The assault on our nation’s capitol on January 6th was dramatic, frightening, and very unusual. That makes it a prime case for a Question Three puzzle: Why then and there? Question Three is all about patterns and disruptions of patterns. Consider: throughout our history there have been countless demonstrations in Washington, but as Senator Cory Booker reminded us, the houses of congress have not been breached since the war of 1812. So the events of January 6 2021 disrupted a pattern of behavior that lasted over two centuries. Our rule for answering Question Three is, “Explain a change with a change, and a difference with a difference.” This assault was a dramatic change. What underlying change(s) might have made it more likely to happen now? This post attempts to answer that question while taking us through the thinking steps of a Question Three Puzzle.
Step One: Define Your Explicandum
The “explicandum” is the thing you wish to explain (and yes, that’s a real word!). Defining your explicandum precisely is crucial to good Question Three thinking, and it’s not easy. In this case, we want to know why a mob broke into the capitol building — but we need to be more precise than that. Leaving that question as is drives us toward Question Two thinking. Why did they break in? The people in the mob believed the election was being stolen, and that violence was justified to prevent that from happening.
Summarizing the perpetrators’ beliefs doesn’t explain why the attack happened, but it does point us toward our explicandum. Remember that we’re trying to precisely articulate something new that happened, that disrupted a long standing pattern. Of course there have always been conspiracy theorists in America, and fringe actors willing to condone and carry out violence. What was new this time was the large number of highly mobilized conspiracy theorists. These conspiracy theorists were not fringe actors attaching themselves to a larger demonstration that was rooted in political reality — this entire demonstration was made up of conspiracy theorists. This was a large rally of people who believe deeply in something that is demonstrably untrue, namely that Donald Trump won both the popular and electoral college vote in the 2020 election.
So we can define our explicandum this way: Why were there so many people who believed so deeply in lies that they were willing to use violence against their own government? The large numbers of people and the depth of their commitment to an untrue narrative are the changes that need explanation.
Step Two: Identify a Plausibly Relevant Change or Difference
In our Question Three guideline to “Explain a change with a change, or a difference with a difference,” “change” is chronological, and “difference” is geographical. When we’re studying a single society, as we are in this U.S. case, we’re asking what underlying change over time might cause the explicandum. When we’re comparing different societies, say the U.S. and China, we’re looking for underlying differences.
In this case, the creation of a large mob of deeply committed conspiracy theorists seems plausibly related to the rise of the internet and social media. Facebook, Twitter, and the first touchscreen smartphones all debuted in 2006. Six years later Facebook had a billion users, and by 2016 77% of Americans had a smartphone. All that adds up to a significant underlying change in American society.
But good Question Three thinking requires a further step. You actually have to explain how the change you’ve identified could plausibly be the cause of the think you wish to explain.
Step Three: Describe A Mechanism That Shows How The Change Or Difference Works
As I said above, there have always been conspiracy theorists in America and people willing to use violence against the U.S. government. But I suspect that the rise of the internet and social media have dramatically increased their numbers and their commitment. Here’s how.
Before the internet, it took real work to become a political conspiracy theorist. You had to listen to someone ranting on a street corner or on late night AM radio, or you had to encounter a conspiratorial newsletter somewhere. You had to find those ideas enticing enough to actively seek them out; you had to find the address of a branch of the John Birch Society, for example, and you had to pay to subscribe to their newsletter. If you created conspiracy content yourself, you had to work pretty hard to find an audience for it. All the large circulation newspapers had editors who would decline to publish your outlandish accusations, and the three major TV networks would not give you air time. On both the supply side and the demand side, the market for conspiracy theories in politics was structurally limited.
Since 2006, the internet and social media have changed all of that. On the internet there are no editors, and Facebook and Twitter profit from feeding people information that they “like.” In economists’ terms, the “barrier to entry” for both consuming and producing conspiratorial content is now extremely low. And the psychological rewards for doing both are significant, as are the financial rewards for the platforms that support it.
There’s a further mechanism at work here. These platforms make it possible, and in some cases likely, that users will get their “news” from sources that are not committed to any standard of fairness or objectivity. Before the internet, everyone in the country got most of their news from the same few sources. Americans often disagreed about what policies to enact, but there was less disagreement about the basic facts on the ground. (In 4QM terms, we fought about Question Four, but generally agreed about Question One.)
The structure of social media platforms means that there are many more people than there used to be consuming conspiracy theories, which drives demand for many more people to create conspiracy theories. The social media platforms then allow many more people to live inside their own information bubbles, and some of those bubbles will be largely made of lies. When you have a President who himself lives in a bubble made of lies, you have the ingredients for a national summit meeting of thousands of deluded people who are able to act on their beliefs in a way that we’ve not seen before.
I think that most of the people who participated in the assault on the capitol would not have done so if they lived in the United States of 2005. Indeed, I suspect that most of them would not be involved in fringe politics at all. But new conditions brought about by new technology has turned thousands of ordinary people into a dangerously unhinged mob.