IDDP Director: Social Media Abetted, but Didn’t Cause, Capitol Riots

Rebekah Tromble said that while social media helped unite far-right groups and spread disinformation, institutional support for the extremist cause made the insurrection possible.

Image of the U.S. Capitol Building (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
(Harrison Jones/GW Today)
January 11, 2021

By Ruth Steinhardt

Supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol after he made a speech urging them to “fight” to stop “our election victory” from being “stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats” comprised disparate far-right groups, including white nationalists, the neo-fascist Proud Boys, anti-abortion activists and members of the QAnon conspiracy group. Although “Stop the Steal” rally attendees had publicly stated on social media their intention to breach the Capitol and even potentially to kidnap or kill lawmakers, the rioters were met with little police resistance—possibly because of an institutional reluctance to take online conversations seriously as action plans.

“It’s disingenuous to look at the storming of the Capitol and say ‘Who knew [online discourse] could really lead to this?’” said Rebekah Tromble, director of the George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics. “We’ve seen for decades now, all around the world, that online chatter can and does lead to violence in the streets.”

But while social media helped these groups find common cause and plan their actions, Dr. Tromble said, it was not solely responsible for stoking the flames that led to last Wednesday’s events.

“It’s difficult, even irresponsible, for us to argue that we can point to things that happen distinctly online to generate this outcome [at the Capitol],” Dr. Tromble said. “Social media certainly played a role—it helped spread disinformation and hate—but the real sources of both of those things are people searching for power and looking to hold on to it at all costs. And those people have used a broader media ecosystem to support that agenda.”

Dr. Tromble said social media has been useful to the pro-Trump movement in drawing together aligned but distinct conservative groups, many of whom have conflicting beliefs, by “papering over” their different motivations and goals. But it’s institutional Republican support of far-right misinformation—including unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and elected officials who openly support the baseless QAnon conspiracy—that empowers these groups to thrive and to take destructive action.

“If these groups didn’t have social media, they would have to find ways to coordinate more frequently in person, and those very real differences would come to the fore much more quickly,” Dr. Tromble said. “If this were to become a truly sustained movement on its own rather than being fed by institutional politicians and by a specific political party, they would have to organize and coalition-build in the classic social movements framework. But they don’t need to do that, because they have an institutionalized political party that will do that work for them.”

Social media’s power to spread misinformation may be dangerous, Dr. Tromble said, but it doesn’t achieve true potency until that misinformation leaks into the mainstream media.

“Even those of us who are really focused on studying social media and its effects need to keep in mind that what’s being said on social media doesn’t have nearly as much impact as it could until traditional news media outlets pick this up and amplify the claims,” she said.

Dr. Tromble pointed to Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter, even before his election, as an example. Media outlets considered his statements and Tweets newsworthy, so would repeat them—often in an attempt to debunk his claims. But as his rhetoric consequently reached the mainstream, the debunking didn’t always follow. And this amplification also provided Mr. Trump a “direct channel of communication” to supporters who didn’t have Twitter, Dr. Tromble said.

She said an actionable consequence of this phenomenon is that social media networks do have some power to defang extremists, violent actors and peddlers of misinformation by suspending or banning them. Twitter levied a lifetime ban on Mr. Trump this weekend, citing concerns that he could incite further violence, and a number of other platforms have also banned him permanently or indefinitely in the last several days.

“Deplatforming has real effects. We’ve seen this in recent years when well-known figures on the right—Alex Jones is one example—have been banned from the most prominent social media platforms. They lose followers and they lose oxygen. And we’re already seeing the consequences of the Twitter ban on Donald Trump. He simply hasn’t been able to direct the social or mass media narrative,” Dr. Tromble said.

That said, Dr. Tromble believes it’s time to reframe the distinction often drawn between “online” and “offline” events.

“It has long frustrated me that we continue to act as if things that happen online are not ‘real life,’” she said. “The online world is real life and what happens there is consequential, and not just when it translates to offline action; it is consequential in its own right, too.”

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