Jan. 6 was an example of networked incitement: Political violence orchestrated over social media

My colleagues and I sought data to better understand what motivated everyday folks to storm the Capitol that day under great personal risk. Using the method of qualitative content analysis, we assembled 469 charging and sentencing documents for 417 defendants and coded them for the stated reasons for attending the event. We chose these court documents because they represented the fullest narrative accounts available. The purpose of these documents was to explain the rationales and mental states of the accused, while also offering a defense or explanation for their actions.

We analyzed the documents, looking at the multiple motivations for the insurrectionist mobilization. Overwhelmingly, insurrectionists said they were motivated by a desire to support Trump, which was equally split with a rationale to stop a rigged election. In sum, we concluded that disinformation mobilizes and incites political violence under specific conditions, such as a popular public figure calling for help.

For example, the court documents also directly reference social media posts of the accused. On Dec. 22, 2020, Kelly Meggs, an Oath Keeper who was later convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 12 years in prison, wrote on Facebook:

Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC pack your s—!!

The reference to “it’s gonna be wild” was a rejoinder to the now infamous tweet Trump sent after a reportedly difficult six-hour meeting the president had with staff about how to proceed with the fraud inquiry and undo the election results. Oath Keeper Meggs’ tweet illustrates that even before Jan. 6, militia groups were looking for signs from Trump about how to proceed. An investigation by NPR also illustrated how Trump’s messages emboldened participants and ignited the events of that day.

A dark future

No sitting president before Trump had exploited the capacity of social media to directly reach citizens to command specific actions.

The use of social media for networked incitement foreshadows a dark future for democracies. Rulers could well come to power by manipulating mass social movements via social media, directing a movement’s members to serve as the leaders’ shock troops, online and off.

Clear regulations preventing the malicious weaponization of social media by politicians who use disinformation to incite violence is one way to keep that future at bay.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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