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2020 ElectionCOVID-19FeaturesInsurrectionNews and informationPolitical AnalysisViolence

Web of Hate: Investigate, or Obfuscate?

This week, the House’s select committee to investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol formally launched. At this hearing, four of the police officers who had to fight against the insurrectionists went into harrowing detail on what happened in the seat of our government.

And yet, despite the damning testimony from that hearing, we must ask – Do enough Americans even give a damn? As we investigate and search for answers to this question, we must once more delve into the deepest and darkest corners of the internet to see how easy it really is to distort the truth and dunk on democracy.

WARNING: This story includes graphic descriptions of violent terrorism. Reader discretion is advised.
Once more, we must remember: This did not “come out of nowhere”. The evidence was already going viral on social media.

For over a month, we’ve been tracking the cruel consequences of the Influencer Infodemic we live in: COVID-19 infections continue to spike across the nation despite the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines that have so far proven to be highly effective at reducing viral load and protecting against severe disease. Yet despite the evidence that I and many more web sleuths have discovered, investigated, and publicly warned about for over a year, President Joe Biden and his administration only began to unveil a dedicated strategy to combat COVID-19 disinformation earlier this month. Meanwhile some congressional Democrats are pushing legislation to weaken Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to open “Big Tech” social media operators to potential lawsuits over health disinformation, but it’s a real head-scratcher trying to figure out how new SLAPP and libel lawsuits would turn Americans away from COVID-19 disinformation.

I fear we’re witnessing a similar and very related story unfold over the ongoing fallout from January 6, former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential election, and America’s waning faith in our own democracy. As I warned on the day before the attack, “We must take account of all that’s gone wrong in order to know how we can make it right. […] As we’re all witnessing in Georgia, here in Nevada, on TV, and all over the internet, we can’t even count on a simple vote count being accepted as such, and that’s a real problem.”

Of course, I’m not a psychic. I never specifically envisioned the January 6 Attack before it happened. However I did pay close attention to the growing chorus of online disinformation that permeated from extremist echo chambers like 8chan/8kun and Parler to mainstream platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and I’ve been tracking the growth of fascist militia movements (including their gradual integration into the Republican Party) for over seven years. This did not “come out of nowhere”. This has been visible on our computer and smartphone screens the whole damned time.

“There was an attack carried out on January 6, and a hit man sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that.” 
– Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, during testimony to Congress on July 27

On Tuesday, the U.S. House’s select committee to investigate the January 6 Attack held their inaugural hearing and heard from the D.C. Metro Police and Capitol Police officers who had to fight against the terrorists who attempted to stop Congress’ official acceptance of the election results. Throughout the hearing, the officers debunked Trump’s and the QAnon movement’s lies about the attack, including the lie that Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists incited the violence, the lie that the fascist militia insurgents and QAnon believers who stormed the Capitol were a “loving crowd” of “tourists”, the lie that Trump’s own incendiary rhetoric had no effect on the insurrectionists who ultimately chose violence, and the “Big Lie” that the attempt to destroy our entire Constitution-based representative democracy was somehow an exercise in “law and order”.

In one particularly damning moment, Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn explained what happened when he tried to restore “law and order” when the terrorists invaded: “I told them to just leave the Capitol, and in response they yelled, ‘No man, this is our house. President Trump invited us here. We’re here to stop the steal.'”

Throughout the hearing, D.C. Metro Police Officer Daniel Hodges labeled the terrorists as such. In another remarkably damning moment, Hodges described in chilling detail the terror inside the Capitol on January 6: “A man attempted to rip the baton from my hands, and we wrestled for control. I retained my weapon. After I pushed him back, he yelled at me, ‘You’re on the wrong team!’ […] Another takes a different tactic, shouting, ‘you will die on your knees!'” And when Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell described how the terrorists were anything but “loving” toward him and his fellow officers, he said about Trump, “It’s a pathetic excuse for his behavior, for something that he himself helped create. […] I’m still recovering from those ‘hugs and kisses’ from that day.”

At the tail end of the hearing, Dunn spoke like a true “good cop” when he asked the members of Congress on that committee to do their job: “There was an attack carried out on January 6, and a hit man sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that.”

“I was at risk of being stripped of and killed with my own firearm, as I heard chants of ‘kill him with his own gun.’ I can still hear those words in my head today.” 
– D.C. Metro Police Officer Michael Fanone, during testimony to Congress on July 27

Perhaps in a different world, in a different time, and in a remarkably different country, the officers’ testimony would be broadly accepted as legitimate firsthand accounts of what actually happened. Yet just days before the hearing, progressive media analyst Matt Dimitri noted how a January 6 YouTube livestream from the “dirtbag leftist” haunt The Grayzone continues to collect views, even as the video includes blatant disinformation about the nature and severity of the attack, and even as multiple “journalists” in the video praised the attack as a just “occupation”. In addition, I noticed that The Grayzone’s YouTube channel includes multiple indirect links to their Patreon pages. Even if The Grayzone is not part of YouTube’s monetization program, Alphabet/Google still allows them to essentially use their YouTube account to spread anti-democracy propaganda and direct people to their paid subscription Patreon pages.

The same day of the committee hearing, the popular “populist” livestreamers/podcasters Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti claimed on their Breaking Points show that the House’s January 6 investigation is “pointless”, that the January 6 Attack was really just an outpouring of “economic anxiety“, and then pivoted to an eye-popping argument on the strength of Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. Think about it: How “populist” and “anti-establishment” is tacit support for the embodiment of the corrupt establishment ruling class‘ attempt to overthrow the actual vote of the people? In case you were wondering, Breaking Points has already begun to top the podcast charts, it’s easy to find on the “Big Tech” social media platforms, and they utilize their “Big Tech” social media clout to promote their new subscription model.

And yes, of course, Fox News’ star polemicist Tucker Carlson viciously mocked the police officers, including D.C. Metro Police Officer Michael Fanone after he explained how he suffered a heart attack after the terrorists nearly beat him to death. In case anyone still wonders why I have zero patience for media pundits who navel-gaze over fascists like Carlson attacking the Black Lives Matter movement and activists’ calls to “Defund the Police”, here is Exhibit A. 

Also, note how these pro-coup memes and “hot takeshave spread far beyond the stereotypical realms of Fox News and far-right talk radio. As I’ve been warning for years, the Influencer Infodemic stretches far beyond the areas where we most expect Trump devotees to gather. Also, this Infodemic doesn’t start or end at Fox News. In fact, it reaches much closer to home than most Americans want to believe.

If we really want to investigate the breadth and depth of fascist extremist movements, we must examine our own backyard.

Back in April and May, we examined the curious case of Nevada Republicans not only forsaking one of their own, but actually attacking the one remaining statewide elected official who was elected as a Republican: Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske. Even though Cegavske compiled a solidly conservative record during her time in the Nevada Legislature, and even though Cegavske didn’t always have the best relationship with Nevada Democrats as they sought to protect and expand Nevadans’ voting rights, the Nevada Republican Party nonetheless censured Cegavske in April for her refusal to endorse Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and his attempt to stay in power despite losing the election.

In our May story, we noted how State Senator Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and other “mainstream conservatives” were trying to fend off the Proud Boys’ effort to seize full control of the Clark County Republican Party, even as Buck and her “mainstream conservative” allies continued to endorse the same Trumpian “Big Lies” that the Proud Boys and other fascist groups use to justify their crusades, and even as Buck and other “mainstream conservatives” abandoned Barbara Cegavske in her increasingly lonely fight against the insurrectionists who seek to kick Cegavske out of her own party.

Let’s fast forward to this month – The Clark County GOP again delayed their leadership election amidst ongoing threats from local Proud Boys. Despite Republican Party leaders’ frequent denunciations of “gun-free zones” and gun violence prevention policies in general, Clark GOP leaders specifically chose a Clark County School District (CCSD) campus for their last meeting because of CCSD’s restrictions against guns on campus. Even when we set aside their glaring hypocrisy on gun safety, we still have this other glaring disparity between the “mainstream conservative” party leaders’ frank warnings about the Proud Boys’ intra-party crusade and their willingness to protect the very “Big Lies” at the foundation of the Proud Boys’ crusade. Meanwhile the long-time Nevada Republican Party Chair and his allies set up a PAC and overall fundraising system involving local Proud Boys, and this just quietly became part of the Nevada GOP’s “new normal”.

Last month, we noted the entry of professional boxer turned reality TV star turned lawyer turned insurrectionist and one man COVID-19 disinformation machine Joey Gilbert (R) into next year’s gubernatorial election. In a different era, it would be easy to dismiss Gilbert’s campaign as “vanity”, “crackpot”, and “fringe”. But when even “mainstream conservatives” like Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo (R) and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee (R) try to outflank Joey Gilbert in areas like COVID-19 denial, attacking racial justice activism, and rewriting history on the 2020 election and the January 6 Attack, it increasingly looks like Gilbert and his fellow extremists are landing lasting blows in the Republican primary regardless of how far his own campaign ultimately goes.

“A ‘balanced’ treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.” 
– Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, in an April 27, 2012, Washington Post op-ed
Photo by Andrew Davey

Despite the four police officers’ testimony to the House’s select committee to investigate the January 6 Attack, House Republican leaders quickly declared this hearing a “sham” and “political charade”. They even proceeded to spread baseless conspiracy theories about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), and several of their members expressed support for punishing Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) for joining this committee. Just as top Nevada Republicans preferred to attack Barbara Cegavske rather than investigate and crack down on fascist militants who seek to infiltrate their ranks, these House Republicans don’t seem to care about the assault on their own workplace and colleagues.

Nine years ago this week, I noticed a Washington Post op-ed from American political scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann that warned journalists to call this crisis what it is: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.” Looking back nine years later, their warning feels quite poignantly prescient. 

Note that neither they nor I have any interest in claiming that no Democrats can ever do anything wrong. Rather, I fear that far too many Democrats and Republicans in power are not treating this crisis like the existential threat that it is. When big chunks of the country continue to dry up and catch fire, when Americans remain at risk from an increasingly preventable viral disease, when a growing number of Americans must worry about the rapid infringement on what’s supposed to be their sacred right to vote, and when the clock is ticking towards yet another arbitrary debt ceiling deadline, the White House and a group of Senators are focusing on a “Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal” that may include some funding for long overdue infrastructure investment, but nonetheless won’t solve any of the above mentioned crises on its own (if at all)?

Yes, there’s plenty about and surrounding the January 6 Attack for Congress to investigate. But if they really want to save American democracy, they actually need to act.

Anti-democracy disinformation continues to reach far beyond a few select right-wing echo chambers. Just this week, the notorious far-right friendly podcaster Joe Rogan invited “dirtbag leftist” livestreamer Jimmy Dore onto his show, where Rogan and Dore both indulged in COVID-19 disinformation and spoke lovingly of the fascist Boogaloo Boys who participated in the January 6 Attack. Rogan’s show is now backed by Spotify, and Dore’s pro-insurrection revisionist history can readily be found on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. 

When we see questions on how the U.S. government will use its regulatory authority to address a few “Big Tech” companies’ control over so much of what’s supposed to be our online public space, we find proposals to revive SLAPP/libel lawsuits that “Big Tech” companies can afford to fight in court. When we wonder why so many major media figures give anti-democracy/pro-authoritarian such flattering “soft focus” treatment, we see how much clout they amass on certain “Big Tech” run social media platforms where their algorithms reward “controversy” that boosts “engagement”. When we ask why so many Americans are losing faith in our democracy, we see so many of the people they elect to government struggle to explain what they’re doing to defend our democracy from all enemies foreign and domestic.

Photo by Andrew Davey

At least the House has begun to formally investigate the January 6 Attack, but there’s so much more that Congress should investigate. There’s also so much more that doesn’t need as much investigation. Ultimately, they need to take action.

If you or someone you know is facing a major life crisis and struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always there at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). So is the Crisis Text Linewhere you can start a conversation with a volunteer counselor by texting “START” to 741741. And for LGBTQ+ youth in need of immediate help, the Trevor Project has a 24/7 hotline at 1-866-488-7386 and a text option (text “START” to 678678) available.

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