The Growing Problem of Online Radicalization

The raid on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has shown clearly just how dangerous online radicalization can be. By promoting hate and inciting violence, social media platforms represent a danger to democracy.

By Markus Becker, Patrick Beuth, Markus Böhm, Max Hoppenstedt, Janne Knödler, Guido Mingels, Mathieu von Rohr, Marcel Rosenbach und Hilmar Schmundt

When the right-wing nationalist and Trump follower Tim Gionet forced his way into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he brought his social network along with him. He was broadcasting live on the streaming platform DLive, popular in the gaming scene – and he even collected money from his supporters in real time from the in-app donation function. 

Gionet, who has become a well-known, right-wing internet agitator under the alias "Baked Alaska," streamed for around 20 minutes, even trying to fire up his audience like a blowhard publicity hound. "

We've got over 10,000 people live, watching. Let's go!" he said. "Hit that follow button! I appreciate you guys."

As Gionet and the rest of the mob pillaged their way through the halls of Congress, Gionet's followers typed encouraging messages into the app's chat channel – things like: "SMASH THE WINDOW," and "HANG ALL THE CONGRESSMEN." 

Indeed, it's just like a live chat among gamers, which is what DLive is primarily used for. During the broadcast, his followers rewarded him with lemons, the currency used by the platform, which has become popular among right-wing extremists because it allows its users to do pretty much whatever they want.

The 33-year-old is thought to have brought in around $2,000 during his rampage through the Capitol.

Gionet is essentially a professional troll, one who has long since been banned from mainstream platforms like Twitter and YouTube. At one point during his broadcast, he said that the president would be "happy" about the rioters' activities. "We're fighting for Trump."

The fact that the insurrectionists filmed their crimes in real time, thus presenting clear proof of their misdeeds to the authorities, isn't just evidence of their limited intellectual capacities. It also demonstrates a certain loss of touch with reality among these self-proclaimed "patriots." 

Nourished by QAnon conspiracy narratives, fantasies of election fraud and Trump's unceasing stream of lies, they believed they were in the right and felt unassailable. 

As such, the events of Jan. 6 could also be seen as their arrival in a world where they don't feel at all at home: The real one.

The fanatics on the front lines weren't the only ones who had one foot in the virtual world throughout that Wednesday. Hundreds of people in the crowd of supporters outside filmed what they saw on their mobile phones, posted selfies on social networks, sent pictures to friends and liked the images posted by others. 

The world became witness to the intoxicating narcissism of a mass of people who are constantly online and searching obsessively for clicks and likes. Trump's mob both inside and outside the Capitol were essentially an assault team made up of digital-world friends who had forgotten that they weren't in a video game, but at the seat of Congress, a place where the glass actually does break and people actually do die when shots are fired.

European Commissioner Thierry Breton of France told the news website Politico that the storming of the Capitol was akin to a 9/11 moment for social media. Just as the attack on the Twin Towers in New York resulted in a paradigm shift of global security policies, Breton believes, the attack on the Capitol also represents a critical moment for the role played by digital platforms. Jan. 6, 

Breton makes clear, will go down as a day of infamy and could ultimately mark a turning point in the relationship between society at large and social media platforms.

Economist Scott Galloway, well-known as a critic of Silicon Valley and comfortable in the role of prophet of doom, believes the storming of the Capitol "may be the beginning of the end of Big Tech as we know it," as he told Yahoo Finance on Tuesday. 

Does that, though, mean that we are about to see the disappearance of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which have completely changed and dominated the way their billions of users communicate over the last decade?

The allegations against social media are as old as the platforms themselves. Rarely, though, have we seen so clearly how the nonsense spread in these networks can spill over into reality. 

The world saw clearly how lies, violence and hate are freely spread and what misinformation echo chambers can produce. We saw what happens when algorithms – in their pursuit of clicks, reach and stickiness – determine how users see the world. 

And how successful those algorithms are in doing exactly what they are programmed for: creating a system in which the self-affirmation of its users continues to grow and magnify.

   Right-wing influencer Gionet: "Let's go!"

Recommendations, search optimization, trending lists, friend suggestions – all of that follows the commercial logic of generating more traffic, collecting more data and attracting more users to whom more ads can be served. That is the business model underpinning social media platforms. 

If you watch a video on YouTube posted by an anti-vaxxer, more such videos will be suggested to you. If you listen in on a Trump acolyte or a racist on the web, an entire chorus of such voices will be recommended. 

It makes it easy to spread even the most absurd horror stories via YouTube, Telegram, Twitter, Parler or Reddit. And they find their way into groups of society that never before played much of a role in political life.

The mob of Trumpistas in Washington was far from being merely a collection of rednecks and racist neo-Nazis. Well-dressed, country-club Republicans, evangelicals in Jesus T-shirts and run-of-the-mill social conservatives were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with weapons-rights fanatics, QAnon sectaries and hardcore nationalists.

Such collections of the crazy and the confused are in no way unique to the United States. QAnon is active in Germany as well, as are the so-called "Querdenker," which is essentially the German term for those who adhere to "alternative facts." 

They seriously claim to believe that they are living under a "Merkel dictatorship," which is no less bonkers than thinking the U.S. election results were falsified. In Germany, too, there are mobile-phone waving zealots who go after lawmakers in German parliament. 

There are those who, like last summer, target the parliamentary building while waving the imperial flag, the German equivalent of the Confederate flag in the U.S. Or who lay siege to the home of Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer. Delusion is no longer a fringe phenomenon. 

Many people who visited family and close friends over the holidays were forced to realize that elements of the conspiracy narratives – from "Gates" to "Epstein," from "QAnon" to "the vaccine conspiracy" – have long since put down roots in the mainstream.

But if 1/6 was a wakeup call, one must ask, what are we waking up from? Or to?

When social media platforms were developing, they looked initially as though they could be a tool for good. The digital sphere democratized access to information and gave a public voice and visibility to broad swaths of the population – and traditional media outlets lost their gatekeeper function.

The consequences were nothing short of revolutionary. Social networks supported the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 and then the Arab Spring starting in 2010. For the first time, it became apparent how much easier it was to organize a protest movement using Twitter and smartphones.

      Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Foto: Fairfax Media / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

In the ensuing 10 years, social media would go on to play a vital role in almost every meaningful uprising around the world: Euromaidan in Ukraine, the Yellow Vests in France, the democracy activists in Hong Kong, the demonstrations in Chile and Nicaragua and, most recently, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the U.S., the #MeToo movement and the protests against the rigged election results in Belarus.

But the ugly side of this powerful tool is becoming increasingly visible. In India, rumors spread via WhatsApp led to deadly eruptions of violence. In Myanmar, according to human rights groups, online incitement campaigns against the Rohingya minority contributed to murder, rape and expulsions. In European democracies like Poland, France and Britain, social media platforms have fueled populism.

And as spontaneous as many of these eruptions have seemed, they are often extremely well organized. The mob in the U.S. also organized online ahead of Jan. 6.

"Who all will be in D.C. on the 6th?" wrote a user on the alternative platform Parler on the Sunday before the attack on the Capitol. A response came from a leader of the right-wing militia known as Proud Boys: "The Proud Boys will turn out in record numbers," he wrote. "We will be incognito and we will spread across downtown DC in smaller teams."

It was just one of the posts included in the weeks of planning ahead of the operation – planning that was open for all to see. One flyer circulating on Instagram and Facebook carried the title: "Operation Occupy the Capitol."

Radical Trump followers didn't just use the platforms of Silicon Valley tech giants. Right-wing extremists and conspiracy kooks have long since discovered alternative providers like the forum TheDonald and, of course, Parler.

In addition to ideologic screeds, those platforms were also sites for concrete planning and logistics. Rideshares were organized and overnight stays arranged. And explanations were posted for circumventing Washington, D.C.'s relatively strict weapons laws. Just how ready some were for violence can be seen in a post where a user talks about bidding a precautionary farewell to her mother. "It said I had a good life…. If we have to storm the Capitol, I am going to do it," she wrote.

In the months preceding the attack on the Capitol, no other network in the U.S. proved as attractive among right-wing extremists – and among those in the process of radicalizing – as Parler. 

When Facebook quickly blocked a group of more than 300,000 members called Stop the Steal immediately after the presidential election, it's members simply migrated to the competition. According to Parler head John Matze, fully 4.5 million new users registered for the platform within just four days following the election.

             Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Foto: The NewYorkTimes/Redux/laif

Matze had repeatedly touted his platform as a safe harbor for "free speech" – and Parler rapidly became a cesspool of anti-Semitism, racism and right-wing extremism. Followers of right-wing militias have Parler accounts, but so, too, do far-right politicians like Ted Cruz and lawyers in the Trump orbit.

Parler played a decisive role in the storming of the Capitol. An analysis of its users' geodata clearly show that they uploaded videos from inside the Capitol building. "Where are the traitors?" a man yells into a megaphone in one of the clips. "Take me to the traitors!"

The platform didn't survive for long, though. Just five days after the attack on the Capitol, the posts disappeared from the internet. Parler is now offline.

The Silicon Valley-based platforms, meanwhile, simply deleted the accounts of the arsonist and his extremist followers. First, Twitter and Facebook blocked Trump's account, with YouTube quickly following with a temporary ban on new videos from Trump. The cloud service provider Salesforce then limited the Republican Party's ability to use its mass email services.

Parler, whose membership had grown to 15 million users, was hit especially hard. Google and Apple threw the platform out of its app stores, while Amazon blocked Parler from using its cloud service AWS, where Parler data was stored. The reason: insufficient content controls.

A mob flying the so-called "Reichsflagge" on the steps of German parliament on August 29, 2020. Foto: Jean-Marc Wiesner / imago images

That can be seen in the example of a number of people who played a role in the Stop the Steal campaign. Some of them have been booted off several different platforms. Alex Jones and his Infowars channel, for example, which he has used for many years to spread hate, disinformation and conspiracy theories. 

In a concerted 2018 action, Apple and Spotify banned his podcast, Facebook took down his account and YouTube deactivated his channel, which had 2.4 million subscribers at the time. Jones simply continued on his own website and on alternative social media platforms – and in no way has he become less radical.

It also proved impossible to keep the message board 8chan offline for long. The site is notorious around the world for being a breeding ground of right-wing radicalism and terrorism. 

The assailants from Christchurch, Poway and El Paso were all active on the message board, and they were honored on 8chan for their deeds. It is also known as a hub for images of child abuse and as a hotspot of QAnon imbecility. After El Paso, 8chan wasn't available for a few months, but then went back online under the new name 8kun.

The message board's operator, Jim Watkins, sees himself as an anti-censorship crusader, and he long operated the site from the Philippines. Now, though, he is back in the U.S., where, as he claimed in an email to DER SPIEGEL, he took part on the march in Washington, D.C.

The "zip tie guy" inside the Senate. He was identified from images posted online. Foto: Win McNamee / Getty Images

Might deplatforming actually be counterproductive? After all, it helps solidify anti-establishment views and prevents them from having to see pushback from the moderate center – with the danger that users of alternative networks could radicalize each other even more strongly than now.

Security agencies are also skeptical of deplatforming. It is easier for them to keep an eye on open, mainstream social media platforms than to monitor the scattered alternative platforms, some of which, like Telegram, are much more difficult to access.

The public response to the banning of Trump was divided. There was a lot of support for it, but also a lot of concern. The most prominent critic of the move is to be found in Berlin. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel said through her spokesman that she finds it "problematic" that the U.S. president's social media accounts can be permanently blocked. The fundamental right to freedom of expression is of elementary importance, she said, and any restrictions must be introduced by lawmakers, not by private companies.

European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager also isn't a fan of blocking Trump, as she told DER SPIEGEL. "No, it is not in itself reassuring that private companies de facto decide what we are allowed to see as users," she says. There is, Vestager continues, a difference between harmful, illegal content – "and what we as humans just disagree with."

Still, Vestager allowed that it is interesting that Twitter and Facebook now "acknowledge that they have a shared responsibility to prevent the spread of illegal content." The commissioner, who is also the vice president of the European Commission, is widely considered to be the most powerful woman in the world when it comes to regulating internet content.

Either way, the shocking scenes from Washington and its aftermath have provided ammunition to all those who have spent years calling for the power of tech companies to be limited. 

In December in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission in cooperation with 40 states sued Facebook for "anti-competition conduct," and demanded that acquisitions made recently by the company be rolled back.

A similar lawsuit is currently pending against Google as well. Shortly before Christmas, the European Commission presented a plan, called the Digital Services Act, for regulating platforms. The goal is the elimination of unfair business practices and the encouragement of more competition.

                Parler CEO John Matze Foto: BRIDGET BENNETT

The Democratic Party in the U.S. likewise seems intent on restricting the influence of tech giants. "These events will renew and refocus the need for Congress to reform Big Tech," Senator Richard Blumenthal, from Connecticut, told the Washington Post recently. Facebook, Google and Twitter, he said, only acted after glass was broken and blood was spilled at the Capitol.

President-elect Joe Biden announced already last year that he hoped to limit privileges enjoyed by tech companies – such as the one whereby they are not responsible for the content they publish. 

That, he said last November, "should be revoked, immediately should be revoked … for Zuckerberg and other platforms." They aren't, he said, just internet companies. The New York Times "can't write something (it) knows to be false and be exempt from being sued. But (tech companies) can."

Biden's logic is clear: If it's illegal in the offline world, it should be illegal and punished online as well – from insults and threats to incitement. 

The sheer size of the networks, though, make it difficult to apply proven analog recipes to the digital world and to enforce the laws that are already on the books. The state would be simply overwhelmed by such a task. 

Facebook alone employs 15,000 moderators around the world, and even they generally have just a few seconds to assess a given post. 

Even all of the state prosecutors and judges in the world would never be able to accurately understand every opinion and image posted in its intended context and to assess its legality – not even if they were assisted by artificial intelligence.

For some experts, the solution lies in the alternative networks in what’s called the "fediverse,” where many smaller communities are connected using a common technical protocol. They are maintained independently and moderated by volunteers, thus making it easier to enforce civil interaction.

There are also examples showing that it can work. In 2019, the riot platform Gab sought to gain a foothold in the fediverse, but its creators failed to infiltrate the decentralized network. Gab grew isolated and eventually withdrew.

In late 2018, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee also proposed a possible solution: a Contract for the Web consisting of nine principles that would hold companies, governments and citizens accountable. 

Citizens should "build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity,” he wrote. Companies, meanwhile, should "develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.”

Trump's blocked Twitter account Foto: twitter / Sipa USA / ddp images

John Scott-Railton has already proved that social networks can indeed empower people to do good. Originally from the U.S., Scott-Railton works at the University of Toronto as a researcher at the Citizen Lab, where he has been successfully uncovering government surveillance attempts against journalists and dissidents for years.

But something else has been driving him since the raid on the Capitol. When he looks at the now-famous photo of the masked man with zip ties in his hand, he is gripped by an ominous suspicion: "Wow, was there a plan to take hostages?” And then: "Can we get more pictures of this guy?"

He just launched a social media campaign that has kept him busy for days, earning him tens of thousands of new followers on Twitter – and a level of celebrity he probably never would have gained for his honorable Citizen Lab work. John Scott-Railton is examining the footage from the Capitol, collecting "tips and clues from tens of thousands" of other volunteers, he told DER SPIEGEL – and is thus helping to identify the perpetrators.

Eventually, they also helped to identify the terrorist Scott-Railton initially called the "ziptieguy” as Eric Munchel of Nashville, Tennessee. He has since been arrested and charged.

To determine Munchel’s identity, Scott-Railton purchased a high-resolution photograph from the Associated Press news agency for $435. In the end, a Twitter user recognized the man in a Facebook photo. Munchel’s mother, who can be seen in the photos next to her son during the attempted coup, has also been exposed.

Scott-Railton is still seeking to identify the "#doublehatman” and the "#FireExtinguisherGuy.” And he has the whole digital swarm helping him with the task. 

Waiting for whiplash

Joe Biden will shift gears in Latin America

A post-populist president will encounter a region where populism has recently flourished

In 2013, after WikiLeaks revealed that the United States’ National Security Agency had bugged the phone of Dilma Rousseff, then Brazil’s president, Joe Biden called to apologise. 

A year later the American vice-president went to Brazil for a World Cup football match bearing a gift: declassified documents shedding light on abuses by Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-85. Ms Rousseff had herself been tortured.

Ms Rousseff called Mr Biden “a seductive vice-president”. Other Latin American leaders found him less so. Otto Pérez Molina, a former president of Guatemala, rues the day that he bowed to pressure from him to prolong the life of cicig, a un-backed graft-fighting agency. 

He expressed this regret in 2015 from a military prison, where he awaited trial on corruption charges. cicig supplied the evidence.

Once Mr Biden has the top job, it would not be surprising if his interest in Latin America waned, given other demands on him. 

The only memorable vignette about the region in Barack Obama’s new memoir is his confession to “smiling and nodding” through a long dinner in 2011, thinking about the war in Libya while Chile’s president droned on about wine exports.

Still, Mr Biden will probably pay heed. He was Mr Obama’s point man for Latin America, visiting 16 times. Regional emergencies, from mass migration to Venezuela’s tightening dictatorship, will require his attention. He does not have Donald Trump’s bullying style. 

He will promote the rule of law and efforts to fight climate change, concerns that Mr Trump largely ignored. 

This year Mr Biden is due to host a triennial “summit of the Americas”.

Latin America has changed since his vice-presidency. Weak economic growth has undermined the region’s self-confidence. The pandemic has killed 541,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean, second only to the death toll in Europe, and caused the worst economic slump in more than a century. 

The corrupt are winning the war on corruption. 

Anger at a broken social contract has led to unrest and the election of populist presidents. Venezuelans are fleeing their country, putting strain on its neighbours. Central America’s exodus, paused by the pandemic, has resumed.

Democracy is in retreat. The Bertelsmann Foundation, which ranks countries’ democratic strength on a ten-point scale, finds that the scores of seven democracies in Latin America have fallen by 0.8 points or more since 2010. 

Recently Peru’s Congress unseated the second of two presidents within 30 months. 

Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s president, has laid the groundwork for dictatorship. Elections in 2021, including in Ecuador, Peru and Nicaragua, could bring populists to power or consolidate authoritarians’ rule.

When Mr Trump took office in 2017, Latin American governments suffered a “fear of coming to his attention”, says a former adviser to his administration. 

But many grew to like him, largely because he left them alone, unless they allowed migrants to stream into the United States. His interest in promoting democracy did not extend beyond the left-wing “troika of tyranny”—Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. 

Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, populists of the right and left respectively, felt a kinship with him (Mr Bolsonaro is an unabashed fan). Both waited a month to recognise that Mr Biden had defeated him.

Bidenworld thinks it wrongheaded to confine democracy promotion to three countries. 

It shares the pre-Trump consensus that the neighbourhood’s stability depends on the rule of law, a strong civil society and fairer capitalism. 

It will seek more humane ways to control migration than bullying governments to block migrants as they pass through their countries.

Mr Biden wants eventually to resume allowing asylum-seekers to apply in the United States. 

Now the Trump administration forces those who reach the border to remain in Mexico. 

Mr Biden is expected to unwind Mr Trump’s pacts with the three countries of the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—whereby the United States can send migrants back. 

That will be a slow process. A loftier goal is to make the Northern Triangle a better place to live in. Juan Gonzalez, who will join the National Security Council, was a Peace Corps volunteer in the highlands of Guatemala, origin of many migrants. Mr Biden wants to spend $1bn a year to improve conditions in Central America.

He will have to use sticks as well as carrots. Corruption is worsening in the Northern Triangle. Guatemalan lawmakers chased out cicig; legislators shut down maccih, its counterpart in Honduras. 

Mr Trump did not protest. This month American prosecutors named Honduras’s president, Juan Orlando Hernández, as a co-conspirator in a drug-trafficking case (he denies wrongdoing). 

The case shows the limits of spending on security and prosperity while the rule of law is weak, says Eric Olson of the Wilson Centre, a think-tank.

Mr Biden will resume the fight for better governance. American ambassadors will press governments to appoint honest judges and officials. Mr Biden’s administration may propose the establishment of an anti-graft agency for all of Central America, which would support prosecutors and attorneys-general but be less intrusive than cicig and maccih. 

One lesson of Mr Trump’s successful bullying over migration is that the United States has great leverage in the region.

Mr Biden’s approach to the tyrannical troika will be less punishing, giving them fewer excuses for misrule. Like Mr Trump, he regards Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro as a tyrant. But he is likely to sabre-rattle less, work with other powers more and seek ways to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, helped normalise relations with Cuba when he was an adviser to Mr Obama. Mr Biden will cautiously renew that policy, easing restrictions on remittances and tourism. 

The Trump administration’s decision this week to restore Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran, Syria and North Korea, raises the political costs of rapprochement. Mr Obama had removed it in 2015.

Climate change will be a new source of rancour. Mr López Obrador, who champions Mexico’s state oil monopoly and has spurned American renewable-energy projects, will face green pressure from Washington. 

So will Mr Bolsonaro, who has allowed destruction of the Amazon rainforest to accelerate. 

Mr Biden wants to create a $20bn fund to protect it, but Brazil, which interprets such initiatives as threats to its sovereignty, has so far rejected the idea. 

Relations between Mr Biden and Mr Bolsonaro, who praises the regime that tortured Ms Rousseff, are likely to be strained.

For him and some other leaders in the region, the change of gears in Washington may cause whiplash. 

Some will say the United States is in no position these days to lecture other countries. 

But, says an adviser to Mr Biden, the failure of attacks on American democracy shows the value of strong institutions. 

If the United States can overcome such assaults, it may be able to help its neighbours do the same. 

Chances are rising for a US economic reset

Capitol Hill unrest, the Democratic victory in Georgia and the pandemic could combine to spur action on inequality

Gillian Tett

    © Ingram Pinn/Finanmcial Times

In normal circumstances, there would be one big question dominating the minds of investors today, after the Democrats’ startling Senate wins in Georgia: what does the result mean for the direction of future economic policy?

Yet these are anything but normal times. 

The debate around impeachment and insurrection has not just driven economic policymaking away from the headlines but drowned out the grim news that almost 4,000 Americans died from Covid-19 on Wednesday, the second highest daily toll so far.

But as the dust settles, investors would do well to step back and ponder the bigger significance of these two other pieces of news. As they do, they should also ponder another “i” word — not “insurrection” or “impeachment” but “inequality”.

President-elect Joe Biden has spent much of the last year promising to tackle America’s profound wealth disparities. That is no surprise, given that this has been a key Democratic theme for many years, or that the data on US inequality looks increasingly grotesque. 

In the past 30 years, as a report from Deloitte notes, the proportion of wealth held by the richest 10 per cent of Americans has jumped from 60.8 per cent to 70 per cent, and for the richest 1 per cent it has swelled from 17.2 to 26 per cent.

More alarming still, “Covid-19’s impact on US income inequality [is that] it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Deloitte adds. 

Until recently, it seemed unlikely that a Biden administration would be able to do anything to tackle this grim trend. After all, most factors that foster inequality are outside the control of the White House, irrespective of who sits in it.

The president cannot easily conjure up millions of stable middle-class jobs to replace those lost to digitisation. Nor can he or she halt the Federal Reserve’s programme of quantitative easing, which keeps inflating the value of assets held by the rich even as the household wealth of the poor has shrivelled in relative terms.

But now there might — possibly — be a chance for change. That is partly because the sheer shock of the pandemic and the recent political drama have reshaped popular assumptions about what is or is not normal.

Indeed, investors would do well to reacquaint themselves with a lesson sketched out by the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel in a powerful 2017 book The Great Leveler. Although human societies have often tended to become more unequal over time, such trends have occasionally been reversed in major reset moments sparked by plagues, state collapse or war.

The second world war was the US’s last big anti-inequality reset. During and after the conflict the richest 1 per cent of Americans saw their share of national income fall from 16 to 8 per cent. The current pandemic may be another reset moment. With more than 360,000 US deaths so far, it offers a political excuse to think once-unthinkable thoughts.

Another more practical issue is that the Georgia election, where Democrats won two US Senate seats, gives Mr Biden’s party majority control of both houses of Congress and thus the legislative tools to start to tackle inequality. Without that control, the Democrats could only have advanced their agenda via arcane regulatory tweaks or cutting deals with Republicans.

Although the Democrats remain constrained in some areas by potential Senate filibusters, their control of Congress means they can contemplate measures to distribute fiscal support, overhaul the tax code and push for other structural reforms. It is a game-changer.

As a result, investors should expect more stimulus packages soon, particularly for households and small companies. As Mr Biden emailed supporters this week: “The bipartisan Covid-19 relief bill passed in December was just a down payment.” Goldman Sachs analysts now expect another $600bn on top of the $900bn agreed late last year.

Investors should also expect the infrastructure investment plans that Biden’s team believes will help create blue-collar jobs. Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate majority leader, is a longtime infrastructure enthusiast.

There may well also be moves to embrace healthcare reform and student loan aid, although on more modest scale than progressives want. There will be measures to expand unemployment benefits, encourage more states and companies to adopt a $15 an hour minimum wage, and moves to reverse the shrinking proportion of national income won by labour versus capital.

Some tax cuts that Donald Trump ushered in for wealthy individuals and corporations will also be rolled back, and there will probably be other moves to create a more progressive tax code.

Will markets accept this smoothly, given that debt to gross domestic product is heading above 100 per cent? And will the Democrats’ measures reverse the 30-year trend towards increased US inequality?

This remains unknown. Even so, the key point is that a long view of history shows that pendulum swings in policymaking tend to occur during abnormal times. Due to Covid-19 and the startling unrest, the US is now again at such a moment. Let us pray that Mr Biden can seize it to build a healthier political economy. If not, brace for more trouble.

Whither America?

Fortunately, Joe Biden will assume the US presidency on January 20. But, as the shocking events of January 6 showed, it will take more than one person – and more than one presidential term – to overcome America’s longstanding challenges.

Joseph E. Stiglitz

NEW YORK – The assault on the US Capitol by President Donald Trump’s supporters, incited by Trump himself, was the predictable outcome of his four-year-long assault on democratic institutions, aided and abetted by so many in the Republican Party. 

And no one can say that Trump had not warned us: he was not committed to a peaceful transition of power. 

Many who benefited as he slashed taxes for corporations and the rich, rolled back environmental regulations, and appointed business-friendly judges knew they were making a pact with the devil. 

Either they believed they could control the extremist forces he unleashed, or they didn’t care.

Where does America go from here? Is Trump an aberration, or a symptom of a deeper national malady? Can the United States be trusted? In four years, will the forces that gave rise to Trump, and the party that overwhelmingly supported him, triumph again? What can be done to prevent that outcome?

Trump is the product of multiple forces. For at least a quarter-century, the Republican Party has understood that it could represent the interests of business elites only by embracing anti-democratic measures (including voter suppression and gerrymandering) and allies, including the religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, and nationalist populists.

Of course, populism implied policies that were antithetical to business elites. But many business leaders spent decades mastering the ability to deceive the public. Big Tobacco spent lavishly on lawyers and bogus science to deny their products’ adverse health effects. 

Big Oil did likewise to deny fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change. They recognized that Trump was one of their own.

Then, advances in technology provided a tool for rapid dissemination of dis/misinformation, and America’s political system, where money reigns supreme, allowed the emerging tech giants freedom from accountability. 

This political system did one other thing: it generated a set of policies (sometimes referred to as neoliberalism) that delivered massive income and wealth gains to those at the top, but near-stagnation everywhere elsewhere. 

Soon, a country on the cutting edge of scientific progress was marked by declining life expectancy and increasing health disparities.

The neoliberal promise that wealth and income gains would trickle down to those at the bottom was fundamentally spurious. As massive structural changes deindustrialized large parts of the country, those left behind were left to fend largely for themselves. 

As I warned in my books The Price of Inequality and People, Power, and Profits, this toxic mix provided an inviting opportunity for a would-be demagogue.

As we have repeatedly seen, Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit, combined with an absence of moral constraints, provides an ample supply of charlatans, exploiters, and would-be demagogues. Trump, a mendacious, narcissistic sociopath, with no understanding of economics or appreciation of democracy, was the man of the moment.

The immediate task is to remove the threat Trump still poses. The House of Representatives should impeach him now, and the Senate should try him some time later, to bar him from holding federal office again. 

It should be in the interest of the Republicans, no less than the Democrats, to show that no one, not even the president, is above the law. Everyone must understand the imperative of honoring elections and ensuring the peaceful transition of power.

But we should not sleep comfortably until the underlying problems are addressed. Many involve great challenges. We must reconcile freedom of expression with accountability for the enormous harm that social media can and has caused, from inciting violence and promoting racial and religious hatred to political manipulation.

The US and other countries have long imposed restrictions on other forms of expression to reflect broader societal concerns: one may not shout fire in a crowded theater, engage in child pornography, or commit slander and libel. 

True, some authoritarian regimes abuse these constraints and compromise basic freedoms, but authoritarian regimes will always find justifications for doing what they will, regardless of what democratic governments do.

We Americans must reform our political system, both to ensure the basic right to vote and democratic representation. We need a new voting rights act. 

The old one, adopted in 1965, was aimed at the South, where disenfranchisement of African-Americans had enabled white elites to remain in power since the end of Reconstruction following the Civil War. But now anti-democratic practices are found throughout the country.

We also need to decrease the influence of money in our politics: no system of checks and balances can be effective in a society with as much inequality as the US. And any system based on “one dollar, one vote” rather than “one person, one vote” will be vulnerable to populist demagogy. 

After all, how can such a system serve the interests of the country as a whole?

Finally, we must address the multiple dimensions of inequality. The striking difference between the treatment of the white insurrectionists who invaded the Capitol, and the peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters this summer once again showed to those around the world the magnitude of America’s racial injustice.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the magnitude of the country’s economic and health disparities. As I have repeatedly argued, small tweaks to the system won’t be enough to make large inroads in the country’s ingrained inequalities.

How America responds to the attack on the Capitol will say a lot about where the country is headed. If we not only hold Trump accountable, but also embark on the hard road of economic and political reform to address the underlying problems that gave rise to his toxic presidency, then there is hope of a brighter day. 

Fortunately, Joe Biden will assume the presidency on January 20. But it will take more than one person – and more than one presidential term – to overcome America’s longstanding challenges.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, is Chief Economist at the Roosevelt Institute and a former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank. His most recent book is People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent.