20th December 2021
By Elise Thomas
As the Select Committee continues to excavate the mountain of evidence relating to the attack on the US Capitol on January 6th, baffled onlookers have frequently wondered why the rioters in the Capitol that day went to such lengths to document and broadcast their own crimes.
The vast tracts of digital evidence are simultaneously an investigator’s dream and a defence lawyer’s nightmare.
As conspiracy-fuelled anti-lockdown movements swell in countries around the world, a similar trend is emerging. Readily identifiable individuals continue to publicly incite or plot acts of serious political violence, photograph themselves violating public health restrictions and livestream increasingly violent protests. Protesters have been cautioned by police, given hefty fines and in some cases charged with criminal offences – and still, they continue to post self-incriminating content on social media.
From the outside this behaviour may seem mystifying. In fact, the explanation is very straightforward, if hard to wrap your head around. Many of the conspiracy theorists who post evidence of themselves committing everything from minor infractions to serious crimes do so because they genuinely don’t believe they will face consequences for their actions.
At least in part, conspiracy theories can be understood as a work of collective, immersive fiction, in which participants build out the plot, the characters, the themes and narrative devices. Followers use developments in the real world or cues from community influencers as (loose) inspiration, creating a mirrored version of reality. Perhaps today’s most well-known political conspiracy theory, QAnon, has often been compared to an alternate reality game.
The suspension of disbelief
There is a concept in fiction writing known as the ‘suspension of disbelief’, in which the reader switches off their critical thinking to fall into the story’s narrative. For the reader of a novel or audience of a film, the suspension of disbelief is shallow, limited to however long they spend dwelling in that realm of fiction.
If conspiracy theories are a form of immersive fiction, however, then the suspension of disbelief they require is equally immersive. All-consuming conspiracy theories like QAnon and related anti-lockdown conspiratorial movements require believers to reject evidence-based reality (for example, realities such as Trump losing the election; COVID-19 being real; and vaccines saving lives) in favour of simpler, more appealing narratives in which they play the role of hero.
Heroes win. They face setbacks, but they don’t face lasting damage. If they get in trouble, they get out of it again by the end of the story. Part of the suspension of disbelief required for deep immersion into these conspiracy worlds is to believe that acts which are part of their own heroic arc – even criminal or violent acts – are righteous and will ultimately be celebrated rather than punished.
It is this absolute conviction that they are headed for a happy ending, and that nothing truly bad will happen to them, which makes some conspiracy theorists so willing to document themselves planning and committing crimes and acts of political violence.
There is an element of privilege at work here. The majority of rioters on January 6th were white, middle aged and middle class. While reliable demographic data on anti-lockdown protesters is hard to come by, at face value it appears that many protesters across North America, Europe and Oceania also fit this description.
Undoubtedly the demographic makeup of these movements has an influence on how they relate to law enforcement. It is difficult to imagine a primarily Black or Muslim group thinking they could simply walk up to police and ‘arrest’ them with zip ties, for example, as some white anti-lockdown protesters in Australia have publicly planned on doing.
How conspiracy theories warp believers’ reality
As I monitored Melbourne anti-lockdown and conspiracy groups on social media throughout September and October, I observed protesters beginning to receive criminal charges and serious fines, yet reassuring one another that these somehow weren’t real.
Those facing up to and over $10,000 AUD in fines made reference to Sovereign Citizen conspiracy theories to assure others that the fines were not valid, and so they did not need to pay them.
Others charged with criminal offences for assaulting police officers or protesting illegally during lockdowns claimed that there would be a “second Nuremberg”, which would see the government overthrown and politicians hanged, before they ever saw the inside of a courtroom.
Despite facing very real penalties for their actions, these protesters genuinely believe that reality will bend to the force of their narrative: that as the heroes of the story they will eventually be vindicated, and any negative consequences will miraculously melt away.
This sentiment echoes the January 6th rioters, many of whom believed that Trump would return to power, jail his enemies and pardon everyone involved in the Capitol invasion. Take for example Jacob Chansley, also known as the QAnon Shaman, who publicly asked Trump for a pardon after being charged for his role in the riot. In this narrative, a selfie in the Capitol would be a badge of honour, not evidence of a crime.
How do we prevent and respond to conspiracy communities?
The events of January 6th demonstrated that plans for action should not be taken less seriously simply because they are made publicly. There may be a tendency to assume that any truly serious attackers would operate via closed, secure channels. However, much of what happened on January 6th was planned out in the open in vast Facebook groups and on other accessible platforms. If those plans had been taken more seriously at the time, perhaps the events of that day could have been avoided.
It also pointed to the need to ensure that evidence of potentially criminal acts is preserved. Many have highlighted the problem of social media companies removing evidence of war crimes without appropriately storing the data for future investigations. In crisis situations, whether a war or an attack like January 6th, social media platforms often employ algorithms to help manage the flow of content.
While removing some content is important and necessary, it can also mean cutting a vast swathe through the evidence available to investigators and preserved for history. At an individual scale, removing particular posts – for example hate speech or incitements to violence – could also make it more difficult for investigators to build a profile of that person’s behaviour leading up to whatever incident they may be implicated in.
To overcome these challenges, both at the macro and micro level, platforms, investigators and researchers must collaborate to form and implement responsible content moderation practices that still retain evidence.
Ultimately, the suspension of disbelief, and the delusion that violent acts and other crimes will not lead to real consequences, has significant implications for how we should respond to the hybrid threat of conspiracy-fuelled extremism. Potential extremist actors who are at best minimally concerned about law enforcement will behave very differently from more traditional extremist actors, who recognise the threat from law enforcement all too well.
These movements may also be more brazen in directly confronting or even assaulting police than more traditional extremist actors. At a non-violent protest in Melbourne this December, protesters surrounded a police station chanting “you serve us.” In the Netherlands, Austria, Australia, and elsewhere, many anti-lockdown protests have also been notable for their violence.
However, as at least some conspiracy theorists are learning, a suspension of disbelief only takes you so far. Of the 719 people charged over the Capitol riot, at least 49 defendants have been accused of trying to delete images and footage they recorded from that day.
Sooner or later, reality bites.
Elise Thomas is an OSINT Analyst at ISD. She has previously worked for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, Wired and others.