How the Internet Makes Insurrection Harder

The internet makes it easier to catch people who participate in insurrections.

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Insurrectionists storming the US capitol attempting to overturn the election was a singular event and has dominated attention for nearly a week now. Unfortunately, this particular insurrection is relevant to my research on terrorism. It appears that many of the people involved in the attempted coup were sincere believers in the online conspiracy theory known as “QAnon.” While the internet enabled Q and his(?) followers to create a somewhat cohesive group, the internet will enable law enforcement to track down people involved.

The Internet Did Not Help Al-Qa’ida Survive

Online conspiracies are like the transnational terrorism I studied in my article “Why the Internet is Not Increasing Terrorism.” Al-Qa’ida was both an ideology and a pre-internet conspiracy theory, but with similar characteristics to online conspiracy theories. While al-Qa’ida’s belief system is based on Wahhabist Islam, al-Qa’ida’s central belief that current Muslim affairs are dominated by a corrupt cabal, including Arab leaders, with the US at the head. Osama bin Laden created a massive transnational terror network by metaphorically parachuting in and recruiting individuals and small groups to his cause to oppose the US. Once the internet came along, it seemed like a natural fit for al-Qa’ida, because it could allow similar dynamics online. The internet turned out to be part of al-Qa’ida’s undoing.

While online fora allow al-Qa’ida’s message to spread more rapidly, it also allows surveillance and counter-terrorism operations to track potential terrorists. When terrorists communicate online, outsiders can see what they are doing. Terrorists take precautions, of course, but online it is hard to tell who you are talking to. There are security vulnerabilities like those documented in this publication, and law enforcement is adept at exploiting those vulnerabilities. Retreating to secure forms of communication like Telegram or Signal increases communications security, but at the expense of a reach to potential participants.

Online terrorists have no real-world safe haven to hide in. Locally support for terrorists helps terrorists or insurgents to hide from government enforcement. Both transnational terrorists and online conspiracy theories develop without the protection of a local community. Consequently, the local community is happy to inform on their terrorist neighbors. It is one thing to be waging a war against an unpopular or outsider government in a neighborhood in Beirut, Dublin, or Baghdad, but it is another thing all together to be fighting from the “Shady Acres” sub-division when many of your neighbors work for that government!

Al-Qa’ida moved online, but couldn’t survive the move. While there are still organizations that espouse al-Qa’ida’s objectives, al-Qa’ida’s global network no longer meaningfully exists. There are groups around the world fighting to establish the Caliphate, and expel US influence in the region, but they are fighting local battles. The threat from independent actors is real, but substantially different from a coordinated central group, collecting and distributing resources around the world. Unsurprisingly, people in Germany, Indonesia, or India don’t want neighbors trying to wage war on the US next door.

The internet Will Probably Undermine QAnon, Now

The internet will likely be the downfall of QAnon and groups behind the storming of the US Capitol. QAnon operates exclusively online. Evidence indicates that QAnon adherents mostly participate online, instead of in their real-world communities. Neighbors and family members may not be aware that their friends and family are QAnon adherents. Tragically, it seems the family of the woman who was shot and killed at the Capitol was apparently surprised by her participation in the protest. While lacking a local base has allowed QAnon to spread far and wide, it also means it has no shelter if the tide ever turns.

On January 6, the QAnon conspiracy theory and the “Stop the Steal” protests transformed from a kooky conspiracy theory to a legitimate threat to the republic. This is not to say that everyone who subscribes to those ideas is a threat to the US, democracy, or free government. Indeed, even most Wahhabists who may have broadly agreed with Osama bin Laden or al-Qa’ida on religion, would not take up arms or commit crimes. Nonetheless, an attack on the Capitol was a real-world, serious effect created by some people trafficking in this conspiracy theory, and the US government and political system will react accordingly.

If there is anything to be grateful for in this whole debacle, it is that so few people died and the inflection point is obvious. Jake Angeli did us all a favor by drawing a clear contrast between himself and other political activism. We’ve already seen a change in tone from Republicans who toyed with foolishness, and the political consequences are yet to fully fall out.

Once QAnon drew blood, the internet becomes QAnon’s weakness. An advantage of living in a free society is that people post a lot about themselves because they don’t fear repercussions. Many of the insurrectionists were essentially live-streaming their crimes. The FBI has set up a website and is soliciting public assistance to identify people involved. Many involved have already been arrested. Online information makes it possible that in one year we will know every person’s name who illegally entered the Capitol.

What Should We Do?

I am Not A Lawyer! If you are implicated in something, you might want to get yourself a lawyer.

If you have information about someone or something related to what happened in DC, you should contact law enforcement. While I understand the impulse to shame people online, the proper response to a mob is not to create another mob. Law enforcement will handle the issue appropriately, and people will have their day in court, as they should. I do not know what was happening on the ground, and—unless you were there—neither do you. A court can, and will, take into account mitigating circumstances and meet out appropriate punishment, in a way a mob will not.

At a personal level, I recommend being as humane as possible to those involved. We should not understate the seriousness of what happened at the Capitol, and we must uphold the law for our own sake. At the social and personal level, however, there should be room for humanity, and the best among us should find a way to help people find their way back. After all, these people are our countrywomen and men, many of whom legitimately believed they were doing something right. The country and polity might benefit by directing such energy in legal and productive directions.

David Benson is a Professor of Strategy and National Security focusing on cyberstrategy and international relations. You can reach him at

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