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How years of online misinformation erupted into real-world insurrection

On social networks, a toxic stew of lies simmered for years—until the president’s supporters responded with violent action at the U.S. Capitol.

How years of online misinformation erupted into real-world insurrection
Crowds gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. [Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images]

On Wednesday, a riotous crowd of Donald Trump’s supporters marched on the U.S. Capitol at the president’s urging. They fought with police, broke windows and doors, and snaked their way down the historic hallways inside. They made their way to the floor of the evacuated Senate chamber. One stood behind the dais, his right fist lifted in the air, and yelled, “Trump won that election!”

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The unprecedented moment disrupted the electoral vote counting to secure Joe Biden’s status as the next president. Even as the Capitol Police struggled to secure the safety of members of Congress, Democrats secured a second win in the Georgia runoffs that will give the party control over the U.S. Senate. How did we get here?

For months before Election Day, the president had been repeating that the national election would be rigged, despite all evidence to the contrary. But the insurrection in Washington has been building long before this election cycle. Trump has been undermining the efficacy of American democracy with an unyielding barrage of misdirection since before he was elected in 2016. In his first 100 days in office alone, he made 492 false or misleading claims, according to The Washington Post’s tally. By the final weeks of his 2020 reelection campaign, he was on track for 25,000.

Despite the many fact-checking outlets and news organization efforts devoted to correcting Trump’s errors, he is un-fact-checkable. His constant stream of half truths and outright lies have fostered an environment where millions of people cannot discern between fact and fiction.

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For average Americans, this has created confusion. But for a faction of Trump supporters, the president’s rhetoric and claims have created pure delusion. They don’t trust Congress. They don’t believe COVID-19 is real. They won’t wear masks. They think the COVID-19 vaccine is a sham. They follow a conspiracy theory called QAnon that says President Trump is fighting a deep network of government corruption that involves child sex-trafficking.

Many of these ideas have come directly from the mouth—or tweeting fingertips—of the commander in chief. “Who is the single greatest purveyor of domestically generated disinformation? It’s no contest. It’s Trump,” Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Center for business and human rights at NYU Stern, told me last April. He has written several reports on how disinformation campaigns have impacted elections and politics.

From the web to the Capitol

Conspiracy theories have always floated around the dark corners of the web. But during Trump’s presidency they found a much larger audience. There are a confluence of reasons for this. There is President Trump himself, who has promoted false information to an incredible number of people. There are social media networks, where huge amounts of proliferating misinformation is checked only by the platforms’ inconsistent policies. Even after social media companies decided to take more decisive action in confronting misinformation, it quickly became apparent that they were ill-equipped to keep it off their feeds.

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It was not just 2020’s chaos that lead to Wednesday’s uprising.

There was the national election—and lax social media rules around election ads—which offered an opportunity for a torrent of targeted partisan information to reach millions of eyes. There was dearth of information about a rapidly spreading deadly virus, which created a vacuum where false information could flourish.

But it was not just 2020’s chaos that led to Wednesday’s uprising. It was the result of years of disinformation aimed at fomenting unrest. In Barrett’s report on misinformation in the 2020 election, he notes a unique feature about the most recent spate of political disinformation: It was designed to sow discord that lead to action offline. This first became apparent during the 2016 election when outside actors, such as the Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency, set up false interest groups online that would often lead their followers into protest or other action.

Such activity continued through to the 2020 election. In the summer of 2018, a fake account scheduled a counter-protest to a planned white supremacist gathering in Washington, D.C. The fake account coordinated with other groups online to amass a large number of counterdemonstrators. Facebook identified the account as fraudulent, removed it, and notified 2,600 users who expressed interest in the event, according to Barrett’s report. “In the end, only 40 white supremacists showed up for the rally near the White House, and they were greatly outnumbered by counter-protesters,” he wrote.

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On Wednesday morning, Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, foretold the unrest. “Today we will witness the full break of the MAGA movement from representative politics,” she tweeted. “As you watch what unfolds in DC today, remember that activists are both inside and outside the capitol.”

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There have been plenty of moments that indicated this day would come. The president has repeatedly cajoled his supporters to take action and defended them. In 2017, protestors in cities across the U.S. called for monuments to racist historical figures to be taken down, President Trump expressed his displeasure. That year, a woman was killed during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, aimed at protecting a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee. Trump famously responded, “you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

During the pandemic, Trump condemned the efforts of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In April, he told his online followers to “liberate Michigan!” Not only were there protests in Michigan, but a group of anti-government activists plotted to kidnap the governor.

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In August, when Kyle Rittenhouse shot three participants in an anti-police brutality protest in Wisconsin, President Trump defended his actions, saying they were probably in self-defense. Rittenhouse had previously said that he was there to protect local businesses from protesters. Trump, who has criticized anti-police brutality demonstrations, later went to the city where the protests were held, saying, “I have to see the people that did such a good job for me and we are meeting with numerous people and we have tremendous support in the state of Wisconsin so I promise them when it all gets taken care of, we’ll go.”

On Wednesday afternoon, when President Trump responded to the Capitol insurrectionists, it was far from a rebuke. Instead, he affirmed their reason for gathering: “We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side,” he said. “But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order.”

But he went even further than that, extending his devotion to the people who stormed the Capitol rather than condemning them. “We love you, you’re very special,” he told the rioters. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all pulled down the video from their platforms. It was a remarkable move given that all three have previously balked at removing the President’s posts. Twitter even suspended the president’s account for 12 hours and raised the possibility of banishing him altogether for further infractions. But it’s unclear whether this action will ultimately do any good.

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Wednesday’s unrest at the Capitol has dissipated, but it’s not clear the distrust will. During the day of disruption, people posting to a pro-Trump message board were suggesting that the message board itself was operated by opponents 0f the president. The ethos of distrust runs so deep that the group doesn’t seem to even trust itself.

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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