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“I will never forget this for as long as I live”: Social Learning at the Capitol Hill Siege

“I will never forget this for as long as I live”: Social Learning at the Capitol Hill Siege
6th May 2021 Danielle Carrier

“Today was indeed a historical day for sure. I will never forget this for as long as I live… I’m proud as **** what we accomplished yesterday, but we need to start planning and we are starting planning.”

Zachary Rehl may never have imagined that his own words would be featured in a US federal prosecutor’s argument for his detention. Now, his own words may factor into his conviction and imprisonment alongside other Proud Boys members for their alleged roles in perpetrating the 6 January Capitol Hill siege. Rehl posted these words in the hours following the siege, and while they do hold some implications for assessing his potential future dangerousness, they also provide two key insights into his mindset during and after 6 January.

First, the act of storming the nation’s Capitol appears to have elicited a deeply positive response from Rehl. This is perhaps unsurprising, but it suggests that Rehl’s experiences on the day–in his own words–left an indelible mark on his memory. Going forward, he is likely to associate that positive response with both his memory of the Capitol Hill siege and with the thought of conducting any similar future acts. Second, it is clear from Rehl’s words that he and his co-conspirators’ alleged efforts to attack the seat of democracy were not only successful from his perspective, but also serve as a point of pride.

Rehl is hardly alone among the still-alleged Capitol Hill siege perpetrators. Evidence brought to bear against arrested members of the Oath Keepers shows similar reactions. Take the words of Oath Keepers Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl after they breached the Capitol building’s doors. Watkins reports: “We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it,” and Crowl later remarks: “We took on the Capitol! We overran the Capitol!” Whether rioters were affiliated to the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, or no violent extremist organisation at all, many took to social media to express their apparent jubilation and sense of accomplishment for the events on 6 January.

These two concepts—experiential responses in-the-moment and perceptions of success—have been studied by psychologists for decades. They contribute to social learning through what Albert Bandura called self-efficacy: the belief in one’s abilities to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. The former—experiential responses—are what Bandura called physiological states: the emotional and bodily responses individuals experience in the process of undertaking a task(s). The latter—perceptions of success—he called mastery experiences: personal experiences that individuals look to as examples of their own success in accomplishing a task(s). Together, they can facilitate or hinder future action depending on the manner of individuals’ experiences and their perceptions of those experiences.

For members of violent extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, the implications of the siege on 6 January are profound. While many researchers have noted the dangerous potential for these groups and others to use the siege as a recruiting and mobilisation tool for new members, the potential impact for existing members is equally real. A more systematic review is necessary, but the preliminary evidence from online posts, videos, and messages like those of Zachary Rehl, Donovan Crowl, and Jessica Watkins suggests that members of violent extremist groups garnered a significant “self-efficacy boost” on 6 January from which to springboard future activity. Put another way, the individual and collective experiences of violent extremist group members on 6 January, as well as their perceptions of success in storming the US Capitol, holds the potential to shape these members’ beliefs that they can successfully execute similar acts in the future.

To date, there has been little significant offline mobilisation or arrest actions (outside the Capitol Hill siege investigation itself) since 6 January. While the events of the day are still relatively recent—and while there are almost certainly related arrests and/or investigations that have not been made public—the US has yet to witness a nationwide “rising up” to match the rhetoric on and around 6 January. There are a number of possible explanations for why that might be, but the simplest is that it may still be too early to fully gauge the impact of the Capitol Hill siege across the US domestic violent extremist milieu.

A good place to start is by examining the two other sources that contribute to self-efficacy: 1) vicarious experiences, in which individuals identify specific role models in their perceived in-group and conform their own behaviour and personalities to these role models, and 2) social persuasion, a process through which external actors influence individuals’ beliefs about themselves by communicating specific perspectives. Exploratory research by Linda Schlegel has looked at the important role that these two factors can play in online-radicalisation processes of violent extremists. Here, the available evidence from Capitol Hill rioters’ online activity is admittedly sparser, mostly because these two factors play a bigger role in motivating individuals to act before they execute a task, whereas physiological states and mastery experiences are cemented during and after the task is completed. For Rehl, Crowl, Watkins, and others, it is likely that vicarious experiences and social persuasion from established group members played a critical role as they were joining and cementing their identities in their respective groups.

Focusing on vicarious experiences and social persuasion may yield more value, however, in examining post 6 January online recruiting and mobilisation efforts by the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other violent extremist groups. How are these groups framing the narrative of the Capitol Hill siege in their online communications to persuade new and on-the-fence recruits? Will the pervasive footage of their members storming past police officers and “reclaiming” the seat of democracy provide the example on which future recruits and inspired individuals draw motivation and model their own behaviour? These questions and others are vital areas for further study.

For now, it is likely that many of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys will face significant prison sentences, but they will not be imprisoned forever. The implications of imprisonment, release, and the potential for subsequent notoriety are areas to be examined in future research. Online posts like those examined in this article should be studied and leveraged by the members of the US criminal justice system tasked with evaluating and designing reintegration plans for these (still alleged) perpetrators.

It is also important to consider the violent extremist group members (as well as other unaffiliated arrestees) who did not view the 6 January siege as a complete success. Burgeoning evidence is pointing to organisational cracks in groups like the Oath Keepers, with some members accusing others of being “blue falcons” (military jargon for backstabbers) and claiming, “This organization is a huge ****** joke” in the group’s National Signal Chat after the siege, presumably for perceived on-the-ground failures. While online statements like these do not absolve members who stormed the Capitol of their actions, they offer potential in-roads for practitioners tasked with countering violent extremism to pursue.

The role of self-efficacy in shaping violent extremists’ belief systems cannot be understated. Online posts, videos, and messages used as evidence in legal documents related to the 6 January Capitol Hill siege offer important insights for researchers interested in understanding these belief systems and for practitioners tasked with bringing individuals to justice. The online footprints of extremist movements may also deepen our understanding of where these movements’ groups and inspired followers go from here.