The absolute chaos that erupted on Capitol Hill as hundreds of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol Building will go down as one of the darkest and most disturbing moments in the history of the United States, and will certainly leave a permanent black mark on outgoing President Donald Trump's tarnished legacy.
As the world watched the ugly, unprecedented scene unfold in real-time on their computers, phones, and television screens, many were left to wonder, "how did it all come to this?"
There can be little doubt that the events that occurred on Capitol Hill were a direct result of Donald Trump's oft-unhinged rhetoric, his entirely flawed yet unyielding insistence that the 2020 election was fraudulently stolen from him, along with his call for supporters to march to the Capitol following his speech at the Ellipse as Congress was convening to confirm the Electoral results.
That there was a connection between what went down on Capitol Hill and Trump's calls to overturn the results of the election and for his supporters to march on the Capitol is not something that is really in doubt. Perhaps the match that finally lit the fire occurred when Trump announced at his rally that:
After this, we're going to walk down there - and I'll be there with you - we're going to walk down ... to the Capitol and we are going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women ... and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.
What ended up transpiring may not exactly have been the show of strength Trump had envisioned or wanted when he uttered those words, but by that time it was already too late. Everything he had been tweeting and saying about the election for the past two months had boiled up and led to the pressure-cooker moment.
But Trump's rhetoric wasn't the only force at play here. Something far more subtle, but a force just as potent was lurking under the surface, playing an equally consequential role in lighting the fuse – ad tech.
Seemingly innocuous in nature at first glance, but downright sinister upon further reflection, ad tech rules much of what we see on the digital platforms we interact with on a daily basis. When we interact with 'free' services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google, our interactions are spun up in an algorithmic web that processes our online behavior and spits out advertisements and online content based upon what the algorithm detects to be of particular interest to us individually. This type of algorithmic micro-targeting based on our clicks, likes, follows, posts, and browsing activity essentially equates to a form of targeted manipulation at best, and outright brainwashing at worst – all of which is fueled by lucrative advertising efforts aimed at presenting the appropriate message to the appropriate individual at the appropriate time and appropriate place.
Now, what happened on Capitol Hill was certainly never the intended consequence of the ad tech mechanism. What happened was simply an unfortunate side-effect that resulted from how ad tech works. This is not to downplay ad tech's influence on the events that occurred, nor is it to defend the dubious practice in any way, it's simply to note that sometimes unforeseen and unintended consequences arise from seemingly entirely unrelated catalysts.
So how exactly did ad tech contribute to the chaos that erupted on Capitol Hill? As mentioned, advertising algorithms are designed to process and distill everything we do online to feed us content and advertisements tailored specifically to our personal interests. So if an algorithm infers from an individual's online habits and interactions with digital platforms that the particular individual is apt to interact with sites, posts, or any other content that pushes conspiracy theories or false claims (say, relating to election fraud), the algorithm will continue to push that type of content to the individual. Regardless of whether the content is inflammatory, false, or otherwise dangerous, the algorithm will continue bombarding the individual with the same type of content, compounding and compounding the individual's dedication to his or her own belief system, however flawed or ill-informed it may be.
This is profoundly dangerous because these algorithms have the ability to send such an individual down a rabbit hole of disinformation that can be as compelling as it can be difficult to escape.
Essentially, ad tech has the ability to produce an echo chamber, and the echo chamber can be a powerful and destructive place, particularly when inflammatory viewpoints based not in reality are reinforced and amplified within them. This is exactly the type of online environment that has the power to lead to the incitement of actual real-life violence the likes of what we saw on Capitol Hill.
When our online behavior is constantly tracked and analyzed and monetized, this is one of the things that can happen, which is a major reason why digital privacy is so important. We shouldn't allow advertising algorithms to track us online and dictate what we see on the platforms we interact with. We shouldn't have to trade our digital privacy for the convenience of accessing 'free' online platforms that feed us the content that they think we should be consuming. It's like putting digital blinders on, and it can have disastrous consequences.
Feature image credit: Alex Gakos / Shutterstock