1/6 and Popular Culture: Some Reflections
I was eleven on 9/11/2001. It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, and my mom put me on the school bus like she did every morning. But it was on that bus, sitting right behind the driver and her radio, that I heard my first inkling something had gone terribly wrong. I can’t remember what made me start paying attention to the driver’s radio, but the distinct phrases I’ll always remember was, “Everyone is running around. People are trying to get out. It’s like a scene from a movie.” It just was before nine AM, and the first plane had just hit the first tower.
We heard that phrase over and over again in the days, weeks, months, and years following 9/11 when people described their experiences: it was like a scene from a movie. Postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard aside, who could and did say a lot about how mediated representations overtake our reality, the phrase was also a coping mechanism. It was a way for people to map something they understood (horrendous and tragic scenes from movies) to make sense of the horrific and unthinkable terrorist attack.
Twenty years later, I was (am) thirty years old and a researcher of visual social media cultures, platforms, and digital labor — which all relate to the nebulous concept of “digital popular culture.” And this was where I was, just finishing up speaking on a panel on popular culture and the COVID-19 pandemic, when I turned on the news and saw political extremists getting closer and closer to the U.S. Capitol. Like many of you all, I watched in horror as the afternoon of 1/6 unfolded live on my television. Then I watched and listened to the aftermath, the punditry, the news, and the takes about what had happened. This is what leads me to discuss what I’m writing about today.
Popular culture played a key role in what happened in the U.S. Capitol on 1/6/21, and it has played an equally important role in discussions thereof — but the latter occurs with a much more flippant tone.
Let me explain.
Media studies scholars, film scholars, television scholars, music scholars, American studies scholars, cultural studies scholars, humanistic communication scholars, and Internet scholars have been studying the importance of the “popular” for decades. Popular culture is an incredibly complex term with immense theoretical underpinnings and conduits for analysis. I won’t get into all of that here, but I will invoke my favorite quote about it from the father of Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall (1981): “Popular culture is the ground on which the transformations are worked…otherwise, I don’t give a damn about it.”
What any of the aforementioned scholars will tell you is that even though popular culture is often dismissed as trite, frivolous, or not worth studying, we know different. Popular culture is often where we see early signs of cultural, social, or ideological shifts. It can be where the debates occur over what a society values, and how it should value something. It can be a coping mechanism, either through retreating from the world temporarily, or using it to learn, react, process, and understand what is happening — like the 9/11 “movie scene” comparison.
Popular culture can also be a warning sign.
In dismissing popular culture as trite or frivolous, we ignore implications of its communicative forms, who may be communicating through it, or the seriousness of intent behind it. This is particularly damning and damaging when we speak of Internet popular culture and the vernacular, everyday, communicative nature of it. This brings me to 1/6.
Planning for 1/6 took place primarily on the Internet — in Parler and on Reddit, on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and DLive. People were talking about their plans, but they were also doing so with Internet logics, styles, and vernaculars. They interspersed their plans with memes and “funny” (to them) videos. And despite the warnings that have come for years from Internet scholars and some excellent Internet beat reporters, many pundits, politicians, and journalists did not take this seriously because it was “just” the Internet. After all, how dangerous could a meme of a creepy-looking frog named Pepe actually be? (Extremely). Too often in our conversations about the Internet, people with the power to speak and make decisions fall into an online/offline binary that treats the digital as “less than” or “less real” than offline, physical spaces. But every online action is tethered to a physical person, in a physical space, on a material, tangible phone or computer or tablet. The first, extremely small thing pundits, journalists, and politicians can do to reframe conversations about Internet action and practices is to do away with the notion that the online and offline are separate.
To be clear, online/offline binaries and ignoring Internet popular culture are not the only reasons 1/6 happened. 1/6 happened because political extremists, encouraged by the sitting U.S. president, made their choices. 1/6 happened because of security failures and how people in power did not act on given intelligence. 1/6 happened because of white supremacy, and the increased radicalization of white identity.
Some excellent Internet researchers have written on how these far-right groups use digital spaces and tactics to manipulate media, and I’d like to build on some of their work here. Media manipulation by the types of groups that stormed the Capitol take advantage of the infrastructure of networked cultures (like Parler, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube), communicative forms (like memes, YouTube, and TikTok videos), and strategic amplification to get their messages out across platforms and channels within platforms. Similarly, researchers have also looked at how journalists have been largely unprepared for covering these types of practices, belittling the digital instead of taking it seriously, and doing only cursory reporting instead of understanding the depth of the threat.
On 1/6, it was to the benefits of these groups that people don’t take these communicative forms and spaces seriously. This in and of itself is media manipulation by these groups — by being too strange, bizarre, and hateful to be taken seriously (pro-tip: take them seriously). Similarly, by being too vernacular, too “popular” (in the popular culture sense), and too seemingly “fringe,” the words and plans tied to the memes and TikToks weren’t taken seriously. This was also how these groups manipulated entire political and media ecosystems — by capitalizing on the idea that the popular is not meant to be taken seriously. Even as 1/6 was unfolding, journalists seemed largely unprepared to discuss what they were witnessing, and this carried over into discussing the fallout. Here are some recurring themes I noticed:
They stormed the Capitol…and made content? — The day after the insurrection, my Twitter feed was filled with people belittling those who stormed the Capitol because they did it and were filming and taking selfies the entire time. Once again, we see this online/offline magical thinking interfering with understanding the event. This group has been a primarily visual group for the beginning. The visual is an entire way of being online, not just something extra. For this group, there was no difference between the online/offline. Storming the Capitol had to have a simultaneous Internet component because the Internet had been embroiled in this from the beginning. This was also their goal, and they accomplished it. Of course they would document it.
One of my early pieces of research pushed back on the narcissism accusations surrounding selfie culture, instead of analyzing how journalists wrote about selfie deaths and accidents. I found that what many journalists were calling narcissism was actually exhibitionism, or extravagant behavior intended to attract attention to one’s self. While selfie-taking and online visual practices should never be reduced to any “ism,” exhibitionism is what I saw on 1/6 — the pinnacle and culmination of extravagant practices intended to draw attention to one’s self and their cause.
This was also a group that is deep in conspiracy. What do people think they need for evidence to prove their conspiracy? Visual materials. “The camera doesn’t lie” is an idiom that is deeply ingrained in all of us in Western culture (but cameras do lie, all of the time).
Fandom/Cosplay — I’m not a fan studies scholar, and there are probably better people to talk about this. But, one man in particular drew a lot of attention on 1/6 and in the days following it. The self-described “Q Anon Shaman,” wearing Viking-esque clothes and war paint was in the middle of storming the Capitol, and yet again, as this unfolded, jokes were made about this man. He was not the only to dress up, but he was one of the more prominent figures featured. People familiar with the far-right Internet instantly recognized him and the character he plays in the Q Anon conspiracy. Additionally, by not taking his costume seriously as the insurrection literally unfolded before our eyes, pundits continued to trivialize popular culture and ignore things such as, say, how white supremacists have co-opted and misappropriated much of Viking iconography.
Similarly, costumes and cosplay contribute to media spectacle, or how an event gets covered totally and completely by the media. This isn’t new — the white sheets and hoods of the KKK were always designed to contribute to media spectacle and draw continued attention to a cause. These wardrobe choices were similar on 1/6.
“Dark corners of the Internet” and “Dank memes” — I think I’ve already touched on these in the opening of this piece, but I never want to hear the phrase “dark corners of the Internet” again. These groups did not come from the dark corners of the Internet. They came from Facebook groups and YouTube channels. They came from Instagram posts and popular subreddits. They were not from fringe corners of the web. While they were storming the Capitol, some YouTubers were live streaming and using the site’s fundraising feature to raise money. These people were front and center and in the light of the day the whole time, and we chose to put ourselves in a corner, turn off the lights, and pretend not to see them. Similarly with memes — just because an idea is communicated via a meme doesn’t mean it’s not serious.
There are many, many things the United States needs to do to make sure an event like 1/6 never happens again. I’m not an intelligence expert or a security expert. But I do know the way our contemporary media ecosystem has talked about and engaged (or not) with Internet popular culture has played a role in this. We need to reframe the way we talk about Internet popular culture, and I suggest we start with getting rid of the online/offline distinction (which Internet scholars have been saying for decades). We need to take seriously people’s preferred methods of communication and expression and understand that just because it’s an image macro with a frog or a gorilla doesn’t mean it’s simply for fun. Where do we go from here? How do we change? With ourselves first. With checking our privilege, listening to the Internet experts and people of color who have warned about this for years, and understanding that on the Internet, nothing is ever just “for the lolz.”