OSIRIS Brief 0.24.0

A failed putsch in the US sets up a bonkers week in online society.

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Online Groups Fail at Real World Coup in the US

Readers may not realize the role online organizations played in the failed putsch. While some of the participants may have been naifs caught up in the moment, the primary groups involved were adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the “Proud Boys.” Jake Angeli emerged as a symbol of the attempted coup, when photographed dressed in a fur hat with buffalo horns carrying a spear, and calls himself a “QAnon Shaman.”

Both QAnon and the Proud Boys normally exist more online than in the real world and rely on online information. QAnon accepts the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is battling a group of high-ranking pedophiles for control of the US government. QAnon takes its name from “Q” the supposed high-ranking informant who publishes dispatches on 4 Chan. The Proud Boys are a far-right group who claim to be “western chauvinists” and who have emerged as prominent supporters of Pres. Trump.

The presence of the Proud Boys and QAnon at one of the most dramatic incidents of political violence in the US in recent memory may represent a turning point in their treatment. It is not clear how many people who stormed the Capitol were affiliated with these groups, as it is not even clear if they are an organization, but may not matter as it opens those groups to legal retaliation. It is one thing to espouse unpopular (and outright false) views online, and another to be associated with attempts to topple a government. In a forthcoming essay, I will explain how online groups that were involved in the D.C. insurrection are now more vulnerable because of their online activities.

Twitter and Facebook Ban Trump

Following the riot last Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump from their platform. Both companies argued their bans were because the President violated terms of service, and they were acting to prevent further violence. The social media platforms’ moves come after years of pressure on the two companies to deplatform the President. Twitter specifically played an important role in President Trump’s political success and the ban is likely to prove a major constraint on his freedom of action.

Unsurprisingly, the president and his allies decry the move as corporate censorship which it is, but which seems justified. Nonetheless, social media allowed the President to end-run checks on his power and institutional constraints intended to prevent the kinds of demagogic appeals enabling the attack on Congress. Unfortunately, both Facebook and Twitter would have been better off admitting that their actions were related to an attempt to overthrow the election. By couching the ban in terms of general “violence” the companies have opened themselves to criticism of unequally applying standards.

Apple and Google Ban Parler

Apple and Google have banned Twitter alternative Parler from their respective stores. A ban from the Apple store effectively removes an app from the platform, whereas Android users can install the app directly or through other stores. The apps ban comes in the wake of constraints on social media responding to the attack on the Capitol last Wednesday. Although not explicit, the ban may be an attempt to prevent President Trump from rebuilding his following on a new platform.

The Apple/Google ban on Parler may be a strategy with short-term gains but long term losses. Democrats control both houses of Congress, however narrowly, and have wanted companies to police online content more. Republicans are likely to return to power someday, and banning an app more popular with Republicans than Democrats for political reasons is unlikely to age well. Even if Republicans never return to power, banning an app for user-created content implies that both Apple and Google believe platform operators are responsible for user-created content.

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

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