What their selfie obsession revealed about the psychological makeup of the pro-Trump rioters

"Social media groups can trick users into thinking that their real identities are concealed by virtual ones."

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

In image after image of Wednesday's pro-Trump mob, it was disturbing to see the glee with which rioters snapped selfies or posed as they carried out vandalism. 

Richard Barnett of Gravette, Arkansas, was photographed grinning with his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk.

Another wearing a “Trump” ski cap walked off carrying a podium while smiling and waving at the camera.

Rioters took selfies of themselves as they scaled the walls of the Capitol Building.

Vandals held up broken pieces of furniture while posing for the camera.

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These were not teenagers posting photos on social media – psychologists say teens have a developmentally appropriate level of egocentrism – but rather adults motivated by the misguided notion that what they are doing is an act of heroism or bravery.

“They're proud of it. They post about it because this is something that they want the world to see," said Alexandra Stratyner, Ph.D., a psychologist who practices in Manhattan. "In fact, they're domestic terrorists, but they believe that what they're doing is a valiant, brave act.”

“Speaking from principles of cognitive psychology, this (mentality) has been reinforced by the messages of the president," she added. "They believe that what they're doing is what their leader wants them to do.”

A narrative based on misinformation also lends itself to a lack of concern for consequences, Straytner said.   

And there are serious consequences.

On Thursday, the FBI was seeking tips and looking at digital media that would assist in identifying people who were actively instigating rioting and violence in the Capitol and surrounding area in Washington, D.C.

Other rioters have already been identified from the photos and videos posted during the riots including Barnett, the man at Pelosi's desk.

Pro-Trump rioters climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday

The need for 'likes'

Since the nature of social media is communication, it makes sense that the motivation for posting comes from the urge to connect with others.

"But this constant quest for 'likes' (acceptance or attention) can lead to major psychological problems for some," said Peter Faustino, Ph.D., president of the Westchester County Psychological Association.

Identifying with a group too intimately can change the way someone thinks and behaves, resulting in a social media identity that’s reinforced by prolonged engagement with the group.

"In other words, social media groups can trick users into thinking that their real identities are concealed by virtual ones and that the behavior of the group is even acceptable and encouraged,” he said.

Alexandra Stratyner, PhD.

Which may explain the relative ease with which some rioters paraded through the Capitol, some brandishing items they had looted from offices.

“If they face legal consequences, they’re standing up for something they believe in," said Stratyner. "Of course, terrorizing our elected officials is not an expression of First Amendment rights, but they may feel this is a process."

Faustino said from a neurological perspective, social media offers stimuli that can trigger different reactions on the brain, which can be very powerful and altering.  

“With social media so tightly connected to an individuals’ rewards systems, users may be unaware of the power – and possibility for abuse – of the platforms they use. Things like gambling and narcotic drugs have a similar power to overrule the brain’s rewards system,” he said.

Jan 6, 2021; Washington, DC, USA; Trump rioters storm the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon as lawmakers inside debated the certification of the presidential election.  Mandatory Credit: Jerry Habraken-USA TODAY

Protesting, and posting

Mary Angela Bock, an associate professor at University of Texas at Austin who specializes in visual communication, said protests have always had an important visual communication component.

“We protest in public places. We protest with flags. We protest together, in part, because we need to be seen when we protest. It’s being part of showing up to a particular place, it to be seen,” she said.

The compulsion to broadcast important moments to our online social media friends, has also lent itself to the photos of people in a unique moment, in some cases, of them behaving badly.

“There’s a general compulsion that we have now with photography. Anytime something special is going on, we want to take a picture of it,” she said. “Over the holidays, people felt the need to show their food, and show their various decorations. It’s 'this is an important moment to me.' So I feel the need to not just talk to the people in the room, but I must broadcast this.’”

Bock believes many of the rioters did not believe there would be any negative ramifications for what they were doing because they believe they are on the right side of history.

“Folks who were storming the capital yesterday have been led to believe that there were irregularities in the election. Many of them still believe that the election was stolen from them,” she said. 

Experts also note white privilege may have played a role, and the seeming double standard in the way law and order is enforced, said Stratyner.

“In June (during the Black Lives Matter) protestors were taken down to the ground by police who were dressed in military gear. Now we have individuals who are terrorizing the Capitol taking selfies with police officers,” she said. “So they also have been reinforced by a society that tells them that because of the way that they look and other aspects of privilege, they're allowed to do this.”

What could happen?

In addition to arrests, rioters could lose their jobs.

A Maryland company terminated the employment of one of its workers after he was identified as one of the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday.

Navistar Direct Marketing fired an employee after it identified him as one of the protestors who stormed the Capitol in Washington DC on Wednesday.

The Salisbury Daily Times reported that Navistar Direct Marketing, of Frederick, said it fired the man Thursday after seeing photos of him wearing a lanyard with his Navistar identification while taking part in the riot.

Whether there are legal consequences, employers have a lot of flexibility in determining in what kinds of activities their workers can participate, said Bill Castellano, a professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and former human resources executive.

“Your First Amendment (right) is between you and your country, your government. It doesn't apply to how a corporation wants to manage their employees,” he said.

“To be fair, you don't want to prevent people from engaging in their First Amendment rights outside of the company, but if it involves activities that negatively impact the firm's reputation then the firm is completely in their right to discipline the employee, up to terminating, particularly if they were engaged in illegal activity.”

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy covers women and power for the USA Today Network Northeast.Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @SwapnaVenugopal or email her at svenugop@lohud.com