Capitol punishment: the role of social media in delivering, understanding and combating political chaos in the US

Greg Marshall, Account Executive of Grayling NY, breaks down the most recent breach of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Trump, public reactions on social media, cyber intelligence investigations and more.

Past vs. Future

The year 2020 was not what anyone expected. It included distress and anxiety around the U.S. Election results, confirmed on December 14th by the U.S. Electoral College in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden as President-elect. These results were not met without contest and push back by Trump supporters, who believe there were clear signs of voter fraud and electoral corruption.

As 2021 kicked off, the country was looking for optimism, resiliency and unity to counterbalance the difficulties of the year prior. Unity was not achieved on Wednesday, January 6th as the United States headlined international news during a presidential protest on election results that turned violent at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C – resulting in the first insurrection of the Capitol building since British troops set fire to it during the War of 1812.

The lead up to January 6th

Several signs of political distress from Trump supporters were visible on social media throughout November, December and early January. Before the election, platforms like Twitter labeled tweets that contained inaccurate information. During the height of the political tension in November and December, Trump’s posts online were quickly disputed by platforms as a form of spreading misinformation.

On Twitter, new tweets with the “Stop The Steal” hashtag were posted routinely multiple weeks prior to the day of the Capitol siege. The SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups, sent more than two dozen alerts to federal authorities between Dec. 23 and Jan. 7 noting the rising risk of violence related to the coming gathering.

According to the Washington Post, some aggressive and hateful chatter had appeared on both Twitter and Facebook, as well as niche conservative sites such as TheDonald.win, Gab and Parler. Event planning targeted specified locations include the U.S. Capitol and the Mall in Washington, the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, and other landmark locations in Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio. According to the New York Times, participants were documented on Gab of entering Congressional offices for both House and Senate leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and conducting a thorough search for Vice President Mike Pence in the Senate chambers. According to CNN Business, there were more than 1,250 posts from accounts related to QAnon conspiracy theories on Twitter about Wednesday’s protests containing terms of violence since January 1.

Social media in the political spotlight

A total of 41 people were arrested on the Capitol grounds late Wednesday and early Thursday, according to Washington D.C. police chief Robert Contee. Many participants willingly posed for photos and videos from inside the Capitol and posted them on social media and verified livestream accounts during or shortly after the event, showcasing actions that constituted serious crimes. Many rioters appeared in front of cameras wearing distinct costumes and, in some cases, even ID badges.

As the search for Capitol rioters continues, social media platforms are rapidly removing Donald Trump’s account or accounts affiliated with pro-Trump violence and conspiracies, like QAnon and #StoptheSteal. As of Sunday evening, platforms that have removed accounts or censored accounts include: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, SnapChat, Apple (app store), Google (app store), Pinterest, Twitch, Reddit, Shopify and many others. Large scale tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce, along with large businesses throughout corporate America, started their campaigns Monday of halting political donations in the wake of the attack on the Capitol.

Google has suspended “free speech” social network Parler from its app store over its failure to remove “egregious content.” Parler styles itself as “unbiased” social media and has proved popular with people banned from Twitter. Google said the app had failed to remove posts inciting violence. Apple has also warned Parler it will remove the app from its app store if it does not comply with its content-moderation requirements. Parler filed a lawsuit against Amazon on Monday following Amazon Web Services’ decision to suspend them from its cloud hosting service.

Social media’s role in law enforcement and what to expect moving forward

Social media played a huge role in law enforcement tracking rioters down for prosecution. Many rioters posted on various platforms throughout the chaos, sharing images and video of themselves and the people with them. Even if the users tried to remove their posts, media outlets and other users have already duplicated the images and video, sharing them widely.

Using social media, the FBI is requesting the American public help identify people who took part in the pro-Trump riots at the U.S. Capitol. This includes selfies posted by participants and videos here of Trumps supporters at area hotels before the event took place. The FBI said Thursday that its Washington Field Office has received more than 4,000 online tips, including photos and videos of suspects rioting at the Capitol.

From a social media algorithm perspective, Parler’s search algorithm uses hashtags to speed up conversations and makes it easier to share content for their conservative users. Since their legal fight with Amazon began this week, conservative users are now flocking to other platforms like Telegram, Rumble, MeWe, 2nd1st and others to keep their voices heard.

The threat of another violent attack around inauguration is a news story that will ramp up as this week progresses. Cyber intelligence units and the American public will continue to heavily monitor social media for threats of more violence, however social media will certainly remain in the spotlight as the next four years of a new political landscape will begin.