The attack on the institutional heart of one of the oldest democracies of the world was a major shock, for the United States and democracies all over the world. How were social media conducive to the Capitol siege and what should we learn from it?
January 6, 2021 offered a dramatic start to the new year: A mob of Donald Trump supporting rioters stormed to the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. While this represents a frightening (and potentially only temporary) climax of a democracy-threatening rise of the far right in the US, it also opens the next chapter of a “discussion evergreen” accompanying Trump’s presidency: Is digital media to blame for the success of the far right?
Using digital media as a scapegoat is a dangerously superficial analysisThere are strong reasons to argue that the decay of US democracy is not rooted in the digital world. The deep polarization of the political landscape, which arguably has created the political environment for Trump to be successful in the way he was, has begun decades before digital media became a relevant medium. It is rooted in fundamental societal developments and structural factors like social and religious realignment in the supporter bases of the parties, growing economic inequality and the long history of racism and white supremacy in the US.
If we try to understand the potential role of the media, we should be aware of the booming “conservative” media network, from talk radio to Fox News. These media outlets are increasingly separated from the rest of the media landscape and they are highlighted as a major driver of the growing radicalization of the right – but this is a general media phenomenon and not specific to digital media. Furthermore, considering the role of digital media specifically, there is a broad body of studies who question its impact on Trump's electoral successes. To exemplify these doubts about the role of digital media: Benkler et al (2020) show that the narrative of supposed election fraud did not need digital media to overgrow the political landscape. It has been part of the political campaign of an elected president of the USA, who has ample access to traditional media. Accordingly, the narrative found widespread resonance in traditional media. Any analysis, which only focuses on digital media and ignores the non-digital factors, will fall short in actually understanding the backstory of the incidents.
However, digital media did matter much and we need to address the challenges it posesAt the same time, there is no doubt that digital media heavily factored into what happened, but in other ways: In the last years and months there has been an overwhelming upsurge of conspiracy theories, dis- and misinformation and hateful and polarizing content on digital media. Supported by the engagement-driven design of digital media, which too often favors radicalization and amplifies such harmful ideology, this content and the actors who produce it have created a digital counterpublic of “alternative truth” and hate. These counterpublics reach out into the mainstream by dominating the media agenda, as impressively shown in the 2016 US election. In addition, they contribute to the radicalization and polarization of not necessarily societal majorities, but of highly politicized minorities. As these politicized minorities often include political influential party members, activists and opinion leaders, their radicalization and polarization will radiate back into society. Finally, these digital counterpublics enable extreme political outsiders to remain as extreme and radical as they are. It allows them to circumvent established media and political institutions as they no longer depend on these institutions, they can attack them with a newly won fierceness and radicalism. Digital media might not be the underlying cause of what we are witnessing right now in the US. But it certainly fuels the fire in a substantial way and on many different layers.
The capitol storming as well as the rise of the far right in general are and are not a digital crisis. To tackle its causes, both, the non-digital as well as the digital factors need to be addressed – a point which holds true not only for the US but for the world wide ascent of far-right actors, parties and movements. So, it should clearly be said that “Let’s regulate Facebook” will not fix the democracy-threatening success of the far-right. But trying to learn from the US gridlock of any meaningful regulation attempts of digital platforms in the last four years, Germany and Europe need to realize that they might indeed be in a unique historical opportunity window. A window where they have democratic majorities to work on regulation initiatives like the Digital Service Act. A window which they should use to build and shape digital platforms in a way that they enable constructive discourse and support democracy instead of undermining and challenging it.
For an extensive analysis of the Capitol siege go visit Jan Rau's personal blog.