Only a few hours after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to block the certification of election results, commentators online began pinning the blame for Wednesday’s riot on technology and social media platforms. It is hard to square such claims with the Confederate flags that were proudly waved in the Capitol; America has a long history of right-wing mobs and violence, much of it racist. Most of that earlier violence was much more intense, more widely accepted, and, crucially, legally protected. Technology alone cannot explain that, and yet there are stubborn efforts to insist otherwise.
On the day of the Capitol riot, some tech reporters and editors offered up “technology” either in the form of mobile devices, social media, or various apps as a primary cause, even though the President had told the crowd just before to “walk down to the Capitol” and explained “you will never take back our country with weakness.” Others insisted the blame laid with platforms, algorithms, and disinformation bubbles that radicalized people and pushed them into extremism.
On the one hand, it is obvious that our technical systems have amplified right-wing voices and networks. Indeed, Trump’s use of Twitter is notorious. But that’s the crux of it: they have amplified already extant trends and phenomena in American society that have, across our history and that of other Western countries, led to right-wing mobs and riots. Although Trump and his surrogates invited people to the Capitol on social media, they also did so at in-person rallies and it was repeated and discussed on cable TV and digital media.
The mob that stormed the Capitol in a half-baked bid to stop the election’s certification at Trump’s urging has taken on some symbolic significance because they stormed hallowed ground that represents America’s supposed rhetorical aspiration towards democracy. And whenever there have been attempts to undermine democratic experiments in this country’s history, we understand that we have to look for the context of social, economic, political, and cultural realities of the time, as opposed to how certain technical systems were being deployed.
“Technology” as a concept that refers to collective understanding of “the mechanic arts” did not exist until the early 20th century, and it took longer still for it to be thought of as an agent of change onto itself. At its worst, this impulse resembles the Netflix documentary Social Dilemma, which suggested the political and social problems we face today were the fault of our poisoned media environment and not a function of capitalism, or racism, or the convergence of these two.
To say the blame lies with “technology” or social media is to say very little if not nothing at all, because it obscures the decisions made by people and their collectives: by platforms, yes, but also elected officials, business executives, right-wing media and religious personalities, various commentators, and others that all led to this moment.
The connection between the President’s invitation to storm the Capitol and the 147 Republican elected officials who, hours later in the same building, voted against certifying the election has very little to do with technical systems and everything to do with political beliefs, namely that elections are only legitimate if “we” win them.
Fighting for control of the GOP after Trump’s exit will be a host of various factions. The young conservatives who’ll use the riot to exit the sinking ship with their careers untarnished, the ambitious conservatives (traitors now, according to the mob) who are now persona-non-grata among Trump’s base but free to vie for control of a post-Trump GOP, the Old Guard patrons from various billionaires, business lobbying groups (Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, etc.), the evangelical conservatives, the fiscal hawks, Trump and his core base of fanatics in the White House and House of Representatives (and the streets), the list is endless.
Following where and what these people post online, who they follow, and so on, is helpful and will continue to be. But the first step is to be honest about the degree to which technical systems actually cause right-wing mobs in a country that only seventy years ago made right-wing racial terror illegal and ended its cherished apartheid system. We must also look to see who is funding certain candidates, or developing certain rhetorical strategies, or building certain organizations. Those activities intersect with “technology” and social media, but are not entirely within that realm.
Yes, tech has made it easier to fall in a rabbit hole, to be introduced to esoteric fictions or muddled narratives and conspiracies, or to be mobilized to attack other people—but it’s important to note that this has always been relatively easy in America. The platforms have taken advantage of disinformation to shore up their own sovereignty, political influence, and profits, and coming out of this it should be even more painfully clear that they thrive in a parasitic influence with our society—but so do the host of individuals and groups now jockeying for power now that Trump’s end is in sight.
They will all get away with it as long as we focus on “technology” as some transhistorical phenomena, a prime mover of great forces in our society that is too sacred to actually unmake or radically restructure. But, if it actually is the all-powerful, all-consuming force commentators keep claiming it is, there is no choice but to do so anyway.