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We’ve all heard how misinformation spreads like a virus. But we’ve watched it in real time over the past months.
What ties these lies together:
- President Donald Trump won’t admit defeat in the election or missteps on Covid, creating a bedrock of inaccuracy
- The democratization of information on the internet enables everyone to publish their thoughts, even if they’re totally made up
- As the country gets more tribal in its politics, people find satisfaction in blaming villains, regardless of facts.
Either Trump is spinning an alternate reality for followers who agree with him or he is just channeling and amplifying what he hears from them. Regardless, in his four years in office, he has totally normalized bad information.
If it weren’t the election or Covid, it would be something else. Climate change, the Russia investigation, his own impeachment, the election he won four years ago, President Barack Obama’s birth certificate — Trump’s said so many things are hoaxes or fakes that he may personally not know what is real and what is imagined anymore.
And for each of these things, there are enablers online and in conservative media who fuel the theories. It takes creativity and commitment to see election fraud where there is none and tyranny in public health.
Conspiracy theory coming
Certainly the news Wednesday that President-elect Joe Biden’s son Hunter is under investigation by US attorneys in Delaware over his business dealings with Chinese nationals will fuel renewed efforts to smear the President-elect through his son. Misinformation needs a kernel of truth to flourish. Here’s what we actually know about the investigation into Hunter Biden.
On Covid, CNN has interviewed nurses who talk about people dying from the coronavirus who still deny it’s a threat. Dr. Anthony Fauci complained Tuesday about trying to reach people in communities where hospitals are nearly overrun, but denialists stubbornly reject masks and social distancing.
Just wait until the nation’s public health officials are trying to convince people to get a shot in the arm. Vaccines are already a hotbed of denialism.
On the election, Tuesday felt final. The Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservatives, shut the door on Trump’s election fraud fantasy and his efforts to get state legislators to bypass the voters have so far failed.
“The fact that the justices issued a one-sentence order with no separate opinions is a powerful sign that the court intends to stay out of election-related disputes, and that it’s going to leave things to the electoral process going forward,” CNN legal analyst Steve Vladeck said after the ruling.
On Wednesday, West Virginia certified its election results, meaning all 50 states have approved their results and Trump’s electoral loss is (still) assured.
But Trump and his followers have already moved to their next Hail Mary. This one, a lawsuit brought by the Texas attorney general, is even more far-fetched than Trump’s attempts to get state legislators to overthrow voters.
The idea is that pandemic-related changes to election procedures in swing states violated the Constitution. The most obvious problem with the suit is that nearly every state — including Texas — changed procedures.
The Texas lawsuit is concerned only with the ones in key states where Biden won, which has been described as hypocrisy, but that seems like not strong enough a word here.
The attorney general in Texas is a man named Ken Paxton, who has been under indictment on securities fraud charges for years and has been accused by former aides of bribery. It’s notable that not all Republicans in the state are backing the suit.
But it’s also notable that Trump allies on Capitol Hill are trying to make support of it into kind of a litmus test.
If the Supreme Court’s Pennsylvania ruling is any indication, this Texas suit is just the latest in a series of increasingly desperate last gasps as Trump hops from one dead-end lawsuit to the next.
But the Texas suit is also an indication that Trump and his allies are all-in on denying Biden’s victory until the bitter end.
Where does the misinformation come from?
To get some understanding of how misinformation is spreading in the US and whether that will change on January 20 (spoiler alert: It won’t) I went to CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, who covers the internet, social media and disinformation for us.
It was his shocking story about deep fakes a year ago that made me realize how completely information is manipulated online. And he contributes to Misinformation Watch, CNN’s hub for the fallacies we find are being pushed online.
Who is in the real world and who is in the Matrix?
WHAT MATTERS: I’ve begun to feel like I’m living in the real world with facts, but there are a large number of people who are convinced they’re living in the Matrix and that facts can’t be believed. Ever.
DONIE O’SULLIVAN: The cliché descriptor for the internet is that the world’s information is at our fingertips. Which is true. But it also means the world’s misinformation is at our fingertips. If you want to make a lie seem legit, it’s easy to find a handful of pieces of misinformation or out-of-context articles and videos to bolster pretty much any false narrative.
Where do these conspiracy theories come from and how do they grow?
WHAT MATTERS: We’ve all heard and read a lot in recent years about how misinformation spreads and you’ve covered this extensively. It’s largely online and in social media feeds. What I don’t understand is where and how these misinformation trends start and grow to the point they feel almost like coordinated campaigns.
O’SULLIVAN: People have all different motivations for peddling misinformation. Sometimes it’s political, sometimes financial, sometimes a mix of both — and of course some people just share it and want to believe it because it confirms their biases. With Trump, for instance, his reasons for pushing misinformation are both political and financial — he doesn’t want to admit he lost and he is fundraising off the back of the lies. A hyper-partisan website might simply push misinformation because they know it’ll get a lot of clicks and they’ll make Google ad dollars off that. Then Trump might turn around and tweet that article because it fits his narrative. It’s a vicious circle.
What will happen in the after-Trump?
WHAT MATTERS: Both the Covid denialism and the election denialism are directly tied to Trump. Do you expect that when he’s out of office, these theories will have less of an audience and less oxygen? Or is this misinformation movement larger than him?
O’SULLIVAN: No. I think a lot of Americans are dreaming of the post-Trump era where he fizzles out of their daily lives. I don’t think that is going to happen on social media. Trump has too big a footprint. He drives so much of the right-wing ecosystem and I still think he and his proxies, like his sons, are going to hold a lot of influence. And of course new outlets like Newsmax and OANN are emerging who are also happy to push the Trump agenda.
Are foreign countries causing this or amplifying it?
WHAT MATTERS: We know that Russia (and other countries) have tried to influence how we think about elections and politics. Are they responsible for misinformation or do you think they’re just amplifying things that are already pushed by a grassroots of conspiracy theorists?
O’SULLIVAN: The covert nature of these operations means it’s always hard to tell, but certainly the experts we have spoken to this year believe Russian trolls and their ilk have been amplifying existing divisive narratives in the US rather than creating their own. It’s a lot easier to do that and can have just as much impact. But Russia has been doing this for a very long time, they are really good at it — so it’s possible that a lot more is going on than we even can imagine.
What will happen to safeguard information?
WHAT MATTERS: As the media world becomes more fractured and more people tune into their echo chambers, how will it be possible for actual facts to be transmitted to large groups of people?
O’SULLIVAN: I think the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. It’s depressing, but I think a lot of people do not want facts. Example: Facebook brought in some fact-checkers who now mark false viral posts — but many conservatives now believe those fact-checkers are biased.
Sorry I don’t have a more uplifting or helpful answer!