There are at least two ways in which the newly approved Congressional Select Committee on the events of Jan. 6 might go about investigating the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on that day. One is to treat the assault as a one-off—an aberrant security breach in which thousands of people who supported former President Donald Trump stormed the seat of American democracy to protest the 2020 certification of election results that put President Joseph R. Biden in the White House. Another is to approach the mob violence that day as the culmination of a yearslong influence campaign involving some of Trump’s most powerful allies. Either way, the eventual findings of the soon-to-be-seated Congressional Select Committee will, no doubt, be controversial.
What matters now though is that the inquiry is comprehensive and that it is driven by evidence of who did what—and who failed to act and when. This evidence includes countless terabytes of digital data out there in cyberspace about the widespread information disorder that fanned the flames of insurrection that day. And no inquiry will be complete without scrutiny of the claims made by tech companies about what they did or did not do to tamp down roiling conspiracy theories, deal with disinformation and check the amplification of Trump’s false claims about election fraud.
Any way you slice it, the nearly straight party-line vote in favor of standing up the inquiry in the House of Representatives on Wednesday appeared to confirm what is already well known: America is and likely will continue to be far too divided over what happened on Jan. 6 to reach consensus on a shared narrative. That became obvious after Senate Republicans shot down a proposal in May to set up a bipartisan 9/11-style independent commission on the assault on Congress. It is perhaps not surprising that only two members of Trump’s Republican Party—Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—are already feeling the heat for their decision to vote with the Democratic majority in the House in favor of the select committee.
Much like the Republican-led House select committee on the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly Benghazi attack that left Christopher Stevens, America’s ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans dead in 2012, the outcome of the new select committee on Jan. 6 will have both practical and political consequences that will change the way Washington governs in the near and long term. In the same way former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House national security adviser Susan Rice paid a high price for their testimony during the hearings on Benghazi, it’s possible and even probable that Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and other Republican insiders will emerge as iconic anti-heroes when they give testimony about what they knew and when.
Committee hearings will also probably make or break the careers of several members of Congress and their aides on Capitol Hill. In the same way that responses to the hearings on Benghazi turned American embassies into impregnable fortresses, the House inquiry will most certainly lead to changes in how Congress prepares for the transfer of presidential power from one administration to the next. If we are lucky, one outcome might be that the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Department of Homeland Security will have to make it a matter of policy to produce regular intelligence reports on election-related threats and disinformation campaigns. If neither one of those things happens, heaven help us all come Jan. 6, 2024.
As it is, it seems almost inevitable that the House inquiry will stretch well into the start of campaigning for the 2022 midterm elections next year. That will make for very rough going for all 435 members of the House and the 34 senators whose seats will be up for grabs in a little less than 18 months. The committee’s work is bound to make for lots of election-shaping headlines. And with a thin Democratic majority in the Senate and House, the way the inquiry colors the midterm election results will in turn have real consequences for the final two years of Biden’s presidential term, with implications for America’s friends and foes abroad for years to come. London, Paris, Berlin and other G-7 and G-20 partners, if you’re listening: You may want to keep close tabs on the committee’s work. Things could get bumpy.
No inquiry will be complete without scrutinizing what tech companies did or did not do to tamp down roiling conspiracy theories and deal with disinformation.
It is too early to say where exactly the House inquiry into Jan. 6 will lead. Some things, though, are a foregone conclusion. If the select committee focuses strictly on the storming of the Capitol as a freak occurrence, it is likely to find that there was no singular point of failure. A recently released Senate report, in fact, laid the blame for the breach at the feet of the FBI for failing to adequately warn of the potential attack, and of the Capitol Police for failing to coordinate intelligence and prepare. A New York Times investigation published this week detailed minute by minute how local and federal law enforcement misfires led to two fatalities, multiple injuries and untold damage to the congressional grounds.
It would be a mistake, however, to just leave it there and confine the scope of the inquiry only to the immediate days and moments leading up to the breach. The bottom line is that it wasn’t intelligence failures or security lapses that caused thousands of Americans to confuse their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble with perceived special privileges endowed to them by either the color of their skin, religious ethos, conservative values, nativist impulses or all of the above. In fact, as plenty of online and offline evidence suggests, the yearslong, multifaceted efforts by Trump and his enablers to propagate conspiracy theories about the so-called deep state and profit from disinformation about “rigged elections” served as a long fuse on a political bomb—one that ultimately went off that cold winter day in Washington.
My colleagues and I at Arizona State University have spent months picking through the digital detritus of the Trump team’s efforts to soften the ground for insurrection by amplifying QAnon conspiracy theories and later selling the “Big Lie” about the 2020 elections to millions of Americans. After an in-depth look at how Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, leveraged the QAnon movement for personal and political advantage, it has become evident to us that tech companies—which first ignored and profited from the viral hate and falsehoods that bubbled up on their platforms, before decrying them as the crisis erupted—share a substantial part of the blame.
Congress would do well to demand answers from both mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as well as fringe platforms like Parler, Gab and BitChute about not just their policies on harmful content, but the methods employed by each for identifying, tagging and removing it. That means probing beyond specific cases of content takedowns to delve deep into both the automated and manual methods each uses to detect text, images and videos that might be objectionable. It means picking apart the logic and design of natural language-processing algorithms and looking at how bots and trolls typically operate on platforms. Hard questions also need to be asked and answered about the degree to which tech companies have the capacity and will to conduct long-term empirical studies on the design features of conspiracy-based online movements and counterfactual communities.
Lawmakers may want to consider, for instance, whether the Jan. 6 inquiry presents an opportunity to mandate that any firm that benefits from the material affordances and liberties granted under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should at minimum have sufficient means to regularly conduct qualitative and quantitative research on whether and how content takedowns work. At minimum, tech companies should be required to give a regular accounting of the effectiveness of their content moderation policies when it comes to critical institutional infrastructure like elections.
Failing that, and other moves to check information disorder online, we could face much worse when the 2024 presidential race kicks off in full a couple years from now.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.