The shock and awe of the mob attack on the US Capitol are still being felt. There have been many lessons drawn from it—the end of American exceptionalism, the perils of pandering to a bully, the importance of independent democratic institutions. But what has also been astonishing is what the events of these past few days have shown us about the power of social media.
In many ways, social media helped the dizzying ascent of Donald Trump from joke candidate to Potus. He has used social media as his bully pulpit, sidelining even his own White House press secretary to make 3am policy pronouncements, diss those he does not like, and spread outright misinformation. Social media was his gussa-ghar, where he raged and fulminated about his electoral loss and any other humiliation. He used it to summon his followers to the fateful rally that turned into an attack on the very seat of power in Washington, DC even as Joe Biden’s electoral victory was being certified. Early in his presidency, Trump had told 60 Minutes that as president his social media use would “be very restrained, if I use it at all”. But in the end this was a presidency powered by social media. In four years, he tweeted over 34,000 times.
Now Twitter has banned him. He has been blocked, suspended or banned on everything from Twitter and Facebook to Snapchat and Twitch. Even Pinterest, where he does not even have an account, has limited topics like “Stop the Steal” and instant messaging app Discord has banned a server called “theDonald.win”.
West Virginia lawmaker Derrick Evans has resigned after he did a Facebook Live from within the Capitol, bragging “We’re in! We’re in! Derrick Evans is in the Capitol”. The man who walked off with the speaker’s lectern, the man who posed in his Viking horns and furs on the vice-president’s chair in the Senate, the founder of the neo-fascist group Hawaii Proud Boys, who tweeted a picture of himself smoking inside the Capitol saying “Hello from the Capitol lol”, are being tracked down and arrested. Their social media feeds and their selfies are like a trail of cookie crumbs leading law enforcement to their doors, digital evidence many are desperately trying to scrub fearing their jobs may be at stake.
As comedian and talk-show host Stephen Colbert said, this was one instance when being masked would have actually helped them. It could have protected them against both the pandemic and easy detection by law enforcement authorities. But being ideologically opposed to masks, they ended up being exposed on all counts.
Even the Indian postscript to the conflagration became a social-media driven one. Many noticed the Indian tricolour fluttering amidst the US and Confederate flags. It was not difficult to track down the flag-bearer. Vincent Xavier Palathingal, a Republican from Virginia with origins in Kerala, said he took the flag because of “patriotic fervour”, as a way of representing the Indian-American community. The whole thing blew up into a finger-pointing argument about whether the man supported the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress. Again, online detectives dug into his social media archives and triumphantly brandished pictures of him with Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, as if any politician can be held responsible for everyone who has had a photo-op with him. But Palathingal’s political affiliations are irrelevant. It’s his use of the flag that was the issue. Interestingly, a complaint filed against him with the Delhi police asks Facebook and Twitter to suspend his accounts, proof yet again of the power we have vested in social media.
The Capitol vandals obviously felt a sense of impunity. Many happily gave their names to the media. These were people who were coming at the call of their president, the leader they had nicknamed “God Emperor” on a Reddit group. He told them, “We are going to walk down there and I will be there with you.... You will never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.” So they did in their red MAGA caps and Viking horns. They felt no reason to hide their faces because they felt the president had their back on a day many of them believed would be “the storm” where, according to the QAnon conspiracy theory, Trump would vanquish his opponents. The rioters felt the police needed to be on their side. One was indignant that she got maced as soon as she stuck her foot in. “We were storming the Capitol. It’s a revolution,” she protested.
A retired landscaper from North Carolina told The New York Times he would never forget the sense of empowerment he felt as he ascended the Capitol steps and looked at the surging crowd below. While he disapproved of those who broke into the building, it felt good to show people “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!” In Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump In The White House, a quote attributed to the president goes: “The most important thing is to be feared.” But perhaps the most fearful thing is to not be noticed, not be seen.
Social media lets us feel seen or heard. People with three Twitter followers relentlessly troll celebrities, hoping to provoke them into a social media fight where they can suddenly spar like equals. Perhaps that is why this mob felt compelled to post pictures of themselves looting and vandalising. Until it’s visible on social media, liked (and hated), it hasn’t happened.
Not so long ago, many of us were aghast when a Muslim labourer from West Bengal was killed in Rajasthan by a man who claimed he was saving women from love jihad. He hit the man with a farming tool, looked into the camera, then poured fuel over him and set him ablaze. It was deliberately filmed like an IS-beheading video postcard. We were shocked not just by the killing but by the video. But it stems from that same desire to be seen and the way social media promises to fill that emptiness in us. Instead of 15 minutes of fame, we crave 15,000 clicks of fame.
We cannot blame social media for our worst demons. Nazi leaders did not need it to unleash their monstrous crimes. The Rwandan genocide just needed a message about crushing cockroaches broadcast on radio, not Reddit groups. But it is undeniable that social media has made it that much easier to create an alternate universe of rabid untruth that spins on its own axis, out of sight until it explodes into public view, like that day on Capitol Hill.
Now Trump is gone from Twitter, leaving behind debates about free speech and double standards. And the absence of one Trump will hardly turn Twitter into a model community of decorum and decency. But still it’s worth remembering this has been a story that’s as much about Trump as it is about social media that helped blow him up like a blimp and now has become the weapon of choice to cut him down to size.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.