Supporters of US President Donald Trump stand on US Capitol Square on January 6, 2021 … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
The January 6, 2020 attack on the U.S. Capitol was the direct result of ongoing disinformation that began prior to the U.S. presidential election in 2020 and continued beyond the event. This flow of disinformation came largely, but not exclusively, through social media. The repetition of false information over and over again using a propaganda technique known as “The Big Lie” has been used widely throughout history.
The advent of mass communication in the 20th century made this more effective than in the past and was perfected by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels before and during World War II. However, with social media it has become even more effective as the claims can be shared and widely disseminated. In addition, the nature of social media contributes to its effectiveness.
“There’s a consistent pattern of audience cultivation,” says Dave Troy, who studies disinformation on social media. “This is an indicator of how psychological operations work. The truth is not a problem and you will build audiences if you use a certain type of message to get you a response. “
The effectiveness of misinformation
Misinformation word cloud
Professor David Rand of MIT’s Sloan School of Management studied this in collaboration with Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina. Rand and Pennycook conducted a survey to find out how effective the misinformation campaign of then-President Donald Trump and other members of the Republican Party was.
“What we found was unsettling, if not surprising,” said Rand. “A majority really believed the lie,” he said, “77 percent of Trump voters believed in widespread electoral fraud.”
Rand said President Trump and some of his supporters were able to convince a large majority of Trump voters that he won the election when it was not true.
Rand said the ongoing claims that Trump did indeed win the referendum had led to a belief among Trump supporters that it was indeed the case. “If you repeat it, people will believe it,” Rand said. “You can understand why a large group of people would believe it was their civic duty,” he said to protest.
“It’s not surprising that people believe it. If all you hear is election fraud, they’ll believe it, ”said Rand. “There is good scientific evidence that it works.”
The tendency of social media consumers to prefer communicating with like-minded people contributes to the effectiveness of social media in spreading disinformation. “There is no dialogue,” said Troy. “There are different factions and there is always a reason why you can’t talk to the other factions.” This factionism was exploited by the Russian secret service during the 2016 presidential election to spread disinformation, and other groups have accelerated this, especially Qanon supporters who take advantage of groups’ tendency not to communicate with others.
A coordinated disinformation campaign
“These are large coordinated disinformation campaigns,” Troy said. “It’s a great network effect.”
Truth or lie – it may depend on what you believe
Rand said he and Pennycook also investigated why people shared incorrect content. “By and large, it’s inattention,” Rand said. “They forget to think about whether it is true, but rather how many likes they will get. Another characteristic of social media is that people are more likely to be friends with people who share common ideas. “
He said the study followed random users who were Republicans and Democrats. “People are three times more likely to follow bipartisan accounts,” Rand said. “It’s a very basic human psychology. There is reason to believe that you want to connect with people who share your bias. “
The practice of spreading falsehoods on social media, as was done around the 2020 election, is new, but the practice itself is not. And once people buy into the untruths, they seem to be self-sufficient for at least a while.
While not being able to tell people what to think, it is possible to stop the spread of falsehoods and the persistence of the great lie. Social media companies did so after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Other organizations can do this by limiting the spread of social media within their organization, either through active management or through technology methods that limit access to or sharing of social media across their networks. And of course, knowing that this phenomenon at least exists gives you the ability to control it.