In 1975, Edward Tronick and his colleagues conducted what would become one of the most replicated experiments in developmental psychology.  A video discussing a more recent replication of the experiment can be found below:

In the video, a baby sits in a chair. The child’s mother enters the room and begins interacting with her child, smiling, cooing, and responding. Then, suddenly, as part of the experiment, the mother stops, simply standing with a blank expression. The baby notices immediately. At first, the baby makes sounds and moves her arms. Soon, the baby begins pointing to things, hoping to attract the mother’s attention. When the mother gives no feedback, the baby starts screaming and crying inconsolably. Some of the most severe physical reactions occurred within a minute of the mother becoming unresponsive. Eventually, as Tronick described in his original experiment, “When these attempts fail, the infant . . . orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”

Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Humans are social creatures seeking reciprocal interaction in order to survive. Other’s faces are deep reservoirs of information we regularly trove for meaning. Psychologist Paul Ekman revealed human faces contain 43 muscles working in concert to show our emotions. His scientific experiments found that our most basic facial expressions (like sadness, anger, and fear) were cultural universals—that our expression of key emotional states had clear meaning across cultures. 

An infant growing despondent at being unable to connect emotionally to a caregiver indicates how early in life we are hard-wired to seek out emotional correspondence to survive. Sociologists have long studied how we rely on others as social mirrors to read for clues about our own sense of self in the social world. Most humans then become especially adept at learning what gets us attention, either positive or negative. When it doesn’t work, we become hopeless.

The still-face experiment indicates infants desperately want attention and feedback from caregivers. When these are withheld, the anchor for their sense of self, and their reality, is cut. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have long hired psychologists to study and then apply such insights on our essential survival instinct—a primal need for clear, positive feedback from others—to gain users. Social media “likes” have been connected to dopamine hits in the brain, or an immediate physiological reaction rooted in a pleasurable response. People post things on social media to be read, seen, and/or heard, and for those posts to be connected back to themselves. Even those who post anonymously are interested in other’s reactions to their input. We don’t post in vacuums.

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, titled “They Used to Post Selfies.  Now They’re Trying to Reverse the Election,” discussed how basic human needs for individual affirmation for some people have moved away from face-to-face interaction, toward mediated affirmation rooted in extreme politics. The authors looked at a few young adult’s media posting patterns before and after their online embracing of right-wing and conspiratorial-themed postings. The article indicated that, before these young adults began posting right-wing conspiratorial theories, they used social media to post about themselves, their lives, and their mostly non-political opinions. They, in other words, posted personal information and, as the Op-Ed title says, selfies; pictures of their own faces.

The article said their original approach to posting on social media received little positive feedback—perhaps a few dozen “likes” and handfuls of comments, usually from those they knew. They were not at that point associated with the extreme far-right. Once these young adults discovered and began posting such far-right political content, and learned to choose hashtags used to organize that content by topic for larger consumption outside of immediate friends, “likes” and comments on their posts increased several fold. They became more visible. Those young adults had found groups of like-minded individuals validating each other in what could be called an imagined community.

Communities are groups with shared values and beliefs that interact over periods of time. Communities are a source of affirmation for their members. Communities form an in-group, one that provides an ecosystem of values and beliefs in opposition to other groups or out-groups. In-groups also promote in-group bias, vilifying the out-group based at times on even arbitrary distinctions. One thing the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol showed was how important such a sense of community is to people and how social media can connect disparate far-right groups under one umbrella to pose an imminent danger to the world’s preeminent democracy.

Proud Boys in Pittsboro (2019 Oct)

Social media also involves speed of communication—an individual can post anything, to be seen everywhere in the world, with one click. Such speed of transmission and response, together with the potential for a large audience, makes social media fundamentally different from all previous forms of media-based communication. It provides an enticement for individuals seeking attention to think short-term, for the positive feedback we all crave and can grow despondent without. 

Much attention has been given lately to the “echo chambers” that exist within social media. Perhaps, though, these might be better thought of as emotional and behavioral call-and-response feedback loops. Actual echo chambers don’t have emotions—they are spaces that allow for the repetition of sounds. Emotional and behavioral call-and-response feedback loops, though, are dynamic forms of communication with a self-reinforcing quality that might then trigger action in the physical world.

The dopamine hits for individual users on social media should also be considered through a recognition of the increased importance of social networks responding to hierarchical forms of power. Online, far-right extremists and conspiracy followers developed, and/or found, a network that, initiating an insurrection, aspired to compete for legitimacy over a hierarchal system of elected officials in a representative democracy. 

A man in a Q Anon shirt from a Trump rally in Manchester, NH, August 15, 2019

In his book the Tower and the Square, Ferguson notes that hierarchies (like medieval towers) represent vertical (top-down) forms of power, while networks (like the public square) represent horizontal (equally distributed) forms of power. Social media networks, promoting the immediate dissemination of material through instantaneous posts, pose a challenge to slower, vertical forms of media where editors control and direct content.  Social media can, therefore, more rapidly promote and inspire communities that might then threaten slower, more deliberate forms of government that rely on long periods of campaigning, election, and the weighing of evidence, opinion, and policy.

The speed of social network communication and the immediate feedback of “likes” and “views” promote an environment of information now competing against traditional mass-media sources. The democratic, individualistic, and most importantly, immediate, nature of participation in social media networks means that everyone is, in a sense, competing for attention—for likes, for views, for subscribers. Social media platforms have struggled to vet material on the sites in the same way as hierarchal-based mass media can. Today, social media “influencers” work to find followers, as an important measure of their “success” concerns developing a large following. Generally speaking, social media platforms have promoted attention from others as a more important measure (a measure of audience size and impact) than promoting accuracy and truth.

Media and politics, though, ultimately involve individuals.  Individuals who feel rejected from others can at times be drawn to extremist groups without initially expressing extremist views.  In “White Supremacy Was Her World.  And Then She Left,” Seyward Darby described the experience of one of her interview subjects, Corinna Olsen, who initially turned to online hate forums to ask rudimentary questions about whether Whites should feel able to “feel pride” in “their culture.”  Instead of being ridiculed by true believers for her naivety, Olsen felt acceptance into online forums for hate.  “They seemed immensely interested in me and my life, and they wanted to be my friend.  [For someone who] grew up without friends, that was very appealing.  It made me feel like I must be doing something right” (Olsen quoted by Darby).  Olsen described herself as initially ignorant of those forums with skinheads or Neo-Nazis as trolling for recruits.  Darby, who has long studied hate groups, believes Olsen’s route into hate groups to be fairly common.  For Darby, hate can simply become “a social bond” and “a cure for loneliness.” 

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has proven that through social media, those craving attention can find imagined communities under an umbrella of unfounded conspiracies, hate, and disinformation. But perhaps therein lies another question: how many of the people espousing far-right conspiracy theories, hate, and disinformation on social media are true believers in such communities, and how many might simply be lonely people in search of validation, or perhaps simply opportunists? An element I found noteworthy about the rioters at the Capitol was how many of them held phones with cameras, recording, posting, and live-streaming their participation. The revolution was, indeed, televised, as a form of reality TV delivered on YouTube and Twitter, seemingly featuring real and wannabe “influencers.”

A number of rioters, though, were clearly true believers. Their imagined community was largely based not on a single platform, but a gross rejection of a hierarchal structure of representative democracy in the U.S. They felt they weren’t being represented. So, they had taken to representing their resentment, to themselves and each other, to meet that key social need expressed in infants, for a deep sense of their existence through validation by others. These individuals under one umbrella of imagined community had found enough in common to collectively agree that if their nation’s leader could be re-elected, that too would confirm a change in their marginal status. His and their interests became one. His narcissism and anger at perceived affronts became the galvanizing force and centerpiece for a coalition for wounded pride, hate, and paranoia. Together, the leader and the rioters would right a host of perceived wrongs.

It is then worth considering how politics and emotional expressions might correspond. One recent study of President Trump by psychologist Erika Rosenberg focused on systematically analyzing his facial expressions using Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System (the FACS being the original, empirical assessment tool used by Ekman to understand the facial physiological correspondence with human emotion). Rosenberg’s summary of her scientific opinion: “Trump’s facial repertoire suggests these things to me. He has a great deal of fear under the surface. He tries to position himself as superior to others, whether he truly sees himself that way or not. He is rarely happy.”

Such expressions, I suggest, might also fruitfully be read against the symbols on several flags flown by the crowd outside of the riot. Many rioters, claiming they were true “patriots,” brandished the American flag.  Several other rioters held flags with snakes, flags with their leader as Rambo, various flags with guns, and the Confederate Battle Flag. These are symbols of dominance, superiority, aggression, wounded national pride, and righteous anger against deep-seated threats.

Together, I am arguing that the insurrection involved a perfect storm of many seemingly disparate elements. A key is the promotion of conspiratorial views on social media to both true believers and social media opportunists, some of which overlap. Another element is that social media has the perverse effect of separating and isolating us through individual phones and computers (likely compounding some people’s sense of isolation recently exacerbated by the pandemic). Third, a coalition of conspiracy theorists, hate-mongers, and far-right extremists formed something of an imagined community, enough of whose members became determined to wreck a legitimate, representative democracy. Fourth, they were not a community with a shared view, however, rooted in replacing a hierarchal form of representative government with their own policy platform. There were true believers, there were those who became radicalized through fellowship, and there were those who simply wanted attention.  

Social media, when fused with politics, perceived slights, conspiracies, individual isolation through technology, and a narcissistic, anti-democratic, and deeply disturbed leader, created this perfect storm culminating in an insurrection against the modern world’s longest-standing democracy. Holocaust and genocide scholars know well how perfect storms can lead to once unimaginable consequences.

Kurt Borchard, Ph.D., is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska Kearney.  His areas of interest include the Holocaust, genocide, social psychology, and critical cultural studies.