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For a long time, it has been a popular belief that countries like America could facilitate peaceful political discussion, but the riot at the Capitol building is a sobering reminder of what has culminated over years of divisive rhetoric and increasing polarisation. Most importantly, it is very revealing of the psychology of a lot of voters and figures of authority who seem to selectively care about the ‘values’ they supposedly stand for.
There was a very obvious disparity in the reactions to the BLM Riots and the Capitol Hill Riots. The former was met with tear gas, rubber bullets being fired at point-blank range and indiscriminate police brutality. However, it is evident that with the Capitol Hill Riots, the response of the police was not nearly as aggressive. Even during some peaceful BLM protests, the police stormed crowds in full tactical gear pepper spraying, trampling and beating up people exercising their legal rights. On the other hand, a mob with armed members making active death threats against Mike Pence, putting up makeshift gallows and engaging in very clear acts of violence was met with minimal resistance. This is not a new occurrence and we already saw how Trump supported those protesting lockdowns whilst calling Antifa and BLM protesters ‘thugs’, but it nevertheless highlights how your political inclination and race does affect how you are treated by authority.
But perhaps more importantly, this reveals how selectively people defend their own ‘principles’ and ‘values’. The same people who called the political violence of BLM unjust were chanting death threats and attacking police. These are also the same people who claim to uphold democratic values, but yet stormed the building which is the heart of American democracy. The truth is often we only support principles because they lead to practical outcomes that suit us. Democracy usually allows us to have some means of influencing the political system such that our needs are met, but as soon as that system leads to an outcome that people find greatly unfavourable, people seem to abandon these democratic principles. In an increasingly divided society, it has got to the point where people are willing to very actively display this. Some may try to claim that this is a minority, but in a survey by YouGov, just over 40% of Republican voters supported the actions of those at the Capitol Hill. This suggests that people didn’t believe that BLM’s use of political violence was inherently unjust, but instead that they did not support their cause – people do not act on values, but on selfish desires.
The last takeaway from this event is the increasing ability of social media and fake news to impinge on democracy. Much like people selectively chose when to uphold their values, people also selectively chose which information to consume and buy into. There were rampant claims of voter fraud by Republicans and these were widely circulated through social media. Such claims are always going to exist, but social media introduced two major factors that allowed these narratives to be especially powerful. The first is the viral nature of social media where the most extreme and disingenuous claims travel the fastest and are most powerful. This is because the more sensational posts are the ones that algorithms promote due to the fact that people click on them more. Secondly, social media algorithms increasingly tailor content to cater to our preferences such that we only see the news that aligns with our political beliefs and conspiracies. This means that even though large media organisations like The New York Times were debunking election fraud myths, they weren’t reaching the people they needed to reach. Obviously, with traditional media, people can still choose to watch a certain news channel which aligns with their beliefs, but at least there are regulations and accountability mechanisms. But here, there is a dangerous possibility that people can be heavily influenced by social media and this is what led people to march to Capitol Hill without questioning whether their cause was at all founded.
President Joe Biden is entering the White House at a tumultuous time, where America is immensely polarised, and its standing on the international stage is starting to be called into question. More than ever, we need to accept the reality that people are selfishly driven – figures of authority will only crack down on violence when it suits them, and people will only support certain values or believe certain news sources when it fits into their own narrative. Sadly, it seems harder and harder to find a common ground to unite people and the Capitol Hill Riots demonstrates this perfectly.