By Willem La Tulip-Troost & Katherine Nichols
‘This is a PR war’, a rioter yelled to his comrades as they ransacked the Senate floor, ‘this is an [information operation] war… we can’t lose it.’ Out of all the lies that went into the making of the US Capitol attacks, this is one of the few truths to emerge.
On 6 January, far-right conspiracy theorists, convinced that the 2020 election was stolen from then-President Trump, attacked the United States government. The immediate goal was to prevent the certification of the election results in which Joe Biden triumphed. The long-term goals, and the extent to which the rioters had intended to escalate violence (such as alleged plans to kidnap or harm US lawmakers), are still being parsed out. One thing is certain though — the attacks were part of a calculated performative act, one designed to legitimise and promote the alternate reality in which the rioters live.
It does not take an expert to see that, although they did not prevent a President Joe Biden, the attack on the Capitol was not a complete loss for the rioters. It is because the battle they fought was not over electoral due process; instead, it was a counterintuitive ideological campaign to, in their eyes, save democracy by ‘Stop[ping] the steal’. As insurgents in an increasingly visual world, their battles are fought in the narrative domain. The rioters at the Capitol didn’t have to overturn election results to walk away victorious, they just needed to control the narrative. That is not to diminish the violence at the Capitol and the lives lost that day. Rather, a reminder that to fully understand the attackers, we need to understand the messages they were sending both overtly and in the subtext.
Today’s insurgencies are fought on an ideological battlefield, which broadens the arsenal of weapons and strategies. Where guns and tanks once conquered territory, words and images now command hearts and minds. Everything an actor does or says has communicative value; strategic communications theory posits that every word, deed, action, or non-action sends a message that can feed into the larger narrative. Initial assessments of the Capitol riots analyse the attacks in terms of political violence or explain the static symbols present, such as flags and tattoos. However, to fully understand the attacks we need to go beyond the purely material assessment and instead address the messages sent and narratives evoked.
We can understand the Capitol Riots through a phenomenon called Propaganda of the Deed (POTD). POTD refers to ‘an act of violence whose signal and/or extreme nature is intended to create an ideological impact disproportionate to the act itself’. Propaganda of the Deed employs symbols, which can be words or actions, to amplify the message of the deed beyond the act itself, thereby contributing to a broader narrative. In their symbolic attacks on the Capitol, the rioters sent a message that will have longer-lasting impacts than any physical damage to the building.
Ultimately POTD is a tool of legitimation, used to market the insurgents’ ideals and encourage sympathetic communities. The rioters ensured their narrative would be broadcast worldwide by breaking into and desecrating institutions of democracy that once seemed untouchable. Indeed, shortly after the riots, 74% of Americans believed US democracy was under threat. Thus in the context of this narrative battlefield, we should be analysing the weaponization of symbols – the Propaganda of the Deed.
In this article, we outline particularly striking moments of POTD at the Capitol riots which will reverberate for a long time to come. Though they feature symbols with strong connotations in American culture, the POTD value is the context in which they are used. The emotional, cultural, and political impact of such moments should not be overlooked. These symbolic instances represent not the first gunshots in a new battle, but powerful ideological weapons in an ongoing narrative war raging at the heart of American society.
This image symbolises the severity of the day in which American institutions of democracy all of a sudden seemed all too impermanent. It is a sobering sight, United States Capitol Police brandishing their guns at rioters threatening to break into the House Chamber as representatives hide underneath seats. This is a symbol of how fragile political order can be. To some, this serves as a reminder of the existential threats American democracy faces; to others, this serves as a call to action, evidence that they can affect change through violence. In this imagery, the threat of far-right groups in the US is legitimized and the weakness of US democratic security is publicized. The imagery of armed civilian groups breaching the Capitol — with relative ease — will not soon be forgotten by US allies or adversaries, domestic and foreign.
While the Confederate army got within six miles of the Capitol during the US Civil War, no confederate flag raised in revolt ever flew within it; that was, until 6 January. The image of a man flaunting the Confederate flag, a racist emblem, through congressional hallways is a powerful symbol of the white supremacy that persists in America generations after the Civil War. This particular image of abolitionist Charles Sumner watching over the deed is especially haunting. The action as a whole underlines Trumpite glorification of an imagined past and can be mobilized for the rioters’ greater narrative of sedition. This bears an unwelcome resemblance to the cult of tradition that Umberto Eco identifies as a core feature of fascism.
The hangman’s noose is a chilling symbol of fear and hatred in the US after it was used for decades to control, intimidate, and kill primarily African Americans. The noose made multiple appearances at the riots, including a massive gallows erected in front of the Capitol steps. In this image rioters had stolen abandoned AP news equipment, fashioned a noose from cable wire, and chanted ‘We are the news now’. The fear that this symbol incites is heightened not only by the image of the noose but also by the pre-existing hatred for the media. The rioters present that day, by and large, view the media as their adversary. Some of the most extreme groups subscribe to the white supremacist idea of a Day of the Rope in which they lynch ‘race traitors’ such as journalists and politicians. The symbolism of rioters using one of the more insidious symbols of hatred in US history to threaten the free press – a core tenant of American democracy – should not be lost on us.
The unforgettable image of a shirtless man standing in the Capitol donning a horned fur helmet represents more than an unusually dressed insurrectionist. Calling himself ‘Q Shaman’, the man is an esoteric supporter of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, which alleges Trump is the saviour destined to defeat a ‘deep-state cabal’ of paedophiles. The image is symbolic of how a conspiracy theory that began on 4chan, a notorious alt-right message board, has infiltrated the US government; not only with the Capitol breach on 6 January but through elected officials including President Trump, who amplify, mirror, and feed into the conspiracy with baseless voter-fraud allegations. The symbolism of this moment illustrates the palpable impacts of online disinformation and conspiracy when it jumps off the pages of the internet and into the real world. This is another example of an image that can be interpreted in two ways: evidence of an existential threat to America, or as a call to action.
Much ink has since been spilt explaining the implications of political violence in one of the world’s oldest constitutional democracies. The ensuing debates have revolved around curbing online incitement and countering right-wing extremism, but not as much effort has gone into understanding the rhetorical significance of the riots themselves — the Propaganda of the Deed. The riots were not the endgame, rather a physical outburst of an ongoing narrative conflict. In addition to the questions about political violence and online disinformation, we should also be asking what symbols the extremists are welding into their narrative. Countering extremist propaganda relies on developing effective and compelling counter-narratives. Without understanding the narratives the rioters evoked, and how and why they did so, attempts to counter their propaganda will be ineffective.
Katherine Nichols recently completed her MA in Strategic Communications from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on influence and diplomacy. You can find her on Twitter at @kat_nichols_.
Willem La Tulip-Troost recently completed his MA in Strategic Communications from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His research focuses on diplomacy, influence, narrative, and disinformation. You can find him on Twitter at @LaTroost