Capitol Assault and Charlottesville: "Stop thinking about it ideologically and think about it mechanically"
"Think about how the Internet is a brainwashing machine. It’s this machine that convinces people of these crazy beliefs and what was once insane becomes normal."
The degree to which Charlottesville, and now the Capitol assault, has launched a thousand think pieces is breathtaking. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The effort to find meaning in these events is part of our important national, and local, soul searching. What gets lost, however, is a focus on the mechanics of these events and what they have to teach us. In a Washington Post interview with Elle Reeve, whose excellent reporting on A12 launched her career, there is so much to learn.
"....the mechanism that brought them here [to DC] is similar [to Charlottesville] and I think really important. Which is that social media works as a brainwashing machine. You start off joking about something and then, over time, that just gets repeated so much it becomes a sincerely held belief.
“…There’s also this element of, all of these people who’ve met online and maybe the people in their real-life social circles don’t believe in what they believe in. And that’s frustrating to them. So the energy of all these people who’ve met online finally going to be together in real life. Finally getting to meet each other.
“…Stop thinking about it ideologically and think about it mechanically. Think about how the Internet is a brainwashing machine. It’s this machine that convinces people of these crazy beliefs and what was once insane becomes normal."
As I tried to explain after A12, the toxic hate sludge that materialized in the real world in downtown Charlottesville was largely the result of online "events" that intensified and inflamed the debate on race and monuments we were having in Charlottesville. As Reeve points out, the Internet allows people to isolate themselves in groups that are not unlike cults.
"If you think about a cult, a traditional cult has one charismatic leader [who] tells people what to think. And I don’t think we really appreciate yet the way the Internet works as a cult where everyone is policing each other’s beliefs.
So we want to within that group and I think that within many groups it is, how do we enforce it? Because you’re talking to all your friends, who you like, and they’re telling you what to think. And then if you say something a little bit out of line, they’re going to slap you down."
Within many groups. The Internet as cult. That's the thing. Even here in Charlottesville we see groups isolating themselves on the Internet, reinforcing their beliefs with one another, whether its the local Defund the Police movement, Mayor Walker or Councilor Lloyd Snook's Facebook followers, or any of a number of social media groups and individuals that now influence our community discourse and media coverage.
And that can be confusing. In this short interview with Reeve I began to notice the sheer number of identity groups mentioned as she was trying to break down what made up the crowd at the Capitol assault. It's truly striking. Among them: the alt-right, fringe right, nazis, neo-nazis, pro-trump mob, right-wing groups, white supremacists, QAnon supporters, insurrectionists, fringe radical extremists, Q-positives, role-players and those into LARPing, Q-agnostic people who recognize that there are things they like about it, hardcore military boogaloos, general MAGA people, MAGA people who thought the election was stolen, MAGA/QAnon people who wanted a revolution, and I'm sure there are more.
Seriously, reading this interview was like reading an academic paper in psychology breaking down psychiatric disorders within psychiatric disorders. How can anyone who doesn't track extremist groups for living keep track of any of this? Likewise, being a reporter or citizen observer in Charlottesville these days involves monitoring a dizzying array of separate, mostly online groups and individuals influencing the public debate on various issues. More often than not, what you read in the press or see on TV are stories about conflicts that have first erupted online.
You have to wonder: if the decision of one social media CEO to cancel trump's account - and others - is the solution to preventing divisive and dangerous public discourse, then maybe social media and the Internet is the problem. Should public officials not be allowed to have social media accounts? Should the Internet be a public utility? Reeve's comments about the Internet being a "brainwashing machine" are treated more as an aside here, as it is with much of the coverage of the events of last week in DC and in revisiting Charlottesville, but that's a pretty alarming observation that deserves a lot more attention.