The seventh hearing before the Jan. 6 committee showed how a trifecta of elements led to the violent assault on the Capitol: a president calling enraged supporters to action; a crowd of fervent supporters who believed the “big lie” that the election was illegitimate; and violent extremist groups galvanizing a mob to action. All three elements took advantage of an online ecosystem to spread disinformation, plan a violent attack, mobilize a crowd and stoke anger.
While the hearings themselves are important for 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 for documenting and holding accountable those responsible for the attack, they will not prevent the next wave of political and extremist violence. To do that, we must seriously address the toxic online worlds in which disinformation thrives — with as much energy and time as we have spent disentangling the roads that led to Jan. 6 to begin with.
Former President Donald Trump and his supporters have effectively taken advantage of social media platforms that have allowed disinformation to flow freely, online networks that can rapidly mobilize millions to action on dedicated pro-Trump websites and on sites like Parler, 4chan,and Gab, and a population that is ill-equipped to separate fact from fiction, especially when false information comes from people meant to be trusted sources, like the U.S. president.
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This week’s hearing documented how, after being told by his closest advisers there was no evidence to support election fraud, and after other options to overturn the election were ruled out, Trump summoned his supporters with a now-infamous late-night shout-out over social media. “Be there, will be wild,” he tweeted at 1:42 a.m. on Dec. 19, calling for supporters to come to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and contest the counting of electoral votes. That tweet served as what special committee member Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., described as a “call to action and in some cases as a call to arms for many of President Trump's most loyal supporters.” It “electrified and galvanized” members of militant extremist groups, in the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
That call came on the heels of weeks of mass radicalization to believe in the patently untrue but widely disseminated claim that the election was illegitimate. Two witnesses described the impact of that propaganda as they detailed how they were swept up, through social media and in person at the rally, in the Big Lie. Former Trump supporter Stephen Ayres described his decision to go to the Capitol from the “Stop the Steal” rally as having just been following the orders Trump gave, explaining he was motivated by Trump’s words that day. Ayres also noted that he and fellow supporters left when Trump told them to go home, which happened only after the attack had been underway for hours. He suggested he would have left earlier if Trump had asked them to do so.
The hearing also documented how militant extremist groups saw Trump’s words as a legitimation of their goals.
The hearing also documented how militant extremist groups saw Trump’s words as a legitimation of their goals. Former Oath Keeper Jason Van Tatenhove, who referred to the plans for Jan. 6 as an “armed revolution,” described his sense that Trump had been “directly or indirectly messaging” in a way that gave Oath Keepers “the nod” to go ahead.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen mob violence in the U.S. Raskin compared the Jan. 6 crowd to an 1837 racist mob that attacked an abolitionist newspaper office and killed its editor. He drew on Abraham Lincoln’s words about that attack, in which Lincoln noted that this country’s eventual downfall was more likely to come from its own citizens than from an overseas threat —particularly “if racist mobs are encouraged by politicians to rampage and terrorize.” Mobs and demagogues, Lincoln warned, 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 a mob to attack the election system and contest the transfer of power. Most troublingly, Raskin noted, the online ecosystem “has given today’s tyrants tools of propaganda and disinformation that yesterday’s despots could only have dreamed of.”
And herein lies the most troubling part of the Jan. 6 hearings: They are not enough. They offer a critical interrogation of how we got here, but no clear path forward. They do not tell us what can be done differently to prevent people from believing in disinformation or to stop today’s “tyrants” from exploiting easy tools of propaganda. And with the election around the corner, Van Tatenhove’s words should send a chill down all our spines: “And I do fear for this next election cycle, because who knows what that might bring? If — if a president that's willing to try to instill and encourage to whip up a civil war amongst his followers using lies and deceit and snake oil, and regardless of the human impact, what else is he going to do if he gets elected again?”
What we need right now is a massive investment in and commitment to countering disinformation at all levels. This includes holding tech companies accountable for dangerous and harmful information shared on their platforms. It requires strategies to prevent public and elected officials from sharing disinformation or trying to undermine our elections and the peaceful transfer of power. But above all, we need serious and sustained public education and campaigns to build population-wide resilience to disinformation, understanding of source integrity, and ways to distill false claims from true facts.
Holding people accountable for their criminal action and putting on record the events that led to an insurrection is important. But if we don’t ensure that millions of Americans can discern truth from lies, fact from fantasy, and will reject disinformation regardless of which candidate wins, we’ll be right back here after the next election. Or someplace worse.