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'They're compromised': Washington riots raise thorny questions about policing, disinformation and social media

Videos from inside the Capitol showing police taking selfies with protestors have been verified.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

EXTREME RIGHT-WING political views spread via social media through viral online conspiracy theories and misinformation over the past number of years culminated in the violence witnessed in Washington DC yesterday, experts believe.

Urged on by the president and Republican figures like Rudy Giuliani, supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol building yesterday evening.

The possibility of unrest was openly discussed on fringe and mainstream social media in recent weeks.

In real-time, the flames were fanned by the US president and extreme right-wing internet personalities, raising serious questions about the ability of social media companies to combat the spread of misinformation, violent rhetoric and hateful content.

Questions are also being asked of the police response to the unrest, given the open online discussion that went on in the run-up.

Joe Galvin, Director of News at international news agency Storyful, says that the events that transpired yesterday in Washington were shocking but not at all surprising.

Galvin and the Storyful team have traced the intersection of US politics and the rise of far-right conspiracy theories in recent years, particularly since Trump was elected in 2016.

Yesterday was a “real-life consequence of that intersection,” he says.

We have been saying in Storyful for a number of months that something like this was possible on the streets of America… I think what we saw yesterday was a natural consequence of the type of misinformation and disinformation and conspiracy that has become endemic in American society.

‘Woefully inadequate’

Videos and images from the riots have called into question the preparedness and willingness of the US authorities to deal with the mob and right-wing groups generally.

Last year, following the killing by a police officer of George Floyd in Minnesota, protests took place in Minneapolis at which thousands of people were arrested and tear gas was deployed liberally by police.

Across the US, including in Washington DC itself, over 90,000 members of the National Guard were called in to quell the demonstrations.

Storyful covered those protests extensively and Galvin says that in stark contrast to the “aggressive” approach taken by law enforcement then, security at the Capitol building yesterday was “woefully inadequate”.

The two events are “chalk and cheese” from that perspective, he says.

Galvin and the Storyful team have verified video footage showing police officers taking selfies inside the Capitol with protestors, including a well-known white nationalist internet personality.

#LockandLoad

It may have been somewhat disorganised but the general idea of storming the Capitol around the time of yesterday’s planned rally had been in the ether for several weeks.

At least one Trump supporter Facebook page was using the #StormtheCapitol hashtag as early as 12 December, ahead of the ‘Million Maga March’ in Washington DC on that date.

Once they got inside, it was clear they didn’t have much of a plan.

But in the weeks running up to the day itself — one in which elected politicians had gathered in the Capitol to finalise US President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in November’s election — Galvin and Storyful uncovered alarming evidence that something was brewing.

“We didn’t observe any specific thing where people were saying we’re going to storm the Capitol,” he explained.

“It wasn’t as specific as that but certainly the tenor of the conversation, particularly on the fringe platforms, was ‘We’re going to be prepared for violence.’”

The fringe platforms Galvin is referring to include the pro-Trump social media network Parler, a fertile breeding ground for right-wing conspiracy theories.

Galvin says, “Violence is a standard part of the discourse among these elements, so it’s not unusual for gun references, or references to violence, to be made. However, violent and aggressive discourse on Parler and elsewhere in relation to the rally was commonplace.”

Storyful observed that the hashtag #LockandLoad was used in connection with the event in the weeks leading up to it.

He said there were thousands of posters on the platform “alluding to the fact that people were ready with guns at this rally for whatever may transpire”.

False flag attack

Of particular interest, Galvin says is how mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were used on the day itself as the planned rally spiralled out of control.

There are two noteworthy elements to this, he believes — firstly, how social media companies responded to posts from politicians like Trump and secondly, how disinformation was spread so widely yesterday in the wake of the violence.

What’s so troubling, he says, is that “social media platforms, unfortunately, weren’t able to deal with the situation, in as timely a fashion as needed.”

At the rally itself before the riots kicked off in earnest, Trump delivered an impassioned 70-minute speech.

“You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough and we will not take it anymore,” he said. “And we fight. We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

As the melee began proper, Trump tweeted that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution”.

Galvin argues, “It was pretty clear. I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that his comments were inciteful. So as the storming of the Capitol was taking place, he was still pushing the inflammatory line about the stolen election.”

Eventually, Twitter took action, suspending Trump’s account and removing three of his tweets.

But “again, we see that the reaction is not as timely as perhaps it needs to be,” Galvin says.

More grassroots right-wing elements were also involved in spreading ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories yesterday, designed to muddy the waters of public perception.

The most prominent right-wing disinformation campaign yesterday was aimed at convincing social media users that anti-fascist activists were, in fact, responsible for the violence and not pro-Trump supporters.

Galvin observed “demonstrably false information” about a false flag attack by antifa being shared “thousands upon thousands of times on mainstream social media including by verified accounts”.

“In one four-hour period we saw 11,000 tweets receiving 60,000 retweets claiming that antifa was responsible,” he says.

Now this is demonstrably false because we were able to identify and others were able to identify well-known far-right, neo-nazi figures who were in the Capitol at the time.

These included identifiable, popular extremist internet personalities and white nationalist figures and there’s “no question that that’s who was taking part”, Galvin avers.

A difficult position

Disinformation, conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ shared on social media were poisoning the well of public discourse long before the pandemic.

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But the ongoing global health crisis has exacerbated the problem, leaving social media companies to play catch up.

What’s more, far-right conspiracy theories have gone global. This is no longer something happening far away on another continent — even in Ireland, we’re beginning to see extreme language and disinformation flooding social media networks.

Galvin says this was evident following the death of 27-year-old George Nkencho, who was shot by gardaí in Clonee, Dublin 15 last week.

The trouble, Galvin believes, is that more censorship and moderation just won’t cut it — the entire social media profit model would have to be retooled to deal with these issues appropriately.

“Social media companies are in a difficult position because their revenue model is based on users behaving in a certain way,” he explains.

The companies want to be as accommodating to their customers as possible, dragging in as many new users as they can and, crucially, directing them towards their advertisers.

From a technical side, it would probably be very easy to moderate hateful content and conspiracy theories, Galvin says.

But to do it on the scale necessary in the face of ever-growing user bases would require a fundamental shift in Facebook’s or Twitter’s revenue model.

“They’re compromised,” he argues.“Their revenue model is not really something that allows for the moderation that’s needed.

“But under the current system by which they’re working, they don’t really have control of their platforms. That’s clear.” 

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