It has been reported that the private messaging applications Signal and Telegram were frequently used during the Stop the Steal protest and Capitol Riot of January 11, 2021 (Chau, 2021). These encrypted communication services were chosen over traditional communication apps (such as Facebook’s WhatsApp) primarily because the end-to-end encryption software makes it difficult for outside entities, such as law enforcement, to monitor user communication and location.
These encrypted communication technologies also provide another social function for the Capitol Rioters. Those who stormed the Capitol on January 11 may have been an assortment of Trump supporters, reactionaries, conspiracy theorists, militia members, and alt-right groups, but most shared the belief that they were called to fight in a battle against dark forces conspiring to destroy the country from within. The narrative that the Capitol protestors would need secret communication technologies as enemies of a corrupt government resonates with the marginalized tag many reactionary groups have adopted in recent years. Technologies like Signal and Telegram not only offer protection from Big Brother, but provide a means for users to “play out” a particular identity. To put it simply, the use of encrypted technologies by Capitol Rioters intensifies the thrill of “playing war.”
There has been extensive research on how social media and other digital technologies have contributed to the spread of hate, fear, and misinformation (Daniels, 2018; Maik and Thurston, 2018). Facebook is currently facing long-deserved criticism over how the company sows division, amplifies misinformation, and undermines democracy in pursuit of profit. Testimony provided by whistleblower Frances Haugen paired with past controversies over Facebook’s role in Russian attempt to influence the 2016 election has illuminated the harm user-generated platforms can have on civic participation. However, it would be a mistake for scholars to assume that social media and digital technologies are determining these toxic behaviors. The media experience has always been a negotiation between what the technology affords and the motivations of the user.
I argue that incorporating game studies and theories of play in an examination of political participation fills a gap in contemporary scholarship that fails to examine the sociocultural implications of an increasingly playful media landscape. The popularity of encrypted messaging applications during the Capitol Riot provides a meaningful case study in how the user’s motivations is important in the spread of hate and violence. Signal and Telegram were not created to provide safe havens for far-right groups. In fact, Signal was co-created by former Twitter head of security Moxie Marlinspike, who wanted to create a communication app free from data mining and surveillance (Nield and Linder, 2021). Whatever the creator’s intent, however, Signal became the preferred mobile application for communicating during the Capitol Riot.
While most might associate digital play as unique to video games, many have proposed that all digital media, including information communication technologies, have playful affordances (Fuch, 2012; Raessen, 2006). Stating that lucidity is not located in the game object nor conceived by the player’s attitude, Mathias Fuch (2012) advocates for a “ludocentric approach” defining digital play as the interaction between user and interface. This means that interfaces (especially computer-based interfaces) always have playful potential. Both computer games and other digital technologies, such as mobile phones and user-generated platforms, stimulate playful goals and provide the means for players to construct identities through playful means.
I do not wish to imply that the use of Signal alone highlights the play element in the Capitol Riot. Rioters were “playing war” in other ways. Many arrived wearing helmets and body armor, employed military tactics when breaching the building, and stockpiled firearms and ammunition. Several of the rioters also frantically took pictures of documents they found in offices and in the chamber, hoping to uncover evidence of government corruption. Conceptualizing the Capitol insurrection as a form of play is not meant to trivialize the actions of the Capitol Rioter or to ignore the real consequences. In fact, play is not always frivolous or benign, but can be serious, toxic, and dangerous (Huizinga, 1955; Sutton-Smith, 1997). Incorporating game studies and theories of play allow for an exploration of reactionary and toxic behavior which goes beyond structuralist or media effects conclusions but include the motivations and agency of the player.
Chau, D. (2021, January 19). “Dangerous new phase”: Trump supporters rush to join new “free speech” apps. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-20/donald-trump-social-media-apps-free-speech-privacy/13071206
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Nield, D., & Linder, C. (2021, January 20). Elon Musk Wants You to Use Signal. Listen to Him. Popular Mechanics. https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/apps/a25736/signal-app-guide-how-to-use/
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Signal is more secure than WhatsApp, believes Edward Snowden. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/776144-everybody-can-get-back-to-uninstalling-whatsapp-now-edward-snowden-after-signal-recovers
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