On Wednesday, Jan. 6, following a speech by President Donald Trump at a rally dedicated to the false claim that he won the presidential election in November, a large crowd of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving five dead – including a Capitol police officer – and causing damage throughout the building that serves as the seat of representative government in the United States.
Although the images from the Capitol were shocking, the event itself was partly the product of an atmosphere of paranoia and anger that had been building for years, primarily on social media. Two days after the Capitol was stormed, Trump and many of his supporters were banned from a number of prominent social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. This in turn led to accusations that a handful of powerful private companies effectively control public discourse in the United States.
Associate Professor of Journalism Marie Shanahan ’94, who won awards as a reporter and editor at the Hartford Courant before joining the UConn faculty, is an authority on the rapidly shifting online media landscape. Her 2018 book, “Journalism, Online Comments, and the Future of Public Discourse,” grapples with many of the questions being asked in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol. She recently spoke with UConn Today about the role social media plays in shaping American political life – in ways both good and bad. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
While obscure social media platforms like Parler, Gab, and Telegram have gotten a lot of attention recently as gathering places for the kinds of far-right activists who were instrumental in what happened at the Capitol, most of the planning for that event seems to have taken place in the open, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. To what extent was this event a product of social media?
Social media can tap really quickly into the power of the crowd. That’s what it’s good at. You can’t blame it for causing an insurrection, but social media certainly can play a role in accelerating one. Thanks to the Internet, we all now have the ability to interact constantly. People don’t have to be concerned about geographical distances or time differences, because now you can directly communicate all the time with people all over the world, and they can communicate with you. So you have this active, participatory culture online, but it doesn’t necessarily stay online. An idea for a protest, a political rally, or even what we saw on Jan. 6, can move out of the online space and into real life.
But the mainstream media is also responsible in some ways. People are gathering in these obscure corners of the Internet to plot armed marches, but I recently read a New York Times story that detailed those plans in the first three paragraphs. Maybe these people are on the fringe, but as soon as it gets picked up by the mainstream media, it becomes part of the larger discourse. I’m not sure journalists think enough about their ability to amplify.