When a mob led by a horn-headed shaman infiltrated the heart of U.S. democracy on January 6th, many rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Why did the conquerors of the Capitol Hill not make demands but instead took selfies in the office of Nancy Pelosi? Why were they dressed up as if they were at some alt-right version of Burning Man? If one takes a close look at the history and development of the internet, the events of January 6th are not stunning, but a logical culmination of this development.
To understand the nature of the internet and the ideal its architecture still represents, one must delve into its origins. The money invested to set the Internet up came from the U.S. Army research, but it was the adaptation of the web by U.S. universities in the late 1960s that gave it its ethos. The ideals of the time guided the creators of network architecture; they lived in the midst of a hippie culture that emphasized resistance to the mainstream, communality, and free-flowing culture. No borders, just freedom. That ideal was written into the code of the internet culture right from the start.
On this basis, a culture of carnival emerged on the internet. Forums, games, and new multimedia art created an alternative reality to the hierarchical reality of the Cold War that surrounded early network users. Trolling, or deliberate provocation and exaggeration, flaming or debates, and doxing, that is, disgrace based on the discovery and dissemination of another's private information, all date back to the beginnings of the web. Online, they were made into art that was often frightening but often also entertaining and insightful. Because it was a tool of counterculture, people on the internet often sought to provoke the dominant culture. Exaggeration, staggering performances, and image gimmicks were at the heart of its culture. Another key part of it was the generation of memes, combining fragments of mainstream culture and completely unrelated pictures into new artifacts with symbolic meanings, which are often staggering and provocative extremes of reality.
This counter-culture also produced enormous benefits. For example, blockchains or open-source software would hardly exist without the counterculture framework that has grown since California’s hippie years. For example, the Anonymous movement, which opposed dictatorships or the Wikileaks platform, were part of the same development, albeit at different cores. It is essential to understand that anarchist provocation and see how these new open structures are different colors in the same Rubik’s cube.
Therefore, in order to fully comprehend the events in Washington, it must be understood that the overthrow of “old structures” from the web is deeply rooted within the internet culture. That rebellion is, in fact, basically the hard core of the internet. Arguably, a divisive turning point in this culture came in the 2010s. The Internet carnival began to politicize, and politicization began specifically with the “cultural right” or the “alt-right”.
You can search for a starting point in many places. In retrospect, a cultural dispute in 2014 known as the ‘Gamergate controversy’ has been seen as the network’s first right-wing counter-movement. It flared up online, as a kind of counter-movement to the increasingly progressive appeals to the gaming industry to do something abouts its sexist culture and male dominance in gaming companies. For instance, the campaign targeted women in the gaming industry who received threats and doxing. In the aftermath of the ‘Gamergate controversy’, a peculiar political meme movement began to emerge, which mobilized a large number of young men. It was a combination of young men with anxiety about their own status, and a sense of economic and cultural exclusion. Some of this anxiety then dissipated through memes and social media into “joke-made” power fantasies.
As a totem for this movement, Donald Trump appeared around 2015. Known as a social media provocateur (yes, Trump was one of the main spreaders of the conspiracy theory about Obama’s birth certificate), he jumped as an underdog into the U.S. presidential race. Trump was adopted by young men, especially newly activated men on the Internet. Pepe frogs and MAGA memes were born. The Internet wasn’t the only explanatory factor for Trump’s rise, but he was the perfect fuel for network activism. Trump worked intuitively with the logic of trollers, and many of his supporters could reflect their own desires and fantasies in him.
When Trump came to power, this development did not stop. New layers were added to the memes and the content was recycled into an increasingly cryptic entity. The strange Q-theories that have spread in recent years are just the latest version of this layer-by-layer world of alternative memes. It complies individual news events, images, phrases, and arguments into one big internet blender, spins, and distributes the emerging soup to the world as a political declaration. A completely incomprehensible Q-soup is born, which, however, has its own solid internal logic for those who know the building blocks: communality, resistance to the dominant culture, and the fragmented reality of a network where the whole no longer exists.
In Washington, this development became a reality. As the events unfolded, it was clear that the riots had the nature of a performance. The horn-headed Q-shaman swaying in the congress hall can be seen as absurd but is only a completely natural climax to the developments of recent years. The takeover seemed strange because the occupiers seemed to be present mainly to produce content and images for the infinite cultural meta-stream and not really to take power over themselves. It was not an attempt to seize power in the classical sense, but it was an act of power in a cultural space; “look, we are here, we can do this”.
The internet has shaped politics more and more into such a struggle for cultural space. The essential question for many who follow politics is no longer how social benefits or structures are regulated, but instead, who does it and what that person represents. It is sad that, at the same time, the actual content of politics is easily slipping away to become a secondary issue. Real political content becomes increasingly difficult to discuss when the real political struggle is a struggle about the cultural space and its images.
What can politicians in the US and Europe then learn from this? At the very least, it would be a mistake to see the political setup created by social media as just a side issue. The workings of social media are just as true - if not more real - than the rigid traditional reality. Understanding movements, their culture and their logic in the realm of the web, the internet should be seen as the main public space for a cultural struggle in which politicians and researchers should be interested in. Politicians should recognize this and understand their own responsibilities within it. In both the EU and the United States context, many politicians try to ride two horses at the same time. They make fierce openings and use demonizing rhetoric on Twitter whilst simultaneously claiming to uphold honourable discourse in the halls of Parliament or Congress. This distinction really does not work anymore. Politicians should recognize that they cannot have two debates at the same time, because in the eyes of more and more people, such different realities do not exist. The web reality matters as much as the physical reality, and the type of discourse we have in both of them is inseparable and molds the contemporary political discourse. If the Q-shaman had a message to the world, it was that we cannot close our eyes from this reality anymore.
Written by Christofer Talvitie, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.