The Reality Coup
Shortly after the siege of the Capitol, a TikTok clip went viral where a young couple is being interviewed. The woman is wearing a scarf with piano keys and tears are streaming down her cheeks. When the reporter asks what happened to her, she replies, almost wailing: “I made it like a foot inside and they pushed me out and they maced me.” “My name is Elizabeth, I’m from Knoxville Tennessee,” she later tells the reporter. When asked why she wanted to go in to the building, she responds angrily: “We’re storming the Capitol, it’s a revolution!”
The video seems a farce. A protester who admits on camera that she broke the law by besieging a high profile government building, and then doesn’t understand why the police responded with these counter measures. Elizabeth’s incomprehension shows how the old digital filter bubble has now become a serious reality bubble: her fantasy has become an alternative reality, in which there is absolutely no room for the ideas of dissenters. All kinds of disinformation, such as fake news and conspiracy theories, fuelled by recommendation engines, are at the root of these pseudo-realities. Even pepper spray in her face cannot pierce Elizabeth’s bubble and return her to planet Earth. The video in question has now been viewed millions of times and has led to many reactions, likes, jokes, memes, duets, remixes and even the so-called Onion Towel conspiracy theory, in which it is claimed that during the interview, Elizabeth rubbed her eyes with an onion in order to provoke her tears. The bizarre video does not stand alone. Anyone who delves into the endless stream of images on the various social media channels will see more of these strange videos passing by. For example, one of the videos shows how the demonstrators, after storming the building, walk orderly in line through a cordoned off walking route. In yet another video we see how George Floyd’s death is reenacted on the stairs. And an already famous photo shows how a demonstrator, while carrying away a lectern, happily waves to the photographer. The mixture of deadly violence and entertainment gives the coup a surreal and Hollywood-like character. Which was further emphasized, when at the end of the day, boredom struck among the protesters and they retired, seemingly carefree, to their hotels to chill.
An Army of Trolls
In a revolution you expect guns, tanks, explosions, smoke and fire. Think back to the coup d’état in Turkey in 2016. What we now see, however, are people, armed with smartphones and selfie sticks, walking around in MAGA clothing, wearing fantasy uniforms or dressed as Viking or shaman. A number of protesters see themselves as superheroes. Dressed in a t-shirt with “Civil War, January 6, 2021” printed in large letters, in the style of the logo of the Marvel movie of the same name, they go to war against the Democrats, the arch enemy in their fantasy. It is a troll army of colourful Cosplay characters and paramilitary hillbillies. This coup was a poorly directed movie, a poorly executed play, which most people did not know what was expected of them. “What the plan is? I have no idea,” says one of the besiegers as he walks around the Capitol. They are a pawn in a Live Action RolePlay (LARP), but have not the faintest idea what the game strategy is, what is at stake or who is pulling the strings. A small group of right-wing extremists was well organized, what their nefarious plans were, it is unknown at the time of writing, but it could all have ended much worse than the five dead people:a pipe bomb was found in the Capitol, two people with zip-tie handcuffs were walking around and a gallows was standing outside to hang Vice President Mike Pence.
From Post-Truth to Post-Reality: The First Reality War
Last week we did not witness a civil war, but the First Reality War, in which a fabricated alternative reality (the electoral fiction) on the Internet clashed hard with our objective reality, and ended our consensus reality. Trump began his presidency with alternative facts about attendance numbers at his inauguration and ends it with the finalisation of an alternate reality in which he is the winner of the presidential election. It is an escapist narrative carefully constructed over the past four years by constantly demonizing its opponents and piling lie upon lie. Cleverly using the radicalization engines of social media, post-truth President Trump turns out to be a master of playing with reality. On January 6, we saw the explosive climax, with thousands of angry Republicans, QAnon supporters, the far-right Boogaloo Bois, the neo-fascist Proud Boys and militant movements like the Three Percenters taking control. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) would have called it a hyper-real coup d’etat, a mock event driven by spectacle rather than political ideology. A spectacle in which the old and new media have themselves contributed. Media critic Neil Postman (1931–2003) put it this way in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985): “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” He was right, but the title of his book should have been Confusing Ourselves to Death. (It’s also no wonder that the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world: they define it as Information Bankruptcy.)
At first, the media was also unsure how to frame the coup and what name to give to the besiegers. Was it a demonstration, a riot, a coup, an insurrection or a terrorist attack? The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times called them a mob, the BBC rebel Republicans, The Wall Street Journal rioters, Le Monde pro-Trump demonstrators and CNN referred to them as domestic terrorists. In his first speech after the Storm, aspiring president Joe Biden was also not sure what name to give to the agitators, all kinds of names were mentioned. If we had to make a suggestion, we would call them post-reality terrorists, referring to the strong reality bubbles in which so many of them seem to live. An unambiguous definition is required so that the judiciary can impose the correct punishments.
A Post-Reality Show
The coup was a complete failure, as a digital iconoclasm it was a resounding success. The protesters had the chance to tear down the Capitol to the ground, but were more interested in grabbing a souvenir or sending a selfie to their social media outlets. Not entirely incomprehensible if the top boss of the United States is himself a former reality TV star, whose current stage is the world stage. 60-year-old Richard Barnett, for example, had himself photographed extensively in Nancy Pelosi’s office, boasting: “I wrote her a nasty note, put my feet up on her desk and scratched my balls.” In front of an imposing painting, a young man captured himself while smoking a joint. Yet another stood shouting loudly on a plinth arm in arm with a statue of former President Gerald Ford. Selfies were even taken with willing police officers in the Capitol. The iconoclasts did not demolish the symbols of the center of democracy, but ridiculed them online. The coup thus turned into a meme war, into a post-reality show where racism and fascism is rampant.
The Revolution Is A Game Being Streamed
The revolution is no longer broadcasted on television, but played IRL and posted on alternative internet platforms such as 4chan, Gab or Parler or streamed via DLive. The call for attention, for even more likes, retweets and online viewers, ensures that the revolution doesn’t bleed to death online, but is continuously revived. The rioters turned a violent coup into a fun day out, with the selfie serving as a trophy and a beautiful memory that was shared with family and friends online.
As the dust of the revolution settles, the early coup plotters are, to their big surprise, confronted with the real-life consequences of their viral actions. In a final turn of the plot, they try to put the blame on Antifa, which they say, dressed up as Trump fans and stormed the Capitol. A number of the real rioters have since lost their jobs. Their employer did not appreciate their extracurricular activities. Flying is no longer allowed, their name is now on the No-Fly List, which results in hilarious scenes at airports, screaming like a suckling pig they are carried away. With the help of internet researchers, the FBI has now arrested more than 170 people on suspicion of involvement in the riots and more people will follow. The many selfies make it easy for the US security service, especially now that a scientist has been kind enough to archive Parler’s complete database — terabytes of conversations, photos, videos, names and geolocations — and make it searchable for everyone. Thanks to the journalists of the website Gizmodo, a map of the Capitol has now made it very clear where which Parler user was at the time of the insurrection.
The Divided States of America
In one of his last public appearances, Trump has distanced himself from the coup plotters. The performance is dismissed by his disappointed supporters as a deepfake. It is the Liar’s Dividend, but turned inside out. Not the speaker himself says that his words have been falsified, but his audience claims this. The reality bubble of his supporters is so strong that not even Trump can break it. The action by social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to deplatform Trump and his supporters, therefore, seems too late. Because of a perfect storm of misinformation there is no longer a shared common truth and reality, the country is politically divided into three: a blue, a red and a Trump America. The big question is what this means in concrete terms for one of the oldest democracies in the world? And how the end of consensus reality will affect other countries as well?
A Storm Is Coming
It is clear to outsiders that the coup failed utterly, but not for the participants. They are convinced that the coup has been successful and the images and movies they have made and shared confirm them right. Online they are hailed as true patriots, as heroes who saved the country from its demise. The strategic plan for the “Million Militia March” is now being rolled out on various obscure alt-tech forums. The idea is to unleash a Storm of violence in all 50 states and the capital, Washington, D.C. during Joe Biden’s inauguration. The January 6 uprising was just an exercise compared to what is yet to come. Hopefully, the US government has learned lessons that will not lead to an even bigger drama for last week’s deadly play.
Sander Duivestein and Thijs Pepping are the co-authors of the forthcoming book “Playing with Reality”. A book about the influence of new media on our information ecosystem and our perception of reality.