On Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol in Washington D.C., as Donald Trump’s loss to President-elect Joe Biden was being finalized through the certification of each state’s electoral college votes. The domestic terrorists smashed windows, stole and even killed as lawmakers hung onto their lives precariously until the originally tame response to the rioters shifted to something more assertive. There were white supremacists dressed in vile “camp Auschwitz” garb and carrying Confederate flags. Indeed, this was the first time the flag had breached into the Capitol in the context of insurrection — having previously only been in the Capitol as part of Mississippi’s old state flag that was replaced by a new one in November. Such a feat had not been accomplished even during the Civil War.
Those who stormed the Capitol did so at Trump and his entourage’s behest. Earlier in the day, he had spoken of walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, telling his supporters “you'll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.” In only a matter of hours, his supporters did exactly as he told, leaving the country — and indeed the whole watching world — in shock, as America, a pre-eminent bastion of democracy, found its soul almost eviscerated.
Such is the power of demagoguery. Those hungry for power play into their naive audience’s deepest fears and painful experiences and feed into conspiracies, best evidenced by a new wave of elected Republican representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina. This rabbit hole is carefully constructed, luring people to the very bottom of a bottomless pit. Perhaps it makes sense to understand how and why the rabbit hole draws people in and maybe then speculate on what could be done to plug the hole.
First and foremost, we have the media. Humans are inherently bias-driven creatures and such biases can work their way into a journalist’s mind. Yet, most reliable sources can be verifiably considered reliable due to the journalistic processes employed by reporters that eliminate bias as much as humanly possible. Some outlets, however, do such an excellent job of masquerading as reliable sources — minus the journalistic standards of course — that they rack up strong ratings. Cable news channels like Newsmax saw significant ratings boosts after the 2020 election, posing a challenge to the original mainstay Fox News. All of these channels perpetuate a world far removed from reality, lying in wait to snare those who respond positively to falsehoods. They often employ dog whistles to appeal to their viewers’ fears through implication, speaking of the erosion of western culture — there is no monolithic western culture — rather than saying the racist thing out loud, or labeling everything as communist.
Demographics for channels like Fox News outline a clear age and racial pattern of viewership. According to Pew Research, about nine in 10 Fox News viewers (87%) are non-Hispanic white, with about four in 10 (37%) being 65 or older. It is indeed older white people that soak up destructive misinformation from the news and circulate it on social media. They could be — and quite likely are — your neighbors or your family.
The state of Wyoming — where about 70% of the vote went to Trump — sees about 60% of those aged 65 and older not having a college degree. A college degree is by no means a necessity in today’s society, but can certainly be used to justify how easily such media platforms are able to sow distrust in reality. The critical thinking skills provided by a college education and the opportunity for interaction with diverse people and ideas is missing, leaving the door open for comfortable lies — including those that label a college education itself as propaganda (the data disagrees) and subject it to distrust — to enter and fester.
Rural isolation, financial condition and education could really help explain how and why the rabbit hole works. These factors can allow individualistic, isolationist and bigoted views to take root. After all, abstract concepts such as intersectionality simply do not hold firm in such an environment and only sound like jargon. Demagogues are aware of this and often keep things simple, while liberal or even progressive messaging can appear out of touch. Misinformation is also free of cost while reliable news is often kept behind a paywall. Reliable journalism requires financial backing and requesting funds from readers, which ensures more transparency than taking funds from a single rich donor, but the matter of the fact remains that a subscription is the least of a working class person’s concerns and leaves an opening to be exploited.
A lot has often been said about this older demographic and it is clear that the last four years have been difficult for the younger generation who face a misinformation generation gap. It is probably impossible to do anything besides making things painfully obvious, perhaps through satire as I’d mentioned in another article. Expanding accessible mental healthcare should be a focus too, for some of the reactions to the election cycle from those in the rabbit hole are just sad to see and indicate need for genuine help. Perhaps invoking less academic messaging and more simplistic messaging might work too but, by and large, the older generation is too well programmed, too deep in the hole and too set in their ways. They may very well not be saved entirely but hopefully enough not to stage further insurrections.
This does not hold true for all people who have been sucked in, however. In recent times, younger people have also found themselves lured by the rabbit hole.
Television and radio just don’t have as great of an effect on younger people. Instead, YouTube can often prove to be a platform for right wing and even alt-right voices. The YouTube algorithm is especially potent. The content on YouTube often utilizes dog whistles — in some ways similar to cable news — that target the lonely and vulnerable. For instance, a straight, white male who might have faced a lot of bullying and rejection early on could easily stumble across one single video mocking feminists and SJWs, followed by one touting feminism to be the source of all his woes; this then leads him down the path of recommended videos which ends at the fringes of YouTube with outright conspiracy theories about cultural Marxism and white supremacy. Channels like PragerU have well established themselves on YouTube and personalities like Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneaux are also widely found on the platform. They could be considered greatly effective starting points for people, eventually leading the lost to a path of radicalization through the algorithm that doubles down. One could then step out of YouTube and find themselves in forums and chat rooms or watching direct conspiracy programming like InfoWars, thus completing the radicalization.
In simple words, alt-right and conservative content creators have been smart and gamed the platform in order to exploit those in hardship who would easily blame the world around them, view the left as a caricature and eventually buy into blatant misinformation and conspiracy theories outside of mainstream spaces as well. YouTube may very well have influenced future insurrectionists and possibly some who were in the crowd that day in D.C.
How can we combat this? We can fight fire with fire. YouTube did make alterations to its algorithm to try and combat this, but more must be done. My hypothetical example was inspired by real stories where people who had fallen some way into the rabbit hole managed to find their way out. They did so through engagement with progressive content.
Progressive YouTubers like Vaush, Destiny and Contrapoints began mimicking the style of right-wing YouTube, utilizing similar phrases in video titles. The algorithm then did the rest. These videos featured creative, simplified and active debate on the concepts that were previously so well manipulated to exploit the viewer’s personal struggles, thus helping in deradicalization. This is where the answer lies, if further insurrections are to be prevented. It acts in much the same way as lighting up a dark room with a single torch, which then enables one to find the light switch and then the light itself.
Unlike the older generation that may be set in their ways, the younger generations can definitely be saved. It is wise to keep an eye on those around you and ensure that no one floats in isolation like an island in the sea. They could easily — and quite heartbreakingly — morph into the next radical insurrectionist with vile views if they find the wrong video online during a low point in their life. The reactionary nature of progressives can often push people further to the brink. Progressive YouTubers are doing what ordinary progressives often struggle to do: Engage with people, rather than cancel.
All of this points out the most significant issue faced by democracy, which is also its biggest asset: Democracy depends on the vote of the people. Socrates feared that not everyone would be an ideal, informed voter and those who were clever enough would simply speak the right words and appeal to the ignorant masses, thus creating a destructive mob of loyalists. It is democracy that killed Socrates after all, with a vote declaring that he be killed by poison hemlock for “corrupting minds.”
Despite the obvious flaws in democracy, it is the preferred mode of governance of the land of the free and one that nations around the world have valiantly fought for. The session did commence on that fateful day and now we have a President Joe Biden in office. However, the threat cannot be downplayed. Work must be done to ensure the rabbit holes are plugged before the holes gape wide and the ground underneath our feet caves entirely, leaving democracy to die in tatters and demagoguery to rise in its place.
Anupras is a sophomore studying Computer Science and Journalism. Do you feel as if alt-right sympathies have increased in the last decade? Is our democracy still safe from such a threat? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anupras Mohapatra is a former opinion editor for The Daily Cardinal and currently serves on the Editorial Board. He is a senior double majoring in Computer Science and Journalism.