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Motivations of D.C. mob may threaten our democracy, but examining the causes can rebuild its strength

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WVU's Elizabeth Cohen, James Nolan and Sharon Ryan are available to comment on the violence in Washington DC Wednesday (Jan. 6). (WVU Photo)

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Three West Virginia University professors say hate and fear fueled the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Wednesday (Jan. 6). In the coming days, these experts say we as a nation must consider culpability and explore how we can create a better future to prevent violence, disrupt misinformation and reform the justice system.


“The insurrection at our Capitol was fueled by the ideas that extremist groups and our president circulated on social media. For years and years, President Trump has used Twitter as a platform to feed anger with baseless claims and incite violence in plain sight. This isn’t the first time the president has broadcasted what extremists interpret as a call-to-arms, it’s just the first time we’ve seen it result in an assault like this one. By hosting the ideas that incite violence, social media companies are complicit in inciting the violence.” 

“I think it’s appropriate to celebrate all the good things that that social network sites allow us to do. They let us broadcast ourselves, connect with like-minded people and organize around all sorts of ideas. Many of these ideas are wonderful. These platforms can help people spread truth, and organize movements that result in political and social justice. But these platforms are also used to spread falsehoods, anger, and intolerance. If social media companies want to take credit for all the ways they’ve enhanced our society and all the positive social movements they’ve facilitated, they should also take ownership and responsibility for the damage they’ve done.” –Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor, WVU Communication Studies 


“It is tempting to explain violence as originating in the psychology or personal characteristics of those we call “criminals,” “terrorists,” or “thugs.” This is a mistake.  Instead, human beings tend to act rationally within the contexts they find themselves.  This is true even when these contexts are shaped by ideology, propaganda, or outright lies. The conditions that made storming the U.S. Capitol logical were based on deliberate lies intended to incite and provoke.”   

“Dr. Martin Luther King said that a riot is the “language of the unheard.” This may be true for groups who are actually oppressed in a social system, but this was not the case at the United States Capitol yesterday.  The riot at the U.S. Capitol building was the language of the most heard, the dominate voice, expressing new fear about a sudden loss of power and privilege.”  

“What happened at the U.S. Capitol yesterday cannot be separated from our efforts to reform American policing.  A reformed police mission must aim at securing and strengthening American democracy, while helping communities solve problems, remain safe, and seek justice.  Restoring broken relationships must be a primary component of a reformed police mission.”— James Nolan, professor and chair, WVU Department of Sociology & Anthropology


“Yesterday’s insurrection also demonstrates the ugly truth that human beings are willing to engage in extreme violence to defend a set of views that are fueled by hate and fear, rather than reason.  In my view, although the images of the attack on the Capitol were certainly frightening and shocking, the underlying psychology of this event is nothing new. Throughout history, many of the most violent and hateful movements and events are based on beliefs that are inadequately supported by solid evidence.”

“A healthy democracy must ensure that all of its citizens are taught to value, uncover and access the truth.  A healthy democracy must ensure that its citizens are humble enough to recognize when they do not have adequate information.  A healthy democracy must ensure that all of its citizens have access to a quality education that centers on providing the skills necessary for understanding reality.  Yesterday’s events serve as another stark reminder that American democracy is not well.” —Sharon Ryan, professor and chair, WVU Department of Philosophy 


West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.



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