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The first phygital coup
Twitter is really, really real life
Ranjan here. Today I’m writing about how a lot of the absurd visuals from the invasion of the Capitol were, rather than jokes, a very 2021 version of modern warfare. Also to note, I hate the word phygital, which travels in thought leader-y circles as the confluence of our physical and digital worlds, but it kinda fits here. Please recommend any better terms to describe that concept.
On Wednesday evening, my wife and I were sitting side-by-side on the couch while our two kids played in front of us, but one thing was different: CNN was on. If CNN is on in our household, either it's an election night, or something really, really bad is happening.
We were a couple of hours into the invasion of the Capitol and I was furiously scrolling Twitter while the voice of some Wolf or Don or S.E emanated from the background. I really think it's just a force of habit to turn on CNN during a major breaking news story. At some point, my wife turned to me and asked me to check the copy of an email their team was sending (everyone should marry a content strategist!) and, of course, I started reading. While reading, I looked up at the TV and had an almost surreal moment of wondering: was I really checking email copy while our nation was literally under attack?
Were we under attack? Was it an invasion? Were these rioters? Were they protesters? Was this a seminal moment in the American story, or yet just another odd Trumpian burp? You constantly heard the confusion in the voices of every broadcaster.
It felt insane to just be sitting there and doing work while our nation's capital was under invasion. My wife commented it was just hard to process what was happening, that it all looked like a TV show, and I mean, this picture. This is a TV show.
How will this be explained in the history books? Was the Capitol ever occupied or was it all some stunt? I'm not naive enough to think if everyone invading looked like me, we would have a very clear answer to that, but still, why was this so hard to process?
There's been plenty of debate over "was this a coup?" (and seriously, can you all stop with the coup d'etat region of France joke, it was good but you killed it!) The best thread I saw on this outlined how we are entering a very different blend of authoritarianism than the traditional, cold-war era frameworks we’re conditioned for.
I'll leave the coup studies to the coupstorians, but in the realm of technology, social platforms, and media, I do think this was a watershed moment of sorts. This was the moment our digital and physical worlds completely collided, resulting in this historic, absurdist, deadly outcome. It’s a Reddit meme transmogrified into a shirtless, tatted up bro with a furry, horned hat violently occupying one of the most powerful physical spaces in the entire world. This is uncharted territory, but it’s not at all without prediction. We’ve been barreling to that moment for a few years now. This newsletter, among so many other voices, has been screaming that the joke was no longer a joke. This is now on the front page of every newspaper in the world.
This is reality TV, but this is also warfare. There is no longer any distinction. I wrote a while back about how reality TV won and that everything had been Kardashianized. Power now comes from holding attention. Whether you’re creating a billion-dollar cosmetics line, starting a coding school, or becoming President, as long as the dominant distribution forms of information are driven by ad-based algorithms, the loudest, craziest, weirdest voices will win. Outlandish performance is central to any outcome.
History has witnessed plenty of mobs commandeering political targets, but, at least as far as I'm aware, they didn't typically feature memesters like the QAnon Shaman. But this is undeniably warfare. It’s a widespread movement with the very specific goal of overturning the election results. They are pushing a specific political agenda through the use of force. That part really is not complicated, so why was there any debate about what this was (other than, yeah, they were white). What’s confusing is this coup/insurrection/invasion/attack just didn’t look like what we are used to.
The Capitol was invaded and it was certainly occupied. However, after a few hours, most people left peacefully. There was no plan to really hold the Capitol, yet, five people really died. What was the point of all this?
Again, I'll leave the war studies to the war students but just think of all the images you see nowadays in any given conflagration: phones and DSLRs out, and an endless stream of photos and livestreams. The performative element is now part of the strategy. The idea of some salty, old general in fatigues, chewing on a cigar, looking over a rolled out map, pointing to a target saying "send our best influencers here" might feel preposterous, but war has certainly always had an informational and cultural element to it - last Wednesday was just the next evolution.
There was a great Buzzfeed piece, The Pro-Trump Mob Was Doing It For The ’Gram:
But if the stardom is the reward, what of their revolution? Don’t they have work to do, a vote to stop? For many in the mob that showed up in DC, the posing is the work. They have been so influenced by experiencing the world on social media that when they go out into physical space they seemingly think foremost of this, a revolution as a branding exercise — the photos of the QAnon Shaman, the photos of the vaping rioter, the photos of the man with his feet on Pelosi’s desk, the ricochet in the far-right internet as proof of victory. Yes, there is no power to be found in simply standing at the dais of the Senate. It is meaningless. It draws its power from the symbolism it conjures: Interrupt the vote to own the libs.
But I’d argue that there is power. This did tremendously further the movement. It’s very much worth remembering, for every QAnon Shaman, there were plenty of highly tactical, militarized people taking part that very much fulfilled our traditional notion of soldier or combatant.
The prevalent attitude of casting off this event as a bunch of idiots is wrong. I’ve seen some funny hashtags like #Nutzis and #CoupClutzKlan but this is serious. There was most likely not any centralized I can’t imagine a more perfect outcome for the Trumpist movement. They got on every front page. Everyone across the world was thinking and talking about them, the single most outcome currency in our age. The universal reaction still seemed to be that they did it for the lulz, but what that misses is, that hold of attention is now part of the battle. Watching news anchors fumble between “rioter” “protestor” “insurrectionist” reminded me we’re all disoriented, and in the world of online misinformation warfare, disorientation is always the first step:
Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.
There's been a corollary long-running, related debate "Is Twitter real life?" - are the things we say and thoughts we think while scrolling our feeds "real". Is a nasty Facebook comment as bad as yelling in someone's face? I argued (while comparing Twitter to porn):
Social media is not real life, until it is.
The argument was that our real lives were increasingly becoming influenced, or even intertwined with our digital lives. The line was increasingly blurred:
But the more we turn to algorithmic feeds built by companies drowning in advertising profits to help us shape our understanding of reality, the more those feeds become our reality. The more the porn-like outliers become real. We get Trump and rainbow bagels. We get the year 2020. Remember when it suddenly felt like everything was getting crazier and things were moving faster.
Things really are moving faster and getting crazier. At least I think they are.
Right there, at the end of that piece, the confusion I'm trying to communicate is what I'm still feeling now. But the more our digital and physical lives converge, the more disorienting things will continue to be. It's long been socially acceptable to caps lock, rage-type profanities as a Facebook reply, but yelling at someone in the street is still not good. How do we manage this collision of our online and offline lives and prevent future explosions?
Last Wednesday felt like a breaking point where the weirdness of online life finally found its way onto the front page of every newspaper around the world and people lost their real, physical lives. The speed at which digital life coalesced with physical life was staggering. Just look at the waning minutes of the invasion as Congress reconvened. One sketchy online tweet ‘showing the shaman guy at BLM protests’ went absolutely viral and allowed Matt Gaetz to speak in the offline House of Representatives about how the invasion was led by Antifa. Even the likes of Brit Hume “asked questions” about leftist infiltrators while a Washington Times article (that is now also deleted) claimed there was some facial recognition company that identified Antifa people involved. Both that viral tweet and viral article are now disappeared from the internet, yet they did their job. They injected confusion. This is modern warfare.
And it's on us to recognize this is the nature of everything going forward. We need people in charge that are cognizant of this and take full responsibility for guiding us into this confluence because shit is going to get a lot, lot weirder, and we need everyone to start figuring out exactly how we’re going to handle this (yes, that is for a followup post).
Note 1: The word Phygital used in the subject line is this absolutely awful word that circulates in the consulting and marketing worlds, usually alongside things like omnichannel, to describe the convergence of the physical and digital worlds. If we’re going to all make it to the other side, I implore us all to come up with a much, much better word to describe that melding. “Phygital” deserves to die
Note 2: This ITV segment was circulating a good deal, and there's one piece I can't stop thinking about. When the guy yells, "They don't get to tell us we didn't see what we saw."
"They don't get to tell us we didn't see what we saw."
Those words. I mean, we can all guess what this guy saw. #StopTheSteal, QAnon, Dominion voting, or whatever else. Just endless scrolls affirming a stolen election and asking for someone to rise up. The most frustrating part of this is, Facebook may have banned Trump after-the-fact, but we've all known what everyone's been seeing for years now. Even if they won't release any data, we know. But if we’re going to get anywhere, we absolutely need better data on what people are seeing.
Note 3: I started writing this on Friday afternoon before Trump got banned from Twitter. As I’m editing, I just saw Parler was kicked off AWS, and there’s this mass platform movement to take action. I’ll grit my teeth and acknowledge I’m glad, finally, something is being done. But, after spending the past few years arguing for changing the underlying platform mechanics, it’s a bit worrying to see the sheer ham-handedness and reactiveness of this, when these issues have been very much at the forefront for a few years now. Lots more Margins coverage will be coming on this topic in the coming weeks, but I’ll leave you with:
Note 4: Sorry for so many notes, but just so many thoughts here. One final note on this new type of modern warfare, as I’m about to hit send, I’m seeing incredible threads from @Bellingcat working to identify rioters. However, if we remember the Reddit Boston Marathon Bomber sleuthing thread, there’s no doubt this kind of crowdsourced work is not without danger, but it simply is part of our new normal. These are exactly the kind of areas that platforms and government need to coordinate on and have very clear, established norms.