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To people who study right-wing militia groups and QAnon fanatics, the idea that armed insurrectionists would storm the Capitol while Congress was in session was not merely possible. It was predictable.
Long before the mob began its march up Pennsylvania Avenue, it was obvious that hordes of anti-democratic loonies had been swayed by the outlandish lies of President Trump and his echo chamber of co-conspirators, who maintained that President-elect Joe Biden had stolen the election. On Twitter, Parler, Facebook, 4chan, 8chan and the dark web, momentum was building.
For weeks, quite publicly, a growing number of Trump supporters had been whipping themselves into a frenzy, talking about doing something big on Jan. 6, when Congress met to count the votes of the electoral college.
We now know, of course, that their seditious plans, inflamed by Trump himself, came to pass.
The armed insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol may have seemed disorganized, but their goal was clear: disruption of the highest levels of government. They succeeded in sowing terror and upending, at least temporarily, the peaceful transfer of power in America. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died.
“I was aware of what was going to happen,” said University of Maryland computer science professor Jen Golbeck. “It’s not like you had to go on the dark web. The stuff was on Twitter. The plans were clear. People were coming out and saying, ‘We will storm the Capitol.’”
Golbeck studies how people develop trust in online information. She studies misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, online harassment. Lately, she has focused on anti-vaxxers, neo-Nazis and the dark corners of the internet where the worst impulses of human nature have free rein.
“I like to say I study malicious online behavior,” she told me Friday morning.
Her next goal is to figure out whether the same folks who brought you terror in Congress on Wednesday are planning to reprise the performance on Jan. 20, when Biden is due to be sworn in.
In a relatively brief conversation, I learned a lot from Golbeck, including how to access the dark web, which I have always wondered about. (You use a browser called Tor; domain names have 16 characters, ending with .onion, as in “many layers,” she said.)
More important, we talked about how social media works against the common good and how anger-driven right-wing groups flourish as a result.
"Facebook’s algorithms decide what to show you based on what keeps you on Facebook the longest," said Golbeck. "And the content that keeps you scrolling and clicking is content that makes you angry. Facebook has chosen not to fix this. Essentially, social media makes more money if we are mad at each other.” Trump, perhaps unwittingly, has exploited this aspect of social media like no other political figure.
In April, the Wall Street Journal published an article based on internal 2016 Facebook documents about the site’s contribution to social and political divisiveness. A high number of extremist groups use the site, and Facebook found that its own recommendation tools — “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” — were responsible for 64% of new followers for extremist pages. What did the social media giant do? Nothing.
“Facebook basically said, ‘Bad things are happening and we are not going to study this anymore,’” said Golbeck.
We can’t blame social media alone for turning people into credulous seditionists, but with a president committed to the Big Lie, whose big lies have been echoed and reinforced by a cadre of enablers on his staff, in Congress, on Fox News and elsewhere, it’s no wonder we ended up watching would-be revolutionaries try to enact their misguided fantasies at the Capitol.
That's why Golbeck (and presumably hordes of law enforcement computer nerds) are scouring the internet for signs of violence in the coming days.
“I for sure am doing everything I can to find any incipient plans and make everybody aware of it,” said Golbeck, who has contacts at Facebook and in the FBI. “A lot of my work is funded by the intelligence community." She tries to predict when riots are going to happen in other countries based on conversations she sees online. “But I am not an intelligence officer, and I hope there are better people than me trying to find this stuff.”
Alt-right reaction to Wednesday’s debacle, said Golbeck, has been all over the place.
Some are proclaiming it was organized by antifa to make the radical right look bad. (As if.) Others are satisfied that they tried to “take their government back from traitors who are stealing the election,” said Golbeck.
Some QAnon conspiracists believe that the assault merely “laid the groundwork for the final phase” and repeat QAnon catchphrases like “trust the plan.” (It’s unclear what “the plan” is, but it seems to involve the military stepping in to help Trump to a second term. Trump’s belated statement Thursday — that there will be a peaceful transfer of power — was also part of “the plan,” according to those folks.)
Golbeck has also seen chatter, though, from people with “a dawning realization that maybe Trump was wrong and he lied to us, and we sacrificed for him, and what? He’s going to walk away and leave us behind?” (Of course he is; he’s halfway out the door, suckers.)
But she’s also seen posts like, “This was our dress rehearsal. Next time we are going in armed.”
Sentiments like that could be braggadocio or they could be real.
How can we look at the events of last Wednesday and not believe them?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.