Assault on the Capitol: Technology’s Role

Jan 6, 2021

Thousands of domestic terrorists raid the U.S. capital building, with the blessing of president Trump

Thousands of rioters overpower the capitol police and breach the united states capitol building during a congress’s joint session. Inside, Secret Service agents outfitted in black suits grab majority leader Hoyer and rush him off to safety. Mark Meadows calls Ivanka, pleading her to get her father to do something. Nancy Pelosi’s embossed nameplate is ripped off the wall. “Stop the steal,” the rioters screamed as they marched down the ornate capitol halls, sporting Trump flags. Many capitol police officers let these insurrectionists gain ground, leaving their positions. The terrorists are now freely roaming the halls. A noose is erected in front of the capitol [in the year 2021]. Flashbangs go off, intermittent load blasts are accompanied by a puff of smoke, in a futile effort by law enforcement. Secret Service agents draw their pistols; some terrorists attempt to break through the door to the house chamber. These secret service agents frantically obstruct the doors with furniture. A SWAT unit clears a path for congressmen & women to retreat to the tunnels below. The state officials, directed to run as fast as they could. “He’s got a gun,” rioters shout, almost surprised somebody would use lethal force against terrorists. A woman gets up to jump through a doorway through the shattered windowpane; the officer fires a shot, she drops to the ground lifelessly.

A disturbing video surfaced of Capitol Police units in riot gear outnumbered by thousands of rioters, valiantly trying their absolute best to stand their ground. The thousands of rioters push forward in unison, a young officer in distress, no older than 30, screams in utter agony, being crammed into a metal doorway by the collective force of thousands. Next to him, an officer desperately trying to hold his ground has been beaten, a domestic terrorist hitting him and grasping his gas mask. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, a C.P. officer gets a selfie with an insurrectionist inside the capitol halls. “Hang Mike Pence” is shouted repeatedly.

Noose erected outside the capitol. Getty Images | A domestic terrorist hangs from the Senate Chamber's balcony. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Reporters weren’t allowed into the secure room with the congress members. Many young journalists in the hallway, screaming and sobbing in fear. The look of distress on their youthful faces mirrors one of a soldier, terrified in combat. Congressmen Ruben Gallego, a vet himself, leaves the secure room, leads the reporters, and locks them in his office with him — he knows how they feel in that moment. The trauma they endured will remain with them eternally, haunting them. Many people who work in the capital are now traumatized, whenever they see a photo of the capital, let alone go back to work in these halls; the fear they felt during this insurrection will come rushing back.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, there’s a clear preceding chain of events involving radicalisation, improper moderation, and spread of misinformation online. We’ll take a deep dive into how the pandemic had an effect on the radicalisation of so many people on social media through an analytical lense, as this had a profound role in this tradegy happening.

Social Media, Misinformation, and Far-Right Reactionary Movements

We live in an era of massive tech companies controlling vast swaths of people’s information pipeline without proper oversight. As a result, the content’s accuracy on the social media platforms and search engines you use to educate yourself on current events is seated behind the companies’ best financial interest. Improper and inconsistent moderation of content on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, for instance, allows conspiratorial thinking to permeate, for hate and misinformation to propagate.

The internet normalizes behaviors, fringe beliefs that otherwise may be associated with the risk of being considered unacceptable or inappropriate in person.⁽³𝄒⁴⁾

Earnings Over Ethics

“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” — Jaron Lanier, The Social Dilemma

It’s in Silicon Valley’s best interest to squeeze every bit of engagement out of each user. Facebook has shown its complete absence of ethics in favor of engagement time and time again. The ‘move fast and break things’ mentality leads to a complete fixation on maximizing growth with a total disregard of the implications. A developer may initially write algorithms, but once unleashed, it’s the opening of pandora’s box. Here lies the core issue with complex algorithms having sole discretion of what news and posts users see without understanding what’s going on under the hood. Even if tech giants made a push to favor ethics over profit, the dangerous real-world implications of machine learning run amuck would be challenging to fix.

Radicalization and Spread of Misinformation

“Most studies suggest that the internet is a reinforcing agent or an accelerant, and has broken down the traditional barriers for individuals wanting to become radicalised.” ⁽ ¹¹⁾

The information ‘echo chamber’ ⁽³𝄒¹⁾ or ‘mental reinforcement activity’ ⁽²𝄒³⁾phenomenon is a disturbing reality. These information bubbles form from showing you results that you will likely engage with, things that specifically you would click on, over things that are non-biased and fact-checked.

According to Facebook's artificial intelligence, a conspiracy theory is more likely to be clicked over a peer-reviewed fact-checked publication. It’s well established that the internet, as it stands today, allows for more effortless access to conspiratorial information, sources affirming biases, and misinformation — which is more challenging to do in the real world; where we more routinely speak to individuals with differing opinions or have access to materials presenting different viewpoints⁽³𝄒⁶⁾

“Brought together by online journals, blogs, services and chat rooms, the participants enter forums where the extremist ideology becomes selfreinforcing.”⁽ ³𝄒 ⁸⁾

Social media can also give the illusion of ‘strength in numbers,’ making people generally on the fringe seem as if they’re a majority.⁽³𝄒⁷⁾ Members of these reactionary groups find another refuge in encrypted chatrooms and forums, radicalizing each other in the process. The ease of access to encrypted, ‘underground’ communication channels is not inherently evil, of course — but the use of these easily accessible forums incubate further acceleration and radicalization. Once reactionary ideas have been introduced to a prospective new-member via social media, the user can be funneled down a rabbit hole consisting of private chatrooms and forums, entirely free of moderation. Hate groups, hardcore accelerationist terrorists/militias, and dangerous conspiracy theories spread just beneath the surface, splintered into private groups, like wildfire — obfuscated from being tracked by outsiders.

“[The internet] provides a locus in which they can obtain radicalising material… It provides them with direct access to a community of like-minded individuals around the world with whom they can connect and in some cases can provide them with further instigation and direction to carry out activities.”⁽¹⁰𝄒 ¹¹⁾

Covid-19 Primes the Fuse

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive effect on the spread of misinformation in 2020 and the exponential growth of reactionary movements like Qanon. The pandemic’s widespread insolation has caused many people to spend considerably more time on social media while being away from their friends and family, who may have views based more on reality.

Covid-19 has caused a widespread decline in all of our mental wellbeing during a time of continued death and trauma — many people want a straightforward solution, a definitive explanation to cope with the chaos of the world right now.

Smoke fills the walkway outside the Senate Chamber as insurrectionists are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“Trust the [Delusional] Plan”: Unachievable Prophecy Leads to Violence

Conspiracy theories aren’t based upon reality; instead, they provide followers with a sense of order and protection during a chaotic time in history. For instance, Qanon acts as a warm blanket of “trust the plan” to many believers — they eventually adopt a reality that serves their needs, further isolating themselves, becoming more radicalized, ultimately losing touch with reality. The dilemma is — there is no plan, the prophecy that fuels their hope is destined not to come true, they will never attain their delusional goals, effectively creating a ticking time bomb, not dissimilar to a doomsday cult. Believers of far-right reactionary movements become increasingly disgruntled and dissatisfied that their delusional fantasies don’t attain fruition.

The grim reality is: their messiah Trump is a deranged fascist, using his supporters ignorance in an attempt to bolster his crazed self-serving delusions. This fact is simply too much to handle. The believers simply cannot accept that they were conned; as shame has a powerful effect on one’s psyche.

They no longer aspire to indifferently “trust the plan.” Far-right radicals need a white ethnostate void of any adversaries right now — inspiring many to join hardcore far-right accelerationist militias like the Proud Boys or Boogalo Boys. With further encouragement by a malignant narcissist autocrat named Donald J Trump, the unimaginable happens.

Rioters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepares to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, thousands of people have gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his false election fraud claims. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Trump’s Lights the Powder-Keg

The days leading up to the siege: Die-hard Trump supporters and extremists flocked in from all over the country to attend the Trumpian “Save America” rally. A substantial portion of the attendees had come prepared to carry out violence, carrying guns, donning combat gear; at least one man brings flex-cuffs to restrain congress members. Non-profit research group Advance Democracy found that 50% of posts on the subreddit r/TheDonald.Win “featured unmoderated calls for violence in the top five responses.”⁽¹³⁾ Hashtags such as #StormTheCapitol circulated online before the rally and included threats to kill congressional leaders.⁽¹⁴⁾

“This is America. Fuck D.C. it’s in the Constitution. Bring your goddamn guns.” Another forum member wrote: “ARMED WITH RIFLE, HANDGUN, 2 KNIVES AND AS MUCH AMMO AS YOU CAN CARRY.” said another poster⁽ ¹³⁾

Wednesday morning, Rudy Giuliani took the stage calling for “Trial by combat.” At noon, Trump came onto the stage in front of the sea of supporters. He turned his baseless rage toward the vice president in a desperate last-ditch effort. He attempted to pressure Mike Pence to overturn the election results, for which he doesn’t have the authority. Trump stated the same incendiary lies to the crowd, claiming the election was wrongly stolen from him and that there was widespread fraud. Of course, every credible source has abundantly established that there was no widespread election fraud, and even if there were, Trump would’ve lost the popular/electoral vote regardless. Trump announced he’d march down to the capitol with his supporters to ‘stop the steal.’ Of course, Trump didn’t come, but thousands of fired-up Trump supporters marched forward to the capitol.

Things quickly escalated, the rioters converged on the capitol with force. The capital police weren’t prepared; they underestimated how violent these insurrectionists were. Barricades were breached, barricades that weren’t properly set up, to begin with. We all know what happened next, violent insurrectionists seized the capital; our congressmen and women barely escaped. Trump called these violent insurrectionists “patriots,” he told them to “remain peaceful” after they’d already breached the capitol's interior perimeter. Nobody could reach the president, not even Mike Pence. Trump essentially stopped functioning as POTUS — he refused to listen to his staff's pleas: to release a video calling these rabid rioters to stand down.

This siege was a failure of the capitol police, not only the incompetence of President Trump — but also the social media platforms that let misinformation and conspiracies spread like wildfire. Trump’s has since been banned on most social networks thankfully, but this seems like too little, too late. He’s started something he can’t stop, and because of him, over 20,000 national guard troops are tasked to maintain a secure perimeter of Biden's inauguration, coming up the next week. Over a thousand soldiers sleep on the floors of the capitol; to protect it from domestic terrorists that Trump emboldened for years prior.

References

  1. (Ramakrishna, 2010; Saddiq, 2010; Stevens and Neumann, 2009)
  2. (Silber and Bhatt, 2007)
  3. (von Behr et al. 2013, sec. 3.4)
  4. (Bjelopera, 2011)
  5. Behr, Ines von, Anais Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke Gribbon. 2013. “Radicalisation in the Digital Era: The Use of the Internet in 15 Cases of Terrorism and Extremism.” https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR453.html.
  6. (Briggs and Strugnell, 2011; Shetret, 2011)
  7. (Saddiq, 2010)
  8. (Schaan, Phillips, 2011)
  9. (Stevens, Neumann, 2009)
  10. (von Behr et al. 2013, sec. 3.5)
  11. (Pantucci, 2011)
  12. (von Behr et al. 2013, sec. 3.7)
  13. Wolf, Cam. “How the Attack on the Capitol Happened, From Planning to Siege to Arrests.” GQ. Accessed January 14, 2021. https://www.gq.com/story/wednesday-capitol-attack-summary.
  14. Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell. “Capitol Siege Was Planned Online. Trump Supporters Now Planning the next One.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 12, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/01/09/trump-twitter-protests/.

Full-stack developer. Alumna of Flatiron School's Software Engineering Immersive bootcamp. Portfolio: https://tiffany-codes.com/

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