The power of social media and the cost of free speech

Social media posts of the Capitol riots are free likes, but are they free speech?


Gabrielle Wheeler '23

The Capitol Hill Riot signifies the first Capitol breach since 1814.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects freedom of speech, however, the incitement of violence and intended threats of January 6 should be subject to prosecution.  Through the power of social media, plans for the Capitol riots gained likes and a worldwide following.  Platforms such as Parler, Twitter, and Facebook aided in the planning of the attacks. While the rioters showed us the immense divide within our country, we also learned how truly impactful social media can be on one’s self-view.  Those who stormed the Capitol made no effort to conceal their identities, taking pride in their actions and using social media to promote the siege and gain support.  Individuals and groups who broke the law must face the repercussions of their decisions.  Social media posts that incite violence and lawbreaking should not earn views, but an appearance in court. 

Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol January 6, marking the first breach of the building since 1814.  Courtesy of Ms. Jessica Griffin

The attacks were the first breach of the Capitol Building since 1814, when the British burned the historical landmark.  Similar to the 1814 Burning of Washington, there was a minimal presence of trained defense forces January 6, according to The Washington Post.  This time, though, we had advance warning of the impending attack in the form of social media posts.  Instead of the officials noticing the British gallop in from a short distance, everyone saw the domestic terrorists coming from their own electronic devices.

One rioter did not break into the building and disapproved of those who did, yet he felt empowered, even from the outside, according to The New York Times.

“It felt so good to show people: We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!” Mr. Kevin Haag said, according to The New York Times. 

His response demonstrates the validation that many of the rioters received from posting photos and videos of the attack.  Social media affords people visibility in a variety of ways.  It lets us share our opinions and experiences in ways such as live streaming and meeting others with corresponding ideas.  Similarly, groups of Trump supporters raised money to travel to Washington D.C. and encouraged others to act upon their dissatisfaction with the election results through social media. 

Mr. Ben Smith, a New York Times media columnist, worked for eight years as founding editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News.  Last week, he saw videos of a past employee, Mr. Anthime Joseph Gionet, participating in the Capitol riots.  Mr. Gionet was a valued BuzzFeed employee due to his willingness to do anything to garner more views. 

“We’ve got over 10,000 people live, watching, let’s go!” Mr. Gionet said in a part of his livestream.  “Hit that follow button — I appreciate you guys.”

Mr. Anthime Joseph Gionet performs a scene during a livestream.  Courtesy of The New York Times

Mr. Smith refers to the crimes committed by Mr. Gionet and countless others as performative violence.  Mr. Gionet played with Senator Jeff Merkley’s telephone and draped himself over the office furniture, according to The New York TimesMr. Smith contacted several of his past colleagues, all of whom remembered Mr. Gionet as “sensitive and almost desperate to be liked.” 

Many feel fulfilled when they receive thousands of views for something they predicted would quickly gain popularity.  The use of search engine optimization (SEO) increases visibility.  SEO is how many journalists and social media experts predict which posts will garner the most traffic and which will receive only a few views, according to The New York Times.  Posts that incited the attack on the U.S. Capitol and recordings of the event caused many accounts to gain an increased following.  

Social media fulfills the world’s desire for instant gratification through immediate response and feedback.  Our words instantly upload, leaving us with no time for long reflections nor time to weigh the consequences.  This instantaneous communication allows us to quickly unite with others who decide to join the bandwagon.  Additionally, much like Capitol Hill livestreams, we know what is going on at all times with almost constant access to the internet. 

The attack on Capitol Hill, encouraged by Mr. Trump’s incitement of violence during his televised speech January 6, was due to extensive planning far before that moment.  Twitter users coined the phrase #StoptheSteal on election night, according to  This phrase, later used in posts regarding the storming of the Capitol, served as an excuse for the need to breach the seat of the U.S. government.  The rioters wanted visibility and they wanted people to listen.  In the end, they got what they wanted, a picture of their involvement. They should also get what they deserve, a permanent record.

Featured Image by Gabrielle Wheeler ’23