“Please explain what I’m watching at the Capitol?”
“Where did this anger come from?”
“How did this happen?”
These types of text messages were flying across mobile networks on Wednesday as a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol. But for those of us who spend time monitoring misinformation and conspiracy theories, the surprise being shared by friends and family seemed strange. To us, this was the inevitable, if not still stunning, conclusion to the Trump presidency.
After years of people wanting to downplay the real-world impact of rumors and falsehoods, there is now a sudden recognition that those outrage memes on Instagram, conspiracy videos on YouTube, and hyperpartisan websites shared by your uncle on Facebook might not have been something to ignore.
And while there does need to be a recognition that misinformation leads to real-world harm, this is about far more than misinformation.
When we use the term misinformation, we’re usually describing individual examples — claims that drinking bleach can cure COVID-19, or false images circulating of wildfires in California that actually originated in Australia, or pamphlets giving out the wrong date of an election.
What was on display Wednesday at the Capitol wasn’t the effect of a few individual examples. As false claims, images, and posts accrue, people start filling in the gaps between. When someone sees a Trump tweet about ballot boxes combined with a seemingly unrelated meme about Diebold machines, they start to construct a larger false narrative that elections aren’t secure. And once they believe enough false narratives, they find themselves walled into an entirely different information ecosystem.
An information ecosystem is more than just a partisan echo chamber, or one friend who watches Fox disagreeing with another who watches CNN. These ecosystems aren’t top-down or linear. They are networked, participatory, and completely separate from mainstream media. Inside these alternative information ecosystems, entire belief systems, and alternative worldviews take root.
To those who stormed the Capitol, this wasn’t a coup or an insurrection. In their alternative reality, they are patriots taking measures to protect the Constitution. They were there to “stop the steal,” the tagline of the movement insisting, despite all available evidence, that the election was stolen. They were there to protect democracy. They were there “fighting for our freedom,” as one man shouted to an ITV News cameraman while storming the Capitol rotunda.
The information system driving the mob into the Capitol wasn’t a one-way broadcast from a single bad actor out to the receptive masses. The world of disinformation is a complex network that continuously reinforces itself. When the system is at work, the president might read a conspiracy theory originated by The Gateway Pundit, amplified on the airwaves of OAN, re-shared on The Donald (a far-right message board that spun off from Reddit) — or by a member of the Trump family — before making its way into a speech by a local politician in a state legislature.
We saw this play out last Sunday when the recording emerged of President Trump’s call with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state. In the hour-long call, many of the president’s references were drawn from conspiracies that have been circulating on QAnon sites. In turn, the recording led to more people parroting the same claims, which then appeared on more hyperpartisan websites, and then were echoed by other Republican politicians.
For Trump supporters, his Twitter feed, and the tangled web of disinformation that informs it, became their news source of choice. Their media habits evolved so that the professional media no longer played any part in their day-to-day lives. Gallup research shows that only 10 percent of Republicans say they trust the mainstream media a great deal or a fair amount (compared to 73 percent of Democrats).
Once that foundation had been laid, convincing half the country that the election was stolen was relatively easy. From the first use of the #stopthesteal hashtag on Election Day on social platforms, the narrative has been strengthened by a torrent of blog posts, hyperpartisan news stories, conspiracy podcasts, and statements by Trump, his surrogates, and other politicians. These sources all pushed an alternative version of reality: that the election was stolen and democracy needed to be saved.
The people immersed in this alternate reality weren’t a passive audience receiving and accepting messages. They had been asked to scour social media for evidence of fraud. They were told to go and “observe” vote counts, to share tips. Their energy has been entirely focused on proving the election was stolen. With the result certified by Congress, an outcome with virtually zero chance of reversal, that energy is seeking a new outlet, raising the specter of further political violence.
So rather than talking about the “dust settling” and turning to the social media platforms to “do more,” there is a need to fully understand what is happening here. When half of the country relies entirely on a completely separate information diet, one that is based on an alternative reality, where does that leave us as a populace?
As someone who has studied online misinformation for more than a decade, I often end public speeches with a warning about where we might end up if people didn’t see where our failure to take misinformation seriously might lead us. In my head, I always felt like we had another five years until the problem was too serious for us to walk back. As I look at the YouGov survey that shows 45 percent of Republican voters strongly or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol, I fear my doomsday predictions were five years too late.