Trump’s Coup Was Born Online



The movement has now done exactly what it promised. On Wednesday, a mob took over the Capitol building to stymie the certification of the presidential election. Members of Congress were told to take cover, and then to evacuate. One woman was shot and killed. The New York Times reports that the mob organized on the social-media platforms Parler and Gab, while BuzzFeed News reports that it also used Facebook.

The insurrection is the latest and, in some ways, the most alarming lesson in how online extremism can translate into offline violence, but it should be the least surprising. It was building in online spaces even before the election, and has been escalating ever since. The conversations were public, easily observable, and egged on by the president, who often engaged with them directly, and whose political career has been defined by whipping up paranoia and rage on the internet.

Naturally, the insurrectionists and their supporters have been celebrating all day. On the pro-Trump site TheDonald.Win—the new home of the banned Reddit forum r/The_Donald—forum users gathered for a “watch party,” cheering the mob on. Commenters called for those on the scene to find the “Congress filth,” and posted all-caps approval: “DEATH TO THE WEAK AND DECADENT REPUBLIC! HAIL TRUMP!” Some claimed to actually be at the Capitol, though they could have been posturing for a clearly receptive audience. “I just left … I had a pitchfork and it was heavy! It was damn amazing to see,” one wrote.

These celebrations were happening even on mainstream platforms. On YouTube, for example, The Verge found several pro-coup live-streams tagged #StopTheSteal, broadcasting from outside the Capitol. I watched another titled, in part, “DC the Day Has Come!!!” that had been running ads and collecting donations from viewers for three hours. (It was at $1,308 when it ended.) On Twitter, new tweets with the #StopTheSteal hashtag were posted every few seconds throughout the day. Users who had been tweeting #HoldTheLinePatriots ever since Election Day were still doing so, but now speaking literally. QAnon believers tweeted that what they were seeing was just like a movie, and the greatest one they’d ever seen. As of 11 a.m. ET on Thursday, many “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups were still online.

Now major platforms have to sift through the mess and make decisions about what they’re willing to tolerate and enable. Though they hesitated to moderate or deplatform Trump for much of his presidency, he’s pushed them to somewhat pointed action in the past several months. On Wednesday, Trump continued to monger conspiracy theories as the mob roamed the Capitol, tweeting that his vice president lacked the “courage” to illegally hand him the election. Twitter prevented retweets of Trump’s post about Pence, and added a warning label noting a “risk of violence.” It did the same when he tweeted a video telling the mob to go home before adding, “We love you. You’re very special.” And when he tweeted, shortly after, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots,” signing off, “Remember this day forever!”


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