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OPINION

Jan. 6 proved that what happens online doesn’t stay online

The storming of the US Capitol provided a number of lessons in terms of how unprepared institutions are for the reality of today’s information ecosystem.

Demonstrators gather for the "Justice for J6" rally in Washington, D.C., on September 18, 2021, in support of the pro-Trump rioters who ransacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

As a researcher of disinformation, I have spent the past few years watching conspiracists and angry people spewing false information and making disturbing claims about politicians, politics, and elections, including growing chatter about the potential for a civil war. So it was not surprising that I spent the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election extremely concerned about the potential for violence to erupt if the results were not definitive.

As the weeks passed, while it was troubling to see the #stopthesteal hashtag continue to bubble online as well as the intimidation by Republicans of election officials in Georgia and Arizona, it felt that due process was being followed. As each day passed without violence, I felt increasingly positive that my worst fears wouldn’t play out. And then the Jan. 6 insurrection happened, and my concerns suddenly seemed utterly naive in comparison to what unfolded on Capitol Hill.

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But a year on, despite the disturbing visuals of that day as well as evidence about what transpired, the absence of any significant consequences for those involved — coupled with the failure to respond to the lies that led to the events — is extremely worrying. Rather than framing the insurrection as a warning shot, alerting the nation to the vulnerabilities of American democracy, the narrative pushed by Republicans that it was of little consequence has taken hold.

On this anniversary, we have to face the ugly reality of what will probably happen because of our collective failure to take this warning shot seriously. The House select committee investigating Jan. 6 seems to be taking the events seriously, but the report is not expected until the summer, just a few months ahead of the midterm elections. My worry is that there is a “wait and see” mentality about the committee rather than an acknowledgement that action needs to be taken now.

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First, we as a society have to acknowledge our failure to reckon with the Big Lie. As a recent Bright Line Watch poll shows, only 27 percent of Republicans accept that Biden won. These types of statistics have been shared since November 2020, but what is astonishing is that this number has remained almost unchanged over the past 14 months, even after thorough audits, recounts, and government agencies stressing that the election was the “most secure” they’d seen in American history. While having so many people believe Biden is an illegitimate president is a real concern, the bigger issue is the ways in which trust in the democratic process is collapsing among enough Americans to have potentially catastrophic consequences for future elections.

Without a concerted effort to rebuild trust, we face a number of potential outcomes, from low voter turnout rates as people become convinced that their vote won’t be counted, to people failing to accept the results of elections, meaning a steady stream of attempts to trigger recounts, appeal results, as well as public protests at voting sites as counting takes place. Think of the events in Maricopa County playing out in numerous locations every time an election takes place.

Every day online, you can find conversations where people are still discussing the counts of 2020 votes, talking about new “evidence” of fraud they’ve unearthed, and continuing to reinforce the shared narratives of what actually happened in terms of the voting process.

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As we prepare for the midterm elections, it’s striking so little work has been done to counter the Big Lie. Where is the national communication campaign, properly funded, designed to work with community leaders, faith leaders, sports coaches, and small-business owners to underscore the importance of trust in the democratic system? This trust won’t be built by flashy advertising on billboards or via influencers on TikTok; this is about rebuilding trust from the ground up by discussing the consequences of this type of erosion in the systems and process of elections.

Jan. 6 also proved what disinformation researchers have been screaming for years: What happens online does not stay online. Disinformation causes real-world harm, and while much of it exists online, the most impactful disinformation is participatory. As #stopthesteal showed us, people felt heard. They were asked to share tips of election “fraud” they had witnessed, collecting and sharing that evidence with others. #Stopthesteal used classic movement tactics, and its effectiveness was demonstrated by those who turned out on Jan. 6, many of them ordinary Americans who had felt part of a movement and wanted to perform that commitment.

In the past year, election officials and their families have been harassed and intimidated, making the already difficult job of recruiting people to help support the election infrastructure harder because of safety concerns.

Finally, Jan. 6 provided a number of lessons in terms of how unprepared institutions are for the reality of today’s information ecosystem. University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew said, “January 6 wasn’t designed as a mass-casualty attack, but rather as a recruitment action” aimed at mobilizing the general population. So while it’s important to see the ways online words translated into offline action, it’s also vital to recognize how the imagery, characters, and stories from that day continue to be used online as a way to rally disaffected people who feel increasingly disconnected from traditional institutions.

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In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, many people I spoke to talked about the strangeness of living through an event that would be taught in history lessons for years to come. My fear is that something terrible is brewing, either a terminal collapse of trust in the democratic process or potentially sustained violent events, brought on by enough Americans failing to accept the result of the 2024 election. If the worst happens, we can be sure that it won’t just be the events of Jan. 6 that appear in history books, it will be a description of our inaction over the past year and what that fueled.

Claire Wardle is cofounder and US director of First Draft.