in a way that gave the Oathkeepers “the nod” to move forward.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen mob violence in the United States. Raskin compared the January 6 mob to a racist 1837 mob that attacked an abolitionist newspaper office and killed its editor. He was inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln about that attack, in which Lincoln noted that the eventual downfall of this country is more likely to come from its own citizens than from a foreign threat – especially “if the racist mobs are encouraged by politicians to rage and terrorize”. Mobs and demagogues, Lincoln warns, lead to political tyranny.
Nearly 200 years later, Raskin warns that the problems Lincoln spoke of are back “with new ferocity today”, with a president calling on a mob to attack the electoral system and challenge the transfer of power. Even more troubling, Raskin noted, the online ecosystem “has given today’s tyrants tools for propaganda and disinformation that yesterday’s despots could only have dreamed of.”
And therein lies the most troubling part of the January hearings: they are not enough. They offer critical questioning of how we got here, but no clear path forward. They don’t tell us what can be done differently to stop people from believing misinformation or to stop today’s “tyrants” from exploiting easy propaganda tools. And with the election approaching, Van Tatenhove’s words should send shivers down our spines: “And I fear for this next election cycle, because who knows what it might bring?” If – if a president is willing to try to instill and encourage to stir up a civil war among his supporters using lies and deceit and snake oil, and whatever the human impact, what will else if he is re-elected? ”
What we need right now is a massive investment and commitment to fight misinformation at all levels. This includes holding tech companies accountable for dangerous and harmful information shared on their platforms. This requires strategies to prevent public and elected officials from sharing misinformation or trying to undermine our elections and the peaceful transfer of power. But above all, we need serious and sustained public education and campaigning to build the resilience of the general population in the face of disinformation, understanding of the integrity of sources and ways to distinguish false assertions of the real facts.
It is important to hold people accountable for their criminal acts and to document the events leading up to an insurrection. But if we don’t ensure millions of Americans can tell truth from lies, fact from fantasy, and reject misinformation no matter which candidate wins, we’ll be back here after the next election. Or somewhere worse.