The world changed last week after rioters infiltrated the U.S. Capitol building and disrupted our legislative and democratic process. It was an event most people did not see coming, but others have worried about for months, if not years.
Disinformation and misinformation researchers, online content verification analysts and beat reporters who monitor the darkest corners of the internet have watched the spread of conspiracy theories online and their accelerated move to the mainstream in 2020.
But for the average American, it can be more difficult to make the connection between disinformation online and its tangible, direct impact on real life.
There are very few examples of such a direct connection in the U.S. The most famous is the QAnon-fueled “pizzagate” incident in December 2016. Abroad, there are more examples, like journalists who are fighting disinformation in the Philippines threatened with jail time and misinformation leading to a mob killing in India.
Here in the U.S., how do you explain exactly how conspiracy theories online led to events like we saw at the Capitol last week? That’s what I asked a group of preeminent disinformation and misinformation experts to explain, in the simplest terms, and to unpack why this is so important.
What follows is their responses last week, in their own words, lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
Jane Lytvynenko, reporter for BuzzFeed News, whose Twitter posts and reporting are required reading for anyone trying to understand this space:
“There’s a direct connection between disinformation and the insurrection on Capitol Hill. The mob was motivated by the false idea of a stolen election, which has traveled across social media for months, amplified by Mr. Trump and his supporters. Courts and election officials alike have rejected the idea of a stolen election, but their hard evidence was no match for the power of viral memes reinforced by lies and half-truths from elected officials. We’ve seen this scenario play out globally, and now it’s playing out in the U.S.”
Donie O’Sullivan covers the disinformation beat for CNN. He reported live on air on Wednesday from the protests at the Capitol:
.@donie, reporting from Capitol Hill: “In 2016 people tried to write off anything about social media, saying oh, it’s only a few Facebook posts, what harm? Here’s the harm. The harm of conspiracy theories, the harm of people living in these online and Trump media echo chambers.” pic.twitter.com/kisSUSNRxb
— Tara Mulholland (@tara_mulholland) January 6, 2021
“Conspiracy theories are now playing such a prominent role in American life that you’re seeing this all play out here. We’ve spoken for years about Facebook and Twitter and their failure to act on conspiracy theories and hateful speech online and we’re seeing the results play out here on the streets of the Capitol today. We’re beyond the fact, in 2016 we heard about Russian trolls, tried to write off anything about social media, saying, ‘Oh, you know, it’s only a few Facebook posts. What harm?’ Here’s the harm.”
Alex Mahadevan, senior multimedia reporter for MediaWise, a digital media literacy initiative of The Poynter Institute, and a misinformation expert:
“The woman shot and killed at the Capitol is another victim of disinformation. She died as a member of a mob motivated by debunked conspiracy theories around the election, which fueled members of Congress’ plans to try to overturn the results. The horrific images and videos of her death — and the surrounding chaos and havoc — will be burned in my mind forever as the consequence of sharing misinformation.”
Daniel Funke, reporter for PolitiFact, a leading U.S. politics fact-checking organization, has published dozens of fact-checks and is a leading reporter on this subject:
“What happened in the Capitol was the product of weeks of mis- and disinformation about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Since Nov. 3, President Trump, his family and his supporters have promoted the baseless claim that the election results were affected by widespread voter fraud, and that Trump could still win. Fact-checkers, federal agencies and state election officials have repeatedly debunked those allegations. In November alone, PolitiFact debunked more than 80 false claims about the election. All 50 states — including those that conducted recounts and audits — and the District of Columbia have certified their election results. Not one of the lawsuits that Trump and his allies filed has proved that voter fraud affected the election outcome.
But false voter fraud claims persisted in pro-Trump internet and media circles until the first few days of 2021, when some of the president’s supporters online started calling for an insurrection at the Capitol if Congress affirmed Joe Biden’s win. Thousands of people descended on Washington to protest the counting of legally cast electoral votes at the Capitol. Many of the rioters brandished the symbols and slogans of QAnon, a baseless, pro-Trump conspiracy theory that has proliferated online over the past year.
It may be hard to believe that online misinformation could inspire such a showing, but it’s impossible to separate rampant falsehoods about voter fraud from what happened at the Capitol.”
Kate Starbird, associate professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at University of Washington, researcher of crisis informatics and online rumors shared her thoughts in a Twitter thread, showing how the events at the Capitol were connected to disinformation online:
Let’s talk about how the attempted take-over of the US Capitol came to pass. For months leading up to the general election, Pres. Trump sowed the seeds of doubt in the election, repeatedly tweeting that it would be “rigged”. (Thread)
— Kate Starbird (@katestarbird) January 7, 2021
From David Clinch, head of Global Strategic Partnerships at Storyful, an expert in online content verification:
“Disinformation and misinformation about how elections and the political process work, especially that which is spread by people in power, leads directly to individuals and groups carrying out extremist attacks on fellow citizens and our political institutions.
The worst kind of disinformation and misinformation is that which leads ordinary people, who do not normally hold extremist views, to believe that they can and should support extreme, and even violent, actions in order to address their grievances, rather than continuing to act within the bounds of normal social and political behavior.
If you see any information or content that seems to be leading you in this direction, make sure you seek out reliable sources and experts to avoid being pulled into a dangerous spiral of online misinformation that can lead to real-world consequences and harm.”
From Davey Alba, reporter for The New York Times who covers the disinformation beat:
“We have known for years that online misinformation and disinformation can translate to real-life consequences, and this is one of the starkest examples that we have seen in a while.
The problem doesn’t lie in our ability to post anything, anytime, on these platforms. It is that the platforms that we all use to consume social media are powered by algorithms that drive the most incendiary posts to the top of people’s feeds — which tends to be emotionally charged content, and much of it political misinformation. It’s just not a level playing field for users on these platforms. As soon as you’re in their house, you’re prey to their programming.
Also, much has been said about how users on these platforms organized out in the open. That’s true. But I think another important point is that something that we call “well-organized” on social media actually takes so little effort to get pulled into. You get shown Facebook Groups, you click. You respond to a few comments. An event — like an invitation to rally at the Capitol — comes across your feed. There’s very little effort on the part of regular users to get pulled into this chaos.
The other side of the coin is that a lot of people who join in on these efforts aren’t just unsuspecting individuals who have been deceived. Some people do want the attention and notoriety, like the QAnon supporter who joined the pro-Trump mob dressed in horns and painted his face with the American flag design. That is someone who wants to be in photographs.
The thing is, we’ve learned over the past four or five years that holding people’s attention on social media can also be very lucrative for these “influencers.” So a lot of people are willing to jump in and try it — and willing to try anything to get that attention. And the platforms allow and encourage this dynamic.
This matters because the way the platforms’ algorithms are programmed now make social networks a very effective method for things like providing cover for an authoritarian’s deadly actions and policies, or even directly riling people up to commit violence. The way it works now, this stuff is pushed in front of people’s noses directly, whether they are looking for it or not.
It’s also so insidious because the swirl of misinformation and disinformation on the platforms can just worm its way into your brain and ends up with people believing a grab bag of ideas and conspiracies without the instinct to scrutinize the source of those ideas directly. In spite of strong reporting, for instance, that the identifiable members of the mob that stormed the Capitol were connected to far-right networks, people still repeated the idea that “there’s photographic evidence they were antifa” and “there’s no way the mob was made up of Trump supporters” in tons of Facebook comments, with no specific posts or media attached. At that level, people are just repeating hearsay and talking points that are straight-up false.”
What can you do?
I compiled these responses and insights in the hopes that people will really listen this time because I believe the problem of online disinformation is going to get worse this year.
If you know someone who has fallen down an internet rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, try to talk to them and bring them back to reality. Family and friends reaching out are our best defense against more real-life violent incidents and actions. More tips on that can be found here.
Remember that people don’t start as QAnon believers, they graduate to that level of delusion over time and it starts with a lack of digital media literacy. You can find digital media literacy education resources from MediaWise here.