The Internet Is Real Life
A reflection on the invasion of the Capitol and the internet's role.
When supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol Building last week, I was surprised at how angry it made me. I have never considered myself particularly “patriotic.” I am grateful to live in the United States, but I wouldn’t die for my country. That’s why I wouldn’t sign up for military service. Ultimately I see my status as citizen of the kingdom of God and ambassador to this world as more consequential than my United States citizenship, and I have worked hard to not let politics or love of country supersede that which is more important and eternal.
But when the insurrectionists laid siege to the revered dome of the Capitol building last Wednesday, I was deeply shaken not only by the event itself, but the downplaying of its significance by people I actually know in real life.
A Brief Reflection
Here are a few of thoughts ran through my head and were at the heart of why I was so upset.
The group of people who invaded the central governing building of the United States is a group of people who have, historically, claimed to be America’s truest patriots and its most voracious defenders. They tell people who don’t think like them that they are threats to Democracy and out of line with the Constitution, but then they raided the Capitol. They talk about how much they love the military and law enforcement, but then they fought them in their attempt to kill government leaders. Like many who find themselves in cults, their delusion led them to become that which they have always claimed to hate. It was more than just political violence—it was also abject hypocrisy from a group of people who claim to occupy a biblical, moral high ground.
If a foreign power had sent an armed mob to siege the Capitol, it would have felt like a stranger invading my house, putting his feet up on my desk, and leaving his mark on the way out. If, as an example, ISIS would have invaded the Capitol, it would have been traumatic, to be sure. But the people who attacked the Capitol building weren’t strangers off the street—it wasn’t ISIS. These were Americans, and those who claim to be the proudest, most loyal Americans at that. It was as if a brother, cousin, our uncle broke into our house, put his feet on the desk, and left his mark on the way out. The psychological component that accompanies being violated by a countryman is worse than if it were an enemy combatant. It feels like friendly fire and the feeling of betrayal is strong.
Friends I know to be reasonable and smart have expressed more anger on social media in the days since the siege of the Capitol about Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter than they did about the siege of the Capitol that he incited. They have embraced theories about election fraud and who was actually invading the Capitol last Wednesday that are unsubstantiated and have no basis in fact. It is one thing to see strangers I don’t know break into the Capitol building and call for the execution of the vice president. It is yet another to see people I know personally downplay it as not as significant as the president losing his Twitter privileges. I am just so confused.
As I reflected this weekend, I came away with two lessons I wanted to pass along to you: 1) words have consequences and 2) the internet is real life.
Words Have Consequences
When Donald Trump undermined the legitimacy of the election from the briefing room of the White House immediately following his apparent loss, I was about as upset as I had been through his entire presidency. He used the most powerful podium in the country and perhaps the world to tell his 74 million voters that they had been robbed of the election. I was deeply concerned about what that may do.
What we saw last Wednesday was not only incited by the president in the minutes leading up to its occurrence, but it is the natural result of what happens when the most influential politician in the world tells his 74 million fans that the election was stolen and the country is under attack. These folks, in what they believe is a valiant effort save the United States from evil Democrats, became the national threat they hoped to combat.
Words have consequences. Conspiracy theories aren’t as innocent as they may seem. It is imperative that we not flirt with unrealities because they may fit our political or even religious ideologies. Our words have consequences, and what happened at the Capitol is a clear image of that.
The Internet Is Real Life
I follow a couple dozen tech and social media reporters on social media and through email newsletters. A few of the reporters I follow focus specifically on conspiracy theories, QAnon, and how social media fans the flame of alternate realities that people actually believe. These reporters, Ben Collins of NBCNews being one of them, were far from surprised by the events of January 6, 2021. Why? Because they were paying attention to the very public internet communication of these terrorists in the weeks leading up to the attack. These folks planned their movement in plain sight.
Here are some examples:
People have often said that the reason election polls always show that Donald Trump has less of a chance to win than he actually does is because Trump voters have been nervous to tell a pollster that they support him. But then social media reporters aren’t surprised when Trump performs well because they pay attention to internet chatter. My paraphrase of what Ben Collins said following the election is, “It's time we start realizing that what people do and say online is who they actually are and what they actually believe.”
In my conversations with people about the internet, conspiracy theories, and extremism, the most common retort I hear is, “Well you might see that online, but that’s not how normal people think,” or “Yeah you might hear chatter about that on social media, but it’s not like real life.”
My hope is that the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a group of people who organized and planned their attack on very public internet outlets help us all take the internet and what people say on the internet a little more seriously. The internet is real life.
The reason you’re seeing all of these internet services ban Donald Trump and other MAGA-adjacent people is because the internet services recognize the problem with their services being used to overthrow the most powerful country in the world. Twitter didn’t ban Donald Trump because he is a conservative. They banned him because they can’t be used as a tool to overthrow the U.S. government.
A Final Word
I want to end this email by reminding any readers who may be upset with me right now that I consider myself a conservative. I am pro-life. I believe religious liberty is vital to what it means to be an American. I hold to a number of other traditionally “conservative” values. But we need to be clear on this: what took place on January 6th is not about politics. It is not a partisan issue. It wasn’t conservatism; it was anarchy. We shouldn’t be timid to call out the evil of what happened in fear of “getting political” because condemning what happened should be bipartisan!
Those of us who consider ourselves principled conservatives ought to have the courage to call out evil and denounce it as such. We ought to distance ourselves from the cultish tendencies of the MAGA movement and remember that the internet is real life and words have consequences.
For the first time ever, today, I’m locking myself out of my Facebook account indefinitely and giving the key to my wife, Susie. These events have upset me in a way I haven’t really ever felt. It feels like people on our own team, our fellow Americans, have stabbed us in the back. And then to see personal friends of mine downplay and sweep aside the tragedy has only poured salt into the wound.
May God have mercy on us all.