Let Them Tweet Cake: Comparing Two Modern Revolutions

Storming government buildings has long been the mark of a fiery revolution. In 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in a dramatic fashion, commencing the French Revolution. In our very own Montreal, supporters of British rule who feared French Canadian influence invaded and set fire to the central Parliament building in 1849. However, these are not simply events of the past. In July of 2022, Sri Lankan protestors invaded the Presidential Palace in Colombo, which was the culmination of months of protests and a celebration of the President fleeing the country. Eighteen months before the events in Sri Lanka, the United States experienced a similar degree of vivacity at the Capitol building: an event that has come to be known as the January 6 attack. Following the Presidential election in November 2020, supporters of President Donald Trump participated in a protest-turned-insurrection that aimed to stop the transfer of power from President Trump to President-Elect Joe Biden. 

Both of these events were recent manifestations of a historical phenomenon as well as jarring illustrations of a current state of political discontent. However, the conditions that led to each scenario, including the use of social media as a tool unique to modern revolutionary activity, differed significantly. The composition of a revolution and its many factors dictates its ability to achieve motives, its reception from the public, and the social conceptions of its “success”. Nowhere is the divergence of outcomes more evident than in these two events, which were close in time yet vastly different in context and impact.

The Sri Lankan Situation

Economic stability and political tension in Sri Lanka have been closely tied for the past few years, both feeding into the other’s downward trajectory. Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, which accounted for 10 per cent of its GDP, began to falter in 2019 due to increased violence on the island. In response, the government borrowed increasingly large sums of money to fund public services and import goods, leading to a significant increase in national debt. Just a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and worsened the living conditions of Sri Lankans as the country lacked the foreign currency to maintain the inflow of foreign goods. After months of desperate protests against the government’s mismanagement of the economic crisis, protestors invaded and occupied the presidential palace, along with other government buildings, in their demand for better living conditions. The principal demand of the protestors was the resignation of then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was largely perceived by the Sri Lankan public as a corrupt political figure responsible for the failure of the Sri Lankan economy. On July 14, 2022 — four days into the occupation of the palace — President Rajapaksa officially stepped down.

Former American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with former President Rajapaksa in October of 2020, the beginning of the end for Rajapaksa. Photo by U.S. Department of State and is public domain per the Department Copyright Information.

Following the resignation of Rajapaksa, the protestors occupying the palace began to voluntarily leave, feeling they had accomplished what they had set out to do. One protestor stated, “[o]ur objective of deposing the president has been achieved. We are leaving in strength”. The liveliness and attention drawn to the event had not disoriented the protestors from their ultimatum. Rather, they closely held a tangible motive throughout the protests, a principle that contributed to the efficacy of the movement as well as its portrayal of success in the media.

The American Situation

On the other side of the world, members of the U.S. Congress convened at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, to certify the electoral vote results of the 2020 presidential election. After weeks of “Stop the Steal” rallies from avid Trump supporters, the far-right tapped into the energy of its protestors outside of voting centres and redirected this power toward one final effort: stopping the congressional certification. As a result, just days after the new year, the U.S. Capitol was faced with an ardent group of insurrectionists.

In many ways, the radicalism of this movement was the impetus behind its failure. Sociologist Charles Tilly spent his career studying social movements and their mobilization. Throughout his studies, he came to the conclusion that effective social movements contain four elements: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Without one of these, the entire movement is ineffective. In the context of January 6, protestors lacked worthiness, unity, and commitment, a trifecta of deficiencies that can be attributed to the extremities of the movement.

Following the election results, conspiracy theories flooded far-right media channels and internet subcultures, to the point where established conservative voices, such as Ben Shapiro, were attempting to tame the lies spreading from President Trump and his followers. In fact, social media has come to be recognized as a key player in the events of January 6. Workers at Facebook shared their “horror” with one another as they watched QAnon symbols on banners, t-shirts, and flags during the broadcast of the January 6 events. Their awareness of Facebook’s role in propagating QAnon conspiracy theories could not be separated from the physical manifestation of these online extremists at the Capitol building.

“Storming of the United States Capitol 2021” by Tyler Merbler. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

As a result of these conspiracies, many rioters could not coherently articulate what they wanted to get out of this protest. Would another four years of Trump appease their anger? Or did their immense distrust in American democracy create an insatiable beast? The lack of a common goal across the group directly affected the worthiness of their cause. Furthermore, the vast array of protestors on January 6 produced a wide range of motives. Some wanted to rally and show their increasing distrust in government processes, while others attempted to actively stop a government proceeding. This created division among the participants, an issue that also catalyzed a disarray of commitment. While some individuals gave their lives in pursuit of the movement, other protestors in D.C. were unaware of what exactly was transpiring inside the Capitol building. 

The Common Thread

President Trump was well known for his avid tweeting and used this tool liberally on January 6. He began the day by publicly urging Vice President Mike Pence to assist in overturning the election results by disrupting the congressional confirmation, further fanning the fire of “Stop the Steal”. As the President was made aware of the storming of the Capitol, he asked the protestors, in a tweet, to “remain peaceful” in what was quickly becoming an unpeaceful situation. After the events unfolded and the Capitol rioting died down, Trump commented on Twitter that the event was a direct result of “a sacred landslide election victory” getting “unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots”, a statement that validated both the intentions and the actions of the protestors at the Capitol.

Ever since, a committee was created to investigate the January 6 attacks,and the violent rhetoric has continued to circulate in the same social media subcultures that initially fuelled the attacks. Some far-right groups have even called for the execution of members of the committee such as Liz Cheney and Mike Pence, both Republicans who have spoken outwardly about January 6 being an insurrection.

Although the Sri Lankan revolution did not find its beginnings online like January 6, social media, over time, became a tool for protestors to communicate their revolutionary actions to the rest of the world. As the multi-day occupation of the presidential palace took place, protestors posted photos and videos of themselves “lounging on furniture, swimming in pools, and even working out in the home gym”. These photos and videos, largely because of their absurd and almost comical nature, spread rapidly around Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, inserting the liveliness of the revolution into social media feeds all across the world. Rather than the presence of social media disrupting the worthiness, unity, and commitment of this movement, Sri Lankan protestors were able to leverage their celebratory posts to garner support from around the world and apply additional pressure to their cause.

In many ways, the use of social media in these two events dictated the outcome of the movements. January 6 rioters utilized fringe conspiracies to amass support and justify their interruption of political processes. Sri Lankan protestors fought within their community and held close to their motive while using social media to amplify their celebrations and achievements. January 6 was a desperate grab to destroy whatever was perceived as a roadblock on the path to the White House, while the Sri Lankan protests were grounded in a tangible desire to reorder political power.

The social context in which both of these events occurred must be carefully considered. Not all revolutions look the same, function the same, or aim to serve the same group of people. And the difference between these factors can make or break the worthiness, unity, and success of the movement.

Featured image from the Museum of the French Revolution. The work is public domain.

Edited by Darius Jamal