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january 6, one year later
I was running errands the morning of January 6, 2021. On the way, I passed a few people in red MAGA hats who were clearly visiting the DC area. It's pretty normal to see tourists in this part of town escaping the nearby hotel's continental breakfast to find something warmer and greasier at a legendary diner a few minutes' walk away. (Once, in the Before Times, I took a shared Uber that picked up MAGA-hatted guests from that hotel when I was on my way to the State Department. It was an awkward 10 minutes.) This all-male group of five laughed and hollered in their jeans and work boots and sweatshirts as they ambled up the street. One wore a long brown trench coat. It was clear they would be heading downtown to the Ellipse to President Trump's speech after they ate. I messaged my husband and a few colleagues who, like me, had worried about the potential for election-related violence since the nauseating September presidential debate when Trump had told the far-right Proud Boys to "stand by" and instructed his supporters to "watch very carefully" for signs of fraud at polling stations.
Errands done, I went home. I don't remember the morning. I took a lunchtime nap, as I often do when I'm feeling overwhelmed, and woke up to a message from my husband, who was downstairs. "They're storming the Capitol. It's good you're asleep for this," he wrote. I watched a few videos of Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists pushing through police barricades and joined my shellshocked husband downstairs, where on TV, Lisa Desjardins, whom I've chatted with in the PBS green room, was streaming an update from a Capitol stairwell on her mobile phone. Later, as insurrectionists were finally pushed out of the Capitol, I saw the man in the brown trench coat in the foreground of a shot.
The rest of January 6 passed as if it were an especially grim snow day. I gave a distracted pre-interview to a radio show that never happened (production schedules were thrown out the window after the insurrection); I picked up a pizza and exchaged wide-eyed glances with the people in the shop; my husband and I made particularly punchy cocktails and sat, catatonic, in front of the TV.
The next day, I started to get inundated with interview requests. How did we get here? What effect did disinformation have? I was frustrated; less than three months earlier, I had testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Democrat Adam Schiff, in a panel on disinformation and conspiracy theories. No Republicans showed up to the hearing; all of the witnesses were ridiculed by QAnon followers afterward. We warned of the offline effects of online disinformation, but those warnings did not seem to make it out of the virtual hearing room. One representative even challenged my assertion that "disinformation was dismantling democracy," and I wondered if he was thinking of me as he sheltered in place at the Capitol the previous day. I certainly was thinking of him.
As I made the media rounds, I started to receive violent threats. I had been harassed online before. Until January 6, those messages were vulgar and repugnant, but not necessarily direct phyiscal threats. After the insurrection, that changed. Strangers started to comment on my Instagram posts. I received an email from "Bonecrusher Bob" to my work address that called me a "hysterical fukkking snowflake lesbo kike," told me to "learn the art of the blow job and make [my]self useful for once" and noted "you seem to be hankering for a civil war and you might just get your wish. Good fukkking luck with that." I reported the email to the FBI's tip line.
I was, of course, comparatively very lucky. I was out of harm's way, unlike the officials, police, Hill staffers, and journalists who were at the Capitol that day. We seem to have buried in our collective consciousness the very human cost of January 6: the lives lost, the injuries sustained, the people whose daily routines have irreparably changed and become intrinsically dangerous. As early as that evening, a collective amnesia fell over 147 Members of Congress who had already forgotten, as I wrote for Foreign Affairs that week, "the day the internet came for them."
It was already evident little would change. A year later, we are still in the same spot. The Daily Beast's Matt Fuller writes in "The Real Tragedy of January 6 Is That It's Still Not Over:"
Instead of a reckoning...the Republican Party has rallied. They’ve rallied to Donald Trump’s aggrieved side. They’ve rallied together to attack Joe Biden. And, after months of discomfort and confusion, they’ve rallied to find a unified voice about [the insurrection].
Today, I am giving many of the same answers to journalists as they send requests for comment for their January 6 retrospectives as I did on January 7, 2021. We can't fight disinformation when our elected officials spread it; it's going to take generations to rebuild the trust Americans on both sides of the aisle lost in their democratic infrastructure that day; and America's standing in the world is much weaker than it was on January 5, 2021. I've repeated these warnings in Congress itself, at a hearing of a fervently bipartisan House Armed Services sub-committee. Both Democrats and Republicans, including some who voted to overturn the 2020 election results, nodded approvingly. But nothing changed.
Nothing changed after January 6. Nothing changed after the Facebook Papers. Nothing changed after the Vice President and women in Congress were violently threatened by members of the public, and sometimes even by colleagues. The only changes in the fight for American democracy that seem to have manifested in the last year are ones that take us down a decidedly anti-democratic route. They strip citizens of voting rights, question nonpartisan election officials' integrity, and dismantle women's rights to bodily autonomy, by extension, discouraging their participation in public life and democracy.
Against the backdrop of the impending third pandemic year and the exhaustion and anxiety that has come with it, it feels like many of us who study the degradation of our online information environment and work to revitalize it have been dealing with a pandemic of our own for much longer. It didn't start on January 6. It didn't start with the COVID-19 "infodemic" (a term I loathe), or even Russian influence operations. It has been ushered in by those after profit and power who trade personal gain for the common good. I don't see a way out of this quagmire without making it more costly for those individuals to pursue their self-interested destruction of our democracy, a change about as likely in today's Washington as the city properly preparing for a snowstorm.
And that's about the sum of things a year after January 6. That, and I'm tired and all out of takes. What remains? We're in serious trouble.
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