The first inkling I had that something was very wrong on Wednesday was when my wife said, “Oh shit, is this real?” as we were en route to Trader Joe’s after spending a few hours on the cold, sun-drenched beaches of Long Island for a winter walk on our last day of a vacation. A friend had texted about the Capitol.
We shopped because a family’s gotta eat, all the while pulling down to refresh the infinite scroll of Twitter. I showed her a man sitting in the Senate president’s chair. She showed me videos of protesters climbing scaffolding. We white-knuckled it home, listening to NPR on the radio. As staid reporters cautiously talked about “protesters,” the reality of what was happening didn’t hit the same way as it did online, and it failed to convey the urgency of what was transpiring. But then the sedition wasn’t designed to go viral via NPR.
This was a made-for-social-media coup attempt. The most crucial way to figure out what the hell was going on was reloading Twitter over and over and over again. The images and videos that continually floated to the top of my feed were a jumble of family-vacation-photo pastiche and first-person shooter video games, familiar forms juxtaposed against unfamiliar backdrops of shattered windows or the Senate dais. It wasn’t necessarily just a dopamine jolt posters were after, though; this was propaganda to take the darkest internet conspiracies mainstream. Extremists, through their livestreams and vacation-esque posts pushed the attempted overthrow of a democratically elected government into the realm of “just another day online.”
While Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax played significant roles in stirring up the dirty waters of election conspiracies that fomented the chaos, the most incendiary sources of disinformation were all online (some of which are now being banned, including the president himself). President Donald Trump spent months railing about a stolen election on his various social media accounts, generating his own unfettered raw sewage in between retweeting QAnon accounts. QAnon, which began on a janky message board, has become a sprawling network of Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube videos (to say nothing of the more extremist social media sites like Gab and Parler, the latter of which is also being deplatformed). Ashli Babbitt, the woman whom Capitol police reportedly shot dead for trying to breach the House Speaker Lobby, was deep in it.
That people who believe a Satanic cabal of Democratic lawmakers and Hollywood elite are responsible for a pedophile sex trafficking ring would be willing to storm the Capitol isn’t wholly surprising, especially since they were openly plotting to do so. But the Very Online reasons for showing up don’t stop there. At least one group took a private jet from Texas to storm the Capitol, with one of their members posting breezy pictures on Twitter of them en route.
Given the stakes both real (ending democracy) and imagined (election fraud and QAnon), there was a surrealness in how casual the experience seemed for many of those ransacking the Capitol Building. Here was an attempt to overturn democracy with puds wearing helmet-mounted GoPros, homemakers with selfie sticks, and at least one real estate agent mugging amid the seditionist crowd. The casualness of some members of the mob that violently forced its way into the halls of democracy while insurrectionists beat a police officer to death, were shot to death themselves, planted pipe bombs across the city, or wandered the halls with zip ties ostensibly for taking hostages was a jarring juxtaposition. It felt somewhere between a Twitch stream, Fyre Fest, and the fall of Rome.
Livestreams of those wandering the halls of the Capitol while lawmakers hid in undisclosed locations documented random scenes that, if you changed the narrator to a history geek dad, would just be a completely uninteresting family video of a tour. Others, though, shot through wide angles lenses and in the thick of scrums felt like watching a video game as commenters egged on those filming (in this case, white nationalist Baked Alaska) to “steal things, burn things,” and “shoot BLM and antifa on sight.” The violence typically on display in the fictional scenes of Call of Duty sprung to real life, spit out over the same tubes.
The onlineness of the attempted coup made it both a product of the internet and a production for it. (Not to mention a treasure trove for law enforcement.) The media posted by those storming the Capitol were designed to game the same algorithms that have long served up clickbait slop and allowed people to slide further and further into conspiracies.
Legitimate protesters have used the internet in a similar manner, whether it’s the Sunrise Movement livestreaming a peaceful sit-in in House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2018 or someone putting together a one-page resource guide for supporting Black Lives Matter easily added to an Instagram or Twitter bio. Protests are always a mix of spectacle and relatability, with ample places for people to get a toehold and join you. You want to capture people’s attention and then bring them into the group. That’s part of the point.
Illegitimate movements, too, have used that same mix well before Wednesday. One haunted me over and over as I was trying (and failing) to fall asleep at 3 a.m. on Thursday, my Twitter refresh finger still itching to know if the electoral college had been certified. I kept thinking of the Islamophobic Christchurch shooter livestreaming the murder of 51 people while referencing the “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme popular among YouTube subscribers and white supremacists. If you’re a white supremacist, it was a wink. If you’re not, it was an overture of normalcy.
The actions of those at the Capitol brewed a similar mix of historically obscene and completely normal. That it wasn’t as deadly as past made-for-internet tragedies is honestly a miracle as more and more footage comes out showing the degree to which extremists were passively allowed to enter by some members of law enforcement and the violent way they attacked officers who did their jobs. But as I flipped through the Twitter account of Jenna Ryan, the private jet rioter, I kept getting stuck on pictures of she posted doing the duck face pose on the Capitol steps and her replies to those posting pictures of her flashing the peace symbol next to the smashed windows of the Capitol Building. Even as I wrote this, she was still firing off tweets in one of the most extreme examples of “tweeting through it” imaginable.
It reflects the utter banality of those looking to destroy democracy, with some of those treating the very real and dangerous violence that took place this week like a weekend trip with the gals to Wine Country or spending a few hours playing PS5. None of this is to trivialize the threat. Far from it; the attempt to make this the norm is what makes it the most terrifying. If you were part of the mob, the glamor shots and first-person videos with the boys are a nod. If you weren’t, they’re an invitation to join whatever they plan to do next.