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Is the country falling apart? Depends on where you get your news.

Cable news couldn’t get me inside a Capitol under siege. But Twitch could.

Thousands of Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Around midday Pacific time on January 6, I grew frustrated with the images filling cable news. Cameras, for the most part, remained pinned outside the Capitol building, trained on the throngs of people still milling about on the building’s back steps.

So I went looking for livestreams on Twitch.

Since the protests that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer, I have increasingly watched livestreams on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook to get a sense of how things feel on the ground. In particular, the Twitch channel Woke collects lots of different livestreams into a single feed, highlighting the audio from only one of them at a time (so as to avoid aural confusion) but letting viewers watch many different streams simultaneously, sometimes over a dozen at once. The feel of the channel is a little like the oft-depicted image of one person sitting in front of many televisions, all tuned to different things.

The livestreams of last summer’s protests tended to highlight social justice activists, focusing on what was happening on the streets of their communities, often capturing moments where police responses turned violent. Often, these moments were clipped out and posted to Twitter, where they spread ever further beyond their points of origin.

On Wednesday, the people who livestreamed the events at the Capitol tended to be far-right activists and white nationalists. The feeds posted to Woke’s Twitch channel were filled with the sorts of dangerous propaganda that have turned every aspect of our culture into a pot that’s about to boil over, with no real sense the heat can be turned off in time. But they did get me inside the Capitol building, where the sights were often surreal, as the mob forced its way in deeper and deeper.

Throughout the day, the events in Washington were only one small sliver of what these streamers broadcast to the world. Woke surfaced feeds from Sacramento; from Salem, Oregon; from Denver; from Salt Lake City. Demonstrations in those cities increasingly turned frightening. For a while, the audio from Washington cut out, and the audio from Salem buzzed in, as police seemed to fire tear gas canisters on the crowd. It was impossible to say why — if demonstrators had advanced toward the statehouse, say, or if they were just threatening the police themselves, or if the tear gas was simply fired indiscriminately, or if it was even fired at all. The overwhelming mood of these livestreams is of chaos. There is no order. There is only a country falling apart.

For as much as cable news insisted that the events at the Capitol were unprecedented — and they were — the simple nature of watching something on cable news granted those events a narrative progression they perhaps didn’t deserve. The steady escalation of the mob trying to force its way into the Capitol, then entering, then moving deeper and deeper inside eventually plateaued, and the networks’ talking heads started trying to place the events into some sort of context. Eventually, the mob left, or was pushed out, or both, and the networks could turn their attention toward what would happen next.

I don’t want to say the cable networks did a poor job of covering this event. By and large, they performed admirably as the events unfolded. Even more niche channels like right-wing reactionary network Newsmax largely stuck to straightforwardly describing what it knew of the events on the ground, as far as I could tell. (I did not watch every network at every moment.) By nighttime, networks sympathetic to the president were trying to spin the storming of the Capitol as an event entirely disconnected from Donald Trump, occasionally blaming antifa or Black Lives Matter. But by then, their audiences had seen plenty of footage with their own eyes. Though the facts of what transpired will be spun eventually, for much of Wednesday, it was hard to deny what had happened.

Yet as always with 24-hour cable news, the need for a tidy narrative on TV meant the unrest in Washington was quickly packaged into something that happened and, eventually, something that was over. That kind of tidiness is all but inevitable in a medium that sooner or later needs to sell you dish soap. But it creates a false sense of aberration — the mob that forced its way into the Capitol might have been incited by Trump himself, but both it and the president are abnormalities. The status quo will reassert itself in time.

When Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday afternoon, insisting that these events don’t reflect who America “really” is, the response from cable news anchors tended to skew toward the speech being forceful, even radical. (MSNBC hosts kept marveling at Biden calling the events an insurrection and “borderline sedition.”) And if you watched the events unfold on cable news, you would likely think of them, primarily, as a problem to be solved, and you might think of Biden’s calm and reasonable tone as a balm for a nation’s shattered nerves.

I found myself frustrated with Biden’s speech, and several friends remarked the same. It felt like putting a Band-Aid on a heart attack, the bare minimum for a likely fatal condition. But I quickly realized that I felt this way because I had been focused on Woke’s Twitch channel for the better part of the afternoon, and watching so many livestreams at once created a sense not of a discrete event but of a nation on the brink of civil war, if not already embroiled in one.

Biden’s tone was that of a president-elect hoping to soothe unsettled citizens in the wake of a tragedy, something he is very good at. I wanted something more like Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in which he hems and haws a bit (he even says he does not feel he has the authority to try to outlaw slavery!) but eventually avows that he will do everything he can to fight those who wish to secede from the union simply because he was elected president.

But whether I longed for calm or for action seemed to largely derive from which news source I turned to for information. On TV, it was all too easy to imagine the horrors of the day just going away after Biden was sworn in. On Twitch, as the chat box next to the video screen filled with people discussing whether or not a mob storming the Capitol was the prelude to a war, it was difficult to imagine the immense divide between the far right and everybody else ending without further bloodshed.

So which America is the one we really live in? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. The events at the Capitol aren’t as “over” as tidy TV narratives would suggest — it’s hard to shove the genie of active insurrection back in a bottle. But the US is also several long leaps away from a civil war. Domestic terrorism carried out by right-wing militias as a kind of guerrilla war seems far more likely, and I don’t want to understate how terrifying that is. But we have not yet arrived at an active civil war or fascist takeover or what have you. There’s still time to avert the worst, which is more than you might assume from watching Twitch.

But that I’m even playing out these hypotheticals is a sign of just how badly the traditional news cycle continues to handle this dark moment in American history. The country is not as close to tilting into full-on chaos as watching a bunch of livestreams online might suggest, but it’s much closer to that than it is to somehow magically restoring a robust democracy where spirited debate is the order of the day. That’s not going to change overnight when Joe Biden is sworn in, no matter how much we might hope it will. The worst might be yet to come.

And yet watching all of those livestreams at once, I was struck by how all of them had a small but devoted audience. I would click through to the streams aggregated by Woke and see a few thousand people watching devotedly, as another right-wing “celebrity” shared their hateful thoughts to an audience that was small in actual numbers but so much larger in aggregate. What we believe to be true is skewed by the news sources we choose to consume, and in 2021, there is a news source for literally anything you might want to believe. I probably don’t need to tell you how often QAnon conspiracy theorizing popped up in these streams.

When I covered the rise of Gamergate (an online reactionary hate movement purporting to police “ethics in gaming journalism” but actually one that worked to push diverse perspectives out of gaming), I was always shocked at how sprawling YouTube discussions played such a central role in the movement. These videos sometimes ran four or five hours in length, about tiny points and details, expanded into larger conspiracies. They usually involved just two or three people talking, sometimes over a blank screen. Their view counts were usually in the low thousands or even the hundreds. But the views expressed in them spread like wildfire throughout Gamergate’s small but influential following.

I didn’t think this approach was scalable — who was going to want to watch hours and hours of YouTube videos for a few salient points of information? But increasingly, long-winded conspiracy theories are the stock in trade of right-wing internet propaganda, whether it comes in the form of YouTube discussions, rambling podcasts, or real-time commentary as a mob storms the Capitol. The harsh reality of life in the 21st century is that we can no longer abide tidy narratives because the world is crumbling around us. However you internalize that idea, whether via a source tailor-made to appeal to your unique prejudices or via an aggregate of livestreams broadcasting the chaos sweeping the country right now, it feels more real than the idea that all of this might be fixed someday.

But certainty that something is irreparably broken is a panacea of sorts, too. If everything is going to fall apart anyway, there’s little we can do about it. Knowing what’s going on in the world is important; believing its problems will simply disappear or that they are too big to be solved is anesthetizing. Eventually, the end of the world will come for you, too. And then what?

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