February 4, 2021
As the United States transitions to a new administration, the change follows one of the darkest days in American history. On January 6, 2021, pro-Trump extremists sieged the U.S. Capitol, driven to the point of violence over their false belief about what they perceived to be a stolen election.
Those who work to debunk and defund disinformation have watched these tensions within the far-right reach their boiling point for quite some time. However, on that fateful Wednesday, the rest of the world was exposed to something long feared—real world harm caused by disinformation.
Quantitative representation of the hashtag #StopTheSteal across Twitter between Election Day and the Capitol siege. Credit: BBC News / Khoros
Disinformation later labeled the “Big Lie,” a charged term that in this usage refers to the election being “stolen” from Trump, worked up supporters into a frenzy. A frenzy that got to the point where thousands turned up in Washington, D.C. to rally for their president on the day the Electoral College votes was to be certified by Congress.
While expected right-wing militias like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys played a part in inciting the riot, thousands others in attendance were victims of the “Big Lie.” Enticed, entranced and inundated by hateful rhetoric, questioning a democratic process that has stood the test of time for over two centuries.
In order to understand how this digital vitriol transcended into physical acts of extremism, it’s important to understand the critical role disinformation played in the “Big Lie.”
This bridge between disinformation and extremism is something The Global Disinformation Index (GDI) studies; we view disinformation through the lens of “adversarial narratives.” GDI defines adversarial narratives as malicious narratives that create division and anger among individuals and seek to uproot trust in longstanding, trusted institutions.
Within this specific instance, we saw an all-too-common formula leading to radicalization. Fears of “disenfranchised” individuals were tapped into and amplified, combined with the gamification of algorithms so a consistent stream of content reinforced these alternate realities and cognitive biases. The end result was these individuals feeling emboldened enough to take action, instilled with the belief they were acting in the right.
Defining characteristics of the adversarial narrative model include:
The “Big Lie” campaign utilized all of these tactics. Trump himself, alongside pro-Trump media and other bad actors, spread disinformation for years and, starting over the summer with the increased possibility of mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, focused its energy on discrediting the integrity of the election and its tried-and-true processes.
Repeated themes throughout this disinformation campaign, which continues even after the inauguration, include:
And outcomes, as witnessed on January 6, included:
The country and the world have now seen first hand the harm that can result from individuals peddling adversarial narratives online. Given how deeply rooted the false beliefs are, it’s likely these conspiracy theories will outlast Trump’s departure from the White House and continue to plague our society for the foreseeable future.