Insurrection of the Digital Self

Shortly after the January 6 right-wing insurrection at the United States capitol building spurred on by then President Donald Trump, FBI agents came to the suburban home of Guy Reffitt in Wylie, Texas, and arrested him for being part of the mob. The person who had tipped off the FBI about Reffitt was his own son, 18-year old Jackson Reffitt.

When young Jackson was interviewed on CNN by Chris Cuomo after his father’s arrest, Jackson said he turned in his father because he thought it was the “right thing” to do. The young man explained that he thought that his father had become a danger to himself and others, including his own family, whom he threatened to shoot if they snitched on him. Unknown to his father, Jackson had already informed the FBI that his father had become dangerous. When Jackson was pressed by Chris Cuomo about whether the elder Reffitt had always been a conspiratorial extremist, the son said that he had not, but that he had changed in recent years, specifically the last four years.

What had happened in the previous four years was, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump, who was a fount of extremist and conspiratorial rantings. Jackson confirmed that this was part of what had happened with his father, saying that Trump “had manipulated him.”

But Jackson also mentioned another factor. He said that his father had become “more active on the internet.” He began talking about things that that went far beyond the personal and political rhetoric of Trump. The elder Reffitt said that this country is on “the end of times,” mirroring the apocalyptic language of the QAnon conspiracy movement.

Likely borrowing from the Christian Evangelical ideas of millenarian prophets, the QAnon ideas promoted a view of history that would culminate in President Trump’s second term of office. The anonymous person who calls him or herself Q began posting messages in 2017 claiming that the United States was controlled by an evil cabal of Satanic devil-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles involving liberal politicians and Hollywood celebrities. According to the conspiracy theory Donald Trump knew about this sinister regime and was sent as a messiah to abolish it. The theory concluded that the cabal would end shortly after Trump’s second inauguration in a catastrophic event known as “the storm,” when a military coup would take control and the evildoers would be banished to Guantanamo prison. Then the world would be at peace.

Hence to QAnon followers there was no way that Trump could lose the election—he was ordained to have a second term. Only the evil cabal could have prevented him from taking office and fulfilling his messianic duties. That is why the counting of ballots that would certify Joe Biden’s election had to be stopped. Faithful followers like Guy Reffitt felt called to duty. As he prepared to leave for Washington before that fateful day, his son said that he told his family, “I’m about to do something big.”

Conspiracy theories like those of QAnon and other far right extremist movements are able to spread like wildfire on the internet. They often begin on obscure message boards, such as 4chan, which was replaced by 8chan, which in turn has been rebranded as 8kun. These are the preferred outlets of Q’s messages to his or her followers. But the messages and the ideas contained in them are quickly repeated on more widely accessible formats, such as Facebook and Twitter. Trump has included QAnon related messages hundreds of times on his own Twitter account. By 2020 the numbers of followers of QAnon have been estimated to be in the millions.

As the size of the movement grew and the dangers of its messages became more obvious, social media has moved to limit its use of their platforms. The 4chan and 8chan sites were closed down. Facebook began cracking down on QAnon sites and messages. In July 2020 Twitter began to remove the accounts of 7000 QAnon-related groups and individuals, later expanding that to 150,000 such accounts. By August 2020 Facebook said it had taken down 1500 QAnon-related user groups that had a combined following of four million. In October of that year it banned all QAnon-related groups and material.

The QAnon messages and communication among adherents continue, however, on other platforms, notably on 8kun and Endchan. They have also migrated to the dark web, such as Tor, “the onion router,” which is an alternative to the world wide web that is familiar to most internet users. The onion router has multiple encryption layers that make it difficult for those posting or using the sites to be tracked. Though they limit the wide accessibility of the conspiracy ideas they allow for even more free expression among the true believers, thus strengthening the cult-like nature of the movement.

Could Jackson Reffitt’s father have been a QAnon loyalist? Quite possibility. Or he might have been a fellow traveler, one of many right-wing enthusiasts who accept some of the conspiratorial thinking as true. According to a Pew Foundation poll, some forty percent of registered Republicans think that Democratic politicians are covering up a pedophile ring and that Donald Trump was trying to combat it. Neither of those statements are true, but they are central to the QAnon message.

What this reveals is the power of social media to disseminate false information. But more important, it shows their power not only to spread the ideas, but also to do so in a way that limits alternative, more objective, views of reality. A recent video documentary aired on Netflex, The Social Dilemma, describes the tunnel-like vision that is created purposely by the algorithms of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They reinforce the users’ view of the world by identifying the kind of content they like, and then pushing similar content towards them and blocking alternative perspectives in an attempt to get the users to spend more time on their site. The goal of the social networks is to get more people to spend more time using the network and thus being susceptible to the advertising on it that monetizes their communication services.

While this may make good business sense in that it brings in a staggering flow of profits to Mark Zuckerberg and other owners of sites like Facebook and Twitter, it is not good for society. It enhances the trend towards what I have described elsewhere as the emergence of the digital self.

This digital self is new, in that it is a product of the digital age, especially the recent decade in which social media has become dominant, and is shaped by and responds to their power. The effect is to create three dangerous illusions.

The illusion of connectivity.

One is the illusion of connectivity. All of us who teach in a classroom experience the strange silence at the beginning of classes when students do not talk with one another but stare at their cell phones. They think they are connecting with others, and perhaps they are. But this kind of connectivity can be strangely alienating, a way of preventing the sustained social interactions that build friendship and trust. It can create a false sense connection without the hard work of really knowing others and creating authentic communities. One cartoon by Bizarro succinctly states the problem: a grieving widow looks over the empty audience prior to the funeral and says, “I expected more people—he had 2000 friends on Facebook.”

The illusion of wisdom.

There is also an illusion of knowledge created by the instantaneous availability of information on Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and all the other purveyors of information at our fingertips. Yet it is selective information. After all, we are the ones who decide what words or phrases to put into the Google search engine, and it is Google’s algorithms that determine what responses come up first. Facebook has a way of reading our minds, or at least determining our political, cultural, and consumer tastes, and adjusts the postings to our Facebook wall accordingly. In these ways the information that we get simply confirms and reinforces our own values and opinions. So in a curious way, all of this avalanche of information is filtered in a way that actually makes us less informed. At the same time it discourages us from exploring alternative points of view or honing analytic skills since we are led to believe we already know what there is to know.

The illusion of power.

This leads to the most dangerous of the illusions of the digital sense: a false sense of empowerment. With all these resources of information at one’s fingertips (even though it might be fake information), we have the illusion that we know as much or more than anyone else. This is empowering. It leads to a distrust of expertise and authority, and the rise of an “opinion culture,” where everyone’s opinion is equally valid.

This challenges the whole range of established authority, not just in academia, where we sense this mounting disrespect almost daily, but also in the social and political institutions that lead our societies. An outside politician like Trump has an appeal simply by virtue of not being part of an established political party. The same phenomenon is seen in the cultural sphere, where the rise of new religious movements and demagogic preachers are part of the anti-authoritarian mood of the global age of self-confident self-empowered individuals.

This self-confidence is illusory, since it is not based on any real power or is channeled through democratic process of social and political change. It is rebellion that has no hope of becoming a revolution, and is easily exploited by demagogues who pretend to represent the voices of the populace. The dark side of this illusion of power is anarchy, a devolution of social institutions that are felled by the rise of a deep distrust of authority based solely on one’s own imagined power.

The digital self of the global age, therefore, is lonely but widely connected, limited in understanding but able to access vast resources of knowledge, impotent in an ability to act but empowered with a brazen self-confidence. These illusions of connection, wisdom and power in the global era contribute to the profound dichotomies that have emerged in societies around the world. They lead to an absence of trust in any form of shared truth, and as Jackson Reffitt discovered, they can lead one’s own father to an insurrection.


Why the Capitol Assault was Terrorism

While the horrific scenes of the invasion and occupation of the US Capitol building were played out on television, I happened to be in a radio interview for my new book, God at War. The reporter asked if there were similarities between the Trump-incited rioters and the terrorists I have studied. I quickly responded “yes.”

Here’s why. Though it is true that the reasons for insurrections are different—supporters of the Islamic State are not the same as militant Buddhists in Myanmar, for example. Yet all the violent extra-legal acts of force aimed against public order that I have studied have some common features: symbolic empowerment, performance violence, and cosmic war.

Symbolic empowerment

            When MAGA-hat wearing rioters carrying confederate flags climbed through broken windows of the US Capitol, they were asserting that they rather than elected officials had the right to claim that space. Even more striking were pictures of a bare-chested protestor with a Viking hat sitting in the Speaker’s chair of the House of Representatives and a grinning rioter sitting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, his feet propped on her desk.

It is the same portrayal of power exhibited by Timothy McVeigh in destroying a federal building in Oklahoma City. A similar show of force was made by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in installing himself on the balcony of the most important mosque of the city of Mosul and proclaiming himself to be Caliph of the Islamic State. Similarly, acts of political assassination are frequent devices of terrorists since they not only remove a perceived enemy but also symbolically present themselves as more powerful than the leaders they kill.

These are symbolic demonstrations of power; but they are not real power. Within a couple hours the Capitol rioters were driven out of the Capitol. Before the end of the day of his attack, Timothy McVeigh was apprehended and brought to justice. Assassins are often killed on the spot. Al Baghdadi took longer to overcome, but eventually he and his ISIS were destroyed.

Yet in the moments they dominated the news and occupied public spaces, people without power asserted that they had it. In the case of ISIS, the movement appealed to the Sunni Arabs of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria who felt disenfranchised by the Shi’a dominated governments of Baghdad and Damascus. In the case of Trump’s stormtroopers who invaded the Capitol, many of them were white heterosexual Christians disturbed at the increasing multiculturalism of American society and the attempts to expand governmental power to provide welfare benefits to all. For a variety of reasons they felt alienated and humiliated in a new world order that seem to leave them behind. For a moment, however, sitting in the Speaker’s chair in the US Capitol, they imagined themselves to be in charge.

Performance violence 

The fact that the whole world was watching this assault on the US citadel of democracy was part of the point. The young bare-chested man with the Viking hat must have known that his picture was being taken and soon would be displayed on television and in newspapers and repeated on social media on the internet.

The intention of terrorism is to terrorize. It is those who witness acts of violence and are terrified by them who give definition to the term. Certainly the members of Congress who lay shaking on the floor of the House chambers felt the terror of the moment, as did all of us watching the moments from a distance on television. Without an audience, such intimidating displays of violence would not have any effect.

If the orders to march on the Capitol were given by Donald Trump in the evening and the agitators tramped down the street to occupy the building in the dead of night, it would not have been much of an issue. It is unlikely that television cameras would be there, and the lighting would have been insufficient. Trump and his followers chose the fullness of daytime, during a moment when all Senators and Representatives were meeting on the most fateful moment of the ascension of a new President, the ritual tallying of electoral votes that would proclaim Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as leaders of the new administration.

If terrorism is theater, then timing and staging are significant. And in this case the timing of the electoral vote tally was perfect and the Capitol stage set could not have been better. As soon as the reserve forces of police and the National Guard came to the Capitol with smoke bombs and strength in numbers, the drama was over. The actors—many of whom seemed appropriately costumed for militant theater—meekly left the stage.

It is a frequent characteristic of terrorist acts to choose a time and place of significance. Timothy McVeigh chose a date with various meanings, including the execution date of the leader of a Christian militant group with which McVeigh had some association. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon could not have had a more apt set of locations for an assault meant to show the vulnerability of America’s economic and military power. In a similar way the organizers of the Trump riot chose a date and place that maximized their attempts to portray a symbolic power to the whole nation, and beyond that, to the entire world. Fortunately, however, the symbols fade quickly and what remains is the image of a sad failed coup by what seemed to be a crazed mob.

Cosmic War

From the point of view of the activists engaged in the Capitol assault, however, there was nothing crazy about it. The one person who was killed by a Capitol policeman as she tried to climb on a ledge leading to the Speaker’s Lobby was a woman who had served with distinction in the US Air Force. According to the New York Times, she was wrapped in a Make America Great Again flag and shot as she tried to climb through a window that would have enabled her and other rioters to access the room where the members of the House of Representatives were sequestered.

The 35-year old woman, Ashli Babbitt, had flown to Washington from her home in San Diego at the behest of Donald Trump for his supporters to protest the electoral vote tally. She had served for twelve years, including being a security guard for US Air Force bases, and had risen to the rank of Senior Airman. Her husband, who did not come with her from San Diego, described her as an enthusiastic supporter of the President, but not emotionally unstable.

Like Timothy McVeigh, who had also served in the military—in his case, in the first conflict with Iraq, Desert Storm—Ashli Babbitt may have considered herself to be engaged in another military struggle. They may have seen themselves as warriors in a great mission, certain to be dangerous, likely to be violent, but justified by the nobility of its cause.

It may seem strange that what appear to be ordinary and sensible persons can be drawn into a situation where they commit the most hideous of violent acts. But this is precisely what the image of war allows. Warfare provides an alternative worldview to normal public order in which almost anything is permitted in order to conquer those perceived to be enemies. In warfare enemies are things with which you cannot reason or negotiate; they can only be destroyed.

Most wars are conducted for political purposes that are authorized by a state regime that is accountable to laws and the moral constraints of the people that support it. The great theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, reasoned that these forms of war are diluted versions of the most basic kind of war, absolute war, in which there can be no hostages or peace treaties. These wars are sometimes conducted not for political purposes but because they are perceived as protecting civilization itself, an existential war between good and evil, right and wrong. These are cosmic wars, in that they touch on a transcendent sense of moral and spiritual struggle. They are often therefore imbued with religious significance.

Most of the terrorist acts that I have studied are products of these cosmic wars. When I interviewed one of the jihadi activists associated with al Qaeda who was involved in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center he told me that he was not a terrorist, but a soldier. Though I didn’t recognize the army of which he was a part or see the battle that he imagined, they were real in his mind. He leaned over and whispered to me, “you don’t see it, Mr. Mark, but there’s a war going on, a battle of good and evil, religion and irreligion—and your government is the enemy.”

In a similar way Ashli Babbitt may have thought that there was a war going on, and that she was called to serve in it. Just as she did in the military, she took orders from her commander, and tried to faithfully execute them. At the Capitol on that fateful day she was able to be active in a real scene of battle in the way that her twelve years of military service as a security guard probably had not allowed her to do. In the struggle for control of the capitol, Ashli Babbitt was a soldier again. Though she broke laws and windows and eventually lost her life in the process, for a time she was a warrior in a great cosmic war.