The assault on the U.S. Capitol by an insurrectionist mob has, unsurprisingly, led to the impeachment of President Donald Trump. The violent events of Jan. 6 shocked lawmakers and the public alike, forcing even those members of Congress who had planned to object to the certification of certain states’ Electoral College votes earlier in the day to (mostly) drop their planned performances.
Now, a growing slate of executive branch resignations and legislator demands for Trump’s removal all echo the same obvious fact: not only did the president’s false claims of election theft set the scene for the mob to descend on Washington D.C., but he directly incited his supporters to violence mere hours before the attack when he asked them to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” and “show strength.” The president has now been suspended or permanently removed from numerous social media platforms and the chorus of voices calling for his conviction and ouster from the Oval Office is swelling. Unfortunately, none of those steps will really fix the problems that got us here.
The Problem is Deeper than Trump
To be clear, President Trump should be removed from office, even though his term is days from ending. His actions — now tied unequivocally to attempted acts of sedition against the U.S. government — pose grave threats to American democratic process and national security. But ousting Trump is a short-term salve to the nation’s political problems. Even with the events of Jan. 6 fresh in our collective memory, it is important we recognize that the threat America faces today is not so much that of sedition but of a broad-scoped subversion of civil discourse with roots in everything from regressive party politicking to the economics and architecture of the internet’s social spaces.
We must recognize that Donald Trump is not the leader of the interlocking fringe elements that have descended on Charlottesville, Kenosha, Portland and Washington. Nor is he the only figurehead whose rhetoric has — and could have in the future — the effect of triggering disruptive, violent and seditious outcomes. To think this is to make the misguided assumption that antagonism by fringe actors is a unique feature of Trumpism. It is not. Trumpism is a unique formation of subversive forces operating at the fringes of mainstream society, given power of projection in recent years by digital media.
In America today, Trumpism is the inexperienced rider sitting atop a horse it only partially understands. If one looks across the world and back over the first two decades of the new millennium, it’s hard to miss the dramatically increased frequency with which subversive fringe elements of global society have seemed to interact with the mainstream. In many cases, such elements have influenced the meteoric rise of controversial political figures to the top of nations’ politics, Donald Trump among them. And unfortunately, such elements have been clearly tied to some of the most tragic acts of violence to dot the landscape of recent years, including the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 that left 11 dead.
But why are fringe-mainstream interactions so much more seemingly prevalent today than in eras past?
The Technology That Enables the Problem
Subversion isn’t hard to understand, just hard to see and to study. Subversion is any purposeful attempt to compromise the perceived legitimacy of the status quo forces of a society and its government. Practically, subversion involves acts that degrade the credibility and perceived relevance of symbols of the status quo, such as the Constitution or the idea of a peaceful transition of power. The idea is to detach the loyalties the population has toward such symbols because they contribute to the broad recognition that the status quo is legitimate.
In the 21st century, individuals and groups at society’s fringe convinced of the illegitimacy of some elements of mainstream society — from the so-called “deep state” to vaccination norms — have flocked to the web to air grievances, gather information and reach like-minded persons. Where this digital interaction of such people differs from past eras is in the potential for social coordination and manipulation bound up in the design of online spaces. On sites as diverse as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Gab and 8chan (now 8kun), moderators that self-restrict access to content are well placed to “capture” new members via a process that lures outsiders with the promise of unique perspective and then uses social pressure to reinforce interest in engagement within such spaces.
Unique framing of news content — and, in some cases, fabrication or extreme sensationalization of content — builds the value of fringe spaces as singularly accommodating of a range of sociopolitical beliefs. Careful diversification of content presented and discussed in such spaces helps link the underlying tenets of a subversive perspective to broader, often patriotic beliefs. And repetition — particularly the meme-ification of simplistic rallying terms, images or arguments — flattens discourse, collapses differences between community perspectives and incentivizes mobilization around common symbols.
The Leaderless Nature of the Problem
The result of these cult-like echo chambers — fed by media organizations and political figures more interested in parochial gain than prudent civil discourse — is that subversion in America in the age of the internet is largely leaderless. It might be popular to see Trump as the leader of Trumpism as a political force in America, but the truth is that the president’s role is far more like Osama Bin Laden setting the tone of a dispersed ideological struggle than like Nelson Mandela or Margaret Thatcher commanding a movement. Conspiracy, sedition and violent intent may be triggered by Trump’s rhetoric, but the forces that assaulted the Capitol in early January are generally not organized, coordinated or even narratively dependent on the actions of Trump and his allies. This fact is perhaps no more evident in the contrast between confusion on the part of some rioters who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 about what the next step might be and the clear planning of others that intended to destroy property and take hostages.
As such, removing Trump, though necessary for the nation, is unlikely to alter the threat faced by fringe antagonism. In fact, ostracizing Trump and supporter communities on social media platforms may make the issue worse, as research has shown that shutting down conspiracy forums and racist message boards simply scatters members to new spaces where there are even fewer accountability controls and more incentives to encourage extreme discourse.
Political and social stakeholders must recognize that tackling the problem of internet-age subversion — a phenomenon that has now led to a clear act of insurrection against the U.S. government — will demand assertive changes to the nature of the media environment and, particularly given the limitations of the law in interdicting what often amounts to protected speech, innovative steps taken in partnership with technology companies to assure the integrity of information in the American democracy.
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Removing Donald Trump from Social Media Won?t Fix America?s Subversion Problem originally appeared on usnews.com