Faculty and researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy said the role of digital platforms in catalyzing the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol Wednesday exposed an acute need for media accountability.
The rioters used digital platforms including Parler, Telegram, and a pro-Trump website named TheDonald, among others, to plan the events Wednesday afternoon, which left four dead and scores arrested.
Following the Capitol storming, both Facebook and Twitter locked President Donald J. Trump’s accounts — with Facebook’s ban lasting at least for the rest of his presidency and Twitter’s for 12 hours. Three of Trump’s tweets marked “repeated and severe violations” of the company’s Civic Integrity policy, according to a post by Twitter Safety.
Nancy R. Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center and former editor-in-chief of TIME Magazine, wrote in an email that media-driven misinformation played a significant role in catalyzing Wednesday’s events.
“Millions of Americans sincerely believe that an election was stolen, because they’ve heard this from the sources they trust,” she wrote. “There’s a direct line from that deception to the destruction we saw at the Capitol, where radical factions could fashion themselves as freedom fighters because the President was calling them patriots.”
Others at the Center said the inconsistent regulatory policies of major media companies like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook made possible the escalation of political discourse to tangible violence. Since the election, Trump has used his social media platforms to amplify his baseless claims of voter fraud.
Gabrielle Lim, a researcher at the Center, said media companies’ recent push to regulate Trump’s rhetoric “comes too little, too late.”
“Trump has broken a lot of the norms and terms of policies prior to this already, and so the question is — why now? Why after massive unrest and violence are the platforms doing something now?” she said. “My personal take on it right now is that it’s more to do with politics and optics than it does with their actual policies.”
Joan Donovan, who serves as the Center’s Research Director, said media companies should have acted swiftly to prevent misinformation about election fraud from spilling into real-world harm.
“These companies should have taken incremental action before we got to this point, to remove people that were pushing election disinformation so that the chorus didn’t get so loud,” she said. “Because there had been no repercussions for so many people, these groups were allowed to continue to lay out the case for insurrection, lay out the case for pulling a coup, storming the Capitol.”
Emily R. Dreyfuss, a senior editor at the Center’s Technology and Social Change Project, expressed frustration with law enforcement officials’ claims that there was no substantiated evidence to predict Wednesday’s pro-Trump rampage.
“This entire event yesterday was planned in the open on social networks that anyone had access to look at. Our team had been reading these posts, we anticipated this. We were not alone — journalists, and researchers, and, frankly, casual observers of social media saw this coming and saw the posts planning it,” she said.
Shorenstein Center senior researcher Robert M. Faris added that research conducted by the Center suggests media in the United States is “not only polarized, but asymmetrically polarized.”
“Compared to media systems on the center and the left — that are grounded in the standards and practices of objective journalism — the right is more partisan,” he said. “It’s the partisan roots of conservative media that drive what we’ve termed the propaganda feedback loop, where political leaders and partisan media and partisan audiences share, amplify, and perpetuate false narratives.”
Natascha Chtena, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center and editor-in-chief of the Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review, underscored the importance of discussing misinformation in the context of broader societal issues.
“I’m a little concerned that we’re losing sight of the fact that white supremacy, white fragility, and white privilege are also very much at the heart of what’s happening. And that is an issue that goes back way before misinformation was even part of the conversation,” she said.
Miriam T. Aschkenasy, program director for the Center’s Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project, added that the stark contrast between law enforcement’s treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters during the summer’s racial justice protests and Wednesday’s pro-Trump mob sheds light on the persisting issue of systemic racism.
“This is a perfect example of what structural racism looks like, that led us to this moment — one group is peacefully protesting, and they are surrounded by guns and military and treated as less than,” she said. In contrast, she said, law enforcement made a “completely insufficient response” to the pro-Trump mob.
Dreyfuss said it is too early to tell whether Wednesday’s events mark “the end of a very crazy era” or “the beginning of something scarier for the political landscape, the media landscape, and the information landscape.”
“What happened yesterday will be a defining moment for this generation of media creators and observers,” Dreyfuss said. “That’s the question that we are all asking ourselves now. And it remains to be seen in what direction it will go.”
—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.