Welcome back to our first issue of FWIW in 2021, which, before the seditious events ensued on Wednesday, was off to a great start. As a result of hard work on the ground and online by so many groups, record turnout among voters of color translated into Democrats sweeping the Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs, and with them, total control of the White House and Congress.
On Wednesday, our celebration immediately turned to dread as a violent mob, incited by the President and organized online, attempted to seize the Capitol in one of the darkest days in American history. We hope all of our readers, especially in DC, are safe and taking the time they need to recover from this week’s national trauma.
This is a newsletter that covers the intersection of the online information wars and our politics, and there were so many aspects of this week that were directly related to what is happening online. In today’s issue, we’ll share what we saw, as well as remind readers about what happened in Georgia as a roadmap and reason to have hope for what lies ahead, which we need now more than ever.
THE COUP ATTEMPT WAS ORGANIZED ONLINE
The groundwork that culminated in the events of this week were laid a long time ago and were actively seeded, supported and commended by the President and his allies.
Back in May (if not earlier), President Trump began to plant seeds among his base about the prospect of a “rigged” election, that he continued to reinforce near daily these past long months. One of the most notable precursors of this violence came days before the November election, when Trump supporters in pickup trucks terrorized a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway just before the election. Trump defended them, and Sen. Marco Rubio praised them.
Just three days ago, Rep. Chip Roy went on Fox News to warn that America would enter “full-scale hot conflict” if Democrats flipped the Senate. Rep. Jody Hice called Wednesday’s ceremonial proceedings “our 1776 moment” on Instagram. And this September tweet from Rep. Thomas Massie wasn’t exactly promoting a peaceful transfer of power:
Their reckless and repetitive signaling to Trump’s increasingly violent base only gave them further permission to take their crusade offline and translate it into action on-the-ground. Some insurrectionists called this week’s event their “Wild Protest” after a December Trump tweet. Hundreds of thousands of posts on Parler used hashtags connected to violent intent. The man who desecrated the Speaker’s Office posted on Facebook beforehand that he was ready to die violently in his attempt. Users of the r/The_Donald substitute website clearly took the Republicans’ dog whistling literally and seriously:
The militaristic rhetoric from the president, his campaign, and his enablers was supported by the loudest far-right mouthpieces on Facebook and elsewhere. Stephen Crowder has been calling followers to arms for weeks. Diamond & Silk (aka “tremendously valued supporters of President Trump”) called on their followers to “stand up and fight for Trump” on Christmas Eve. Alex Jones claimed to have had the White House’s blessing to storm the Capitol. And Charlie Kirk has been making Facebook content for weeks that wink and nod toward violence on January 6th. His page has 1.8 million followers, and just these three videos got nearly a million views in total according to CrowdTangle.
We now know that the insurrectionists have, at the least, 138 allies in Congress who are happy to indulge the president’s violence and end American democracy as we know it. More troubling, though, is that they have two QAnon champions in newly-elected Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, the latter of whom almost immediately ran into trouble with DC law enforcement for bragging online about bringing a glock to Congress.
This crisis of division and seditious acts will not end with Trump’s presidency – and the President is unfortunately right – this is likely only a foreshadow of the coming months and years. Though we knew this day could (and very likely would) come, how we move forward must start with broad recognition and understanding of the very lethal threats the online disinformation ecosystem poses to our institutions and society. Progressives need to understand exactly what we’re dealing with here if we have any hope of empowering voters who want good governance and respond appropriately.
TEMPORARY RADIO SILENCE 🤐
One thing’s for certain – the key to solving this fundamental problem we face in our politics lies in no small part with the big tech platforms themselves.
These steps, while unprecedented for @Jack and Mark Zuckerberg, left many of us wondering why they weren’t taken years ago since widespread calls for these actions are not new. Will they take similar actionagainst lesser known accounts and right-wing media pages that contributed to Wednesday’s violence? How will platforms like Facebook alter their fundamental algorithms and products that feed on emotional engagement and inflammatory content?
There is no question the platforms had a seismic role to play in Wednesday’s events, and some in Congress are ready to hold them accountable. Now that Democrats are in control, that type of action is more likely than previously thought.
A REASON FOR HOPE
On January 5th, Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, giving Democrats the slimmest possible majority in the Senate – and full control of Washington. With Mitch McConnell soon to be relegated to Minority Leader status, President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda has vastly more possibilities, from reigning in big tech, passing Democracy reform, confirming progressive judges to the federal judiciary, and so so so much more.
The digital teams on the two Democratic campaigns deserve all the praise they’re getting and more. In a previous issue of FWIW, we covered how quickly both campaigns were scaling up their digital operations on practically every platform, as indicated by their explosive social footprint growth and Team Ossoff going all-in on the reaching youth vote (while Team Warnock was actually the biggest spender on Snapchat after 11/3).
Of course, as excellent as the two campaigns were, their success wouldn’t have been possible without the groups on the ground who have put in the work for years. Groups like Fair Fight Action, Black Voters Matter, The New Georgia Project, Mijente, Progress Georgia, and others were critical to expanding Georgia’s electorate and bringing the Peach State closer to fully realizing its democratic promise.
We’re also proud to have played a role ourselves in the runoff elections through our nonpartisan People’s Power Grab program, which sought to empower BIPOC, young people, and infrequent voters in those groups. By January 5th, the campaign spent over $1.2 million reaching nearly 2.4 million Georgians, over 482,000 of whom voted early in the runoffs.
And finally, FWIW, here is the final online ad spending data on the major platforms in the runoff: