By Adam DuBard
The Capitol Hill riot on January 6, 2021, was an event completely without precedent, and one that captured the nation’s attention immediately. Following a rally where President Trump and several of his closest supporters, including several members of Congress, spoke, thousands of Trump supporters marched from the White House to Capitol Hill. There the mass of Trump supporters, QAnon adherents, and various right-wing militias overwhelmed the underprepared Capitol Hill police and stormed into the Capitol building, coming mere seconds from encountering Vice President Mike Pence and other members of Congress, according to reporting from the Washington Post.
While a majority of the details of the events on January 6th took days for the media to investigate and report, many of the first images of the riots came directly from participants as they live-streamed their incursion into the seat of the American government. As Ian W. Karbal in the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, the mob “was its own media.” In one instance, rioters were captured on video attempting to destroy Associated Press equipment while chanting “We are the news now.”
The fallout of hundreds of Americans documenting and openly bragging about their criminal activity on social media was predictable – many of the mob participants’ court filings indicated that their social media posts were key to the cases against them. While many took the opportunity to mock these rioters, the underlying element of this phenomenon should not be trivialized. The Capitol riot continued the growing trend of violent events being live-streamed by their perpetrators.
The white supremacist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, killing 51 Muslim worshippers, live-streamed their attack on Facebook. Although Facebook claimed that the original video was only viewed 4,000 times before its deletion, Facebook users attempted to upload the video again 1.5 million times in the next 24 hours, with 300,000 attempts slipping through Facebook’s censors. More relevant to the Capitol riot, QAnon adherent Jessica Prim drove from Illinois to New York City in May 2020, live-streaming her journey on Facebook. After posting on Facebook that “Hillary Clinton and her assistant, Joe Biden and Tony Podesta need to be taken out in the name of Babylon,” she was arrested by New York City Police while driving erratically around the city.
Then the Capitol Riots happened, and in real-time hundreds of the mob, participants were streaming the events first-person and live to their thousands of followers. Many of the streamers were seeking to capitalize financially by gaining more followers and increasing their online presence. As Karbal details, numerous rioters streaming their activities on January 6th did so on DLive, a streaming service that has drawn numerous white supremacists to its platform. On DLive, viewers can send “lemons” or online currency that is worth a fraction of a cent, to streamers. Several of the live streamers on January 6th earned hundreds of dollars by streaming their activities, while also gaining more followers for future endeavors.
The financial aspect of the live streams, however, is not the only significant aspect of the mob participants taking media into their own hands. Much has been made of the decline of traditional American media in years past, which has had significant consequences for how Americans receive their news. In January Axios reported that trust in traditional media was at a new low of 46%, according to Edelman’s annual trust barometer. This trend of declining trust has coincided with a considerable drop in the number of local news outlets across the country. According to a report from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, more than one in five of all newspapers closed from 2004 to 2019, leaving nearly 200 counties without a local newspaper and 3,143 counties with only one local newspaper. Further, the remaining newspapers are being consolidated under larger corporate media entities, only shrinking the ideological diversity of the news available to Americans.
As American local news outlets disappear, trust has dropped in traditional news outlets, and more Americans are receiving their news from alternative means than ever before. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from August to September of 2020, 36% of respondents regularly receive their news from Facebook, 23% from Youtube, and 15% from Twitter.
As Dr. Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor at SAIS and an award-winning anthropologist, filmmaker, and writer noted, “The problem we have in American society today is exasperated by a profit-driven social media world.” Further, she was struck by how significantly the narratives pushed by the Capitol rioters varied from those presented by the mainstream press. “We’re in a moment when we’re seeing very publicly how the same exact events are interpreted completely differently,” Dr. Bajoghli continued. However, she warned that this was not a phenomenon limited to the media ecosystem. “The underlying economic precarity can’t be ignored. It’s been impossible to make ends meet for far too many Americans in this economy for years now, and it’s only getting worse […] Part of the issue with what we’re seeing in our politics and social life is the failure of neoliberal capitalism.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought chaos on global markets and significantly altered status quos around the world. In many instances, the pandemic has merely exacerbated already existing fragments in society. QAnon researchers have highlighted that the pandemic has catalyzed the spread of conspiracy theories, QAnon most prominently. The increasing personal isolation, economic downturn, and gutting of traditional American media sources have wrought significant damage to American society, with the consequences coming to a head-on January 6th on Capitol Hill for all the world to see.