The US Capitol riot was not the language of the unheard

Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty ImagesPro-Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington DC to protest Trump’s election loss.
  • Some have argued the January 6 insurrection was a product of the media ignoring right-wing views.
  • But the angst of Trump supporters was well-reported; their views were given ample space on TV and online.
  • A feared loss of privilege, not a lack of power, better explains far-right extremism.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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It is fast becoming orthodoxy among both lefty contrarians and conservative apologists that, from the online cult of QAnon to the men and women who stormed the US Capitol in real life, the problem of the far-right stems mainly from disenfranchisement — from bottled up resentment, provided no outlet by the effete snobs in publishing, exploding with righteous albeit delusional fury.

“These people know they are scorned and looked down upon,” one right-wing blogger recently told a left-wing podcaster, “and the more you humiliate and make them feel powerless, the more you take away their ability to organise and express that rage, it’s gonna find an outlet in more destructive ways.”

Megyn Kelly, a former on-air personality at Fox News and NBC News, likewise blamed the media — “the enemy of the people,” in a former president’s phrasing — for spurring domestic right-wing terrorism. “Part of the reason we saw what happened at the Capitol here two weeks ago is because there has been a complete lack of trust, a destruction of trust in the media, and people don’t know where to turn for true information,” she maintained.

The problem is that this has not been the problem at all.

Civil unrest can often be viewed as the language of the unheard, per Martin Luther King, Jr.

This riot was egged on by the then-most powerful man in the world to amplify his grievance: his inability to accept he lost an election. This was a riot made up in part of small business owners, off-duty cops, military veterans, and the otherwise better off some whom even took a private jet to DC for the riot. It was largely an insurrection comprised by those to whom power has traditionally catered — a white population who fears an ebbing of their privileged status, and others entering the democratic chat — incited by the ultra-rich former president.

After an insurrection, an overdue national conversation about preserving democracy was drowned out, with the help of big media, by a reactionary conflation of “free speech” with the right to spread disinformation in private media. Political correctness, so-called, became “cancel culture”: the red herring that, more so than overthrowing the republic, became the hot new threat to freedom and mum’s apple pie.

But it has been remarkably ineffective, this recent spate of cancelling. Big Tech is happy to shovel inflammatory content into the gaping mouths of consumers, blaming the algorithms they designed for the fact that anger, above all, means engagement (while the performance of wet-blanket fact check is abysmal). It has not been censorious liberalism that has ruled the online world, but capitalism. Dollars and cents. Clicks and views.

And so it is that the angriest, with the most outrageous opinions about politics and society, have not been silenced but amplified — each irrational fear reported by media outlets eager to fight a no-win battle against the perception of a liberal bias.

Amid cries of censorship, reactionary content overperforms on Facebook, a site where the reactionary tabloid Breitbart, formerly run by Steve Bannon, was formally considered a “trustworthy” news entity in 2019 by the social media giant, part of an explicit appeal to the far right of the political spectrum. One cable news network has been devoted solely to airing their grievances, and at least two others have sprung up to air them even harder. There was a presidency and, for a time, two echo-chambers of Congress dedicated to “triggering the libs” on behalf of this constituency.

Right-wing extremism did not fester in dark corners. It all happened out in the open with followers led down a rabbit hole by the world’s most powerful man — the TV billionaire who started out promoting conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s place of birth — and a cast of faux-populist millionaires willing to entertain falsehoods, on television, about everything from COVID-19 to the 2020 election.

Sedition was plotted and streamed on Facebook and Parler. While the events of January 6 were shocking, there really wasn’t an element of surprise.

The belated removal of Donald Trump from platforms like Twitter is not the apotheosis of “safe space” culture, nor does it mean liberals and leftists have to put their faith in the Big Tech giants. It is, in fact, the least that could be done: holding the powerful to the same terms of service applied to shock-jock internet comedians and two-bit online harassers.

For years, the far-right used mainstream platforms to organise, these social networks indeed serving as a melting pot for locked-down conspiracy theorists to vigilante killers; half-measures to thwart this, taken after several terrorist attacks and a violent coup attempt incited by a head of state, are an embarrassed acknowledgment of this.

There are pitfalls to not allowing everything that could be said to be said, and no one trusts tech to reliably pursue the public- over self-interest. But the status quo was neither benign nor neutral. The worst rose to the top, with a lift from foreign states and American politicians— not the powerless — who used formerly inane technology to inflame the masses. In Myanmar, that meant sparking a genocide against the Rohingya, Facebook fees serving as the 21st century Radio Rwanda. In the United States, that’s a third of the Republican Party believing in QAnon, a digital rehash of a 19th-century anti-Semitic hoax.

The issue is decidedly not that the far-right among us have been denied a platform, but rather that they have been handed megaphones by corporations and politicians, Americans’ worst natures exacerbated and monetized. Legitmising a victimhood mentality that’s been used to justify an increasingly violent and unhinged resentment only compounds the error.

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