Capitol Building invasion shows how online disinformation amplified by politicians undermines democracy

by Dr Paul Reilly

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On 6 January, four people lost their lives after rioters stormed the US Capitol Building in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US Presidential Election. Millions across the globe watched as Trump supporters smashed windows, looted the offices of lawmakers, and posed for selfies in the House of Representatives. One of the many extraordinary images captured by the television cameras during these events showed a pro-Trump rioter grinning as he walked away carrying a podium from the chamber.

There has been widespread condemnation of Donald Trump for his role in inciting this violence. He was criticised for expressing his admiration and love for the “special people” who had invaded the Capitol Building in a video in which he appealed to his supporters to “go home.” A few hours earlier, the soon to be former US President had appeared at a ‘Save America’ rally in which he repeated the lie that the US election had been stolen from him, accusing Congress of an “egregious assault on democracy”, and calling on his supporters to mobilise outside the Capitol Building during the certification process. He had also tweeted in December that the protest in Washington D.C. on the 6 January would be “wild”.

The immediate fallout from the violence in Washington D.C. has focused on the inadequacies of the policing operation (especially when compared to the use of tear-gas to disperse BLM protests in August 2020), Trump’s temporary suspension from platforms such as Twitter, and whether he should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment.

The pro-Trump mob who invaded the Capitol Building are a manifestation of an information crisis which has engulfed democratic states such as the US and UK. In addition to the erosion of public trust in media and political institutions, a key characteristic of this crisis has been the ‘diminishing pool of agreed facts’ in societies which are increasingly polarised. Hence, conspiracy theories shared by Trump supporters online have promoted an alternative reality in which his electoral loss can only be explained by widespread electoral fraud, despite the lack of corroborative evidence. There is a tendency among politicians and certain sections of the news media to attribute this to the nefarious activities of pro-Kremlin ‘troll farms’. Their seemingly easy solution to this crisis is to demand that social media companies take stronger action to remove potentially harmful mis-and disinformation. Certainly, some of the ‘fake news’ about the security risks associated with mail-in ballots, which circulated on 4Chan and Reddit before being amplified by right-wing media outlets such as Fox News, could be traced back to ‘troll farms’. Platforms such as Facebook also faced much criticism for being slow to remove pages promoting false claims about fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election. Yet, this would appear to be treating the symptoms of division rather than addressing the reasons why populist leaders like Trump receive such adulation and undying loyalty from their supporters. As Claire Wardle suggests, the only way to combat conspiracy theories which exploit the worst fears of people is to construct counter-narratives which engage them on a different emotional level.

Recent events in Washington D.C. illustrate how false and misleading information peddled by political leaders can have devastating consequences, both in terms of loss of life and deteriorating trust in political institutions. While some commentators suggest that Trump has long held autocratic tendencies and his attempted coup is evidence of his ‘war on democracy’, prominent republicans such as Senator Ted Cruz appear to be amplifying claims of electoral fraud in order to appeal to Trump’s supporters ahead of a likely run for the Presidency in 2024. This would seem a short-sighted approach which risks further eroding trust in US political institutions. As the recent Democrat victories in the Senate run-offs in Georgia illustrated, repeatedly telling citizens that the system is rigged is a sure-fire way to convince them democracy is broken and their vote worthless. Politicians who peddle ‘fake news’, whether knowingly or unknowingly, should be aware that they are undermining the very political institutions and ideals they purport to represent.

Dr Paul Reilly is a Senior Lecturer in Social Media and Digital Society at the University of Sheffield’s Information School. Follow Dr Reilly on Twitter.