The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020, was the direct result of a continuous drumbeat of disinformation starting before the Presidential elections in the U.S. in 2020, and continuing past the event itself. That flow of disinformation came largely, but not exclusively, through social media. The constant repetition of false information using a propaganda technique known as “The Big Lie,” has been in common use throughout history.
The advent of mass communication in the 20th Century made this more effective than in the past, and it was perfected by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels before and during World War II. But with social media, it has become even more effective because the claims can be shared and distributed widely. In addition, the nature of social media adds to its effectiveness.
“There’s a consistent pattern of audience cultivation,” says Dave Troy, who researches disinformation on social media. “That’s a hallmark of how psychological operations work. Truth is not a concern and you build out target audiences when you apply a certain type of messaging so you get a response.”
The Effectiveness of Misinformation
Professor David Rand, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has 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 conducted by then-President Donald Trump and others in the Republican Party was.
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“What we found was disturbing if not surprising,” Rand said. “A majority really believed the lie,” he said, “77 percent of Trump voters believed in widespread voter fraud.”
Rand said that President Trump and a number of his followers were able to convince a large majority of Trump voters that he won the election, despite the fact that it was untrue.
Rand said that the continuous assertions that Trump actually won the popular vote led to a belief among Trump supporters that this was actually the case. “Repeating it makes people believe it,” Rand said. “You can understand why a large group of people would believe it was their civic duty,” to protest, he said.
“It’s not surprising that people believe it. If all you hear is election fraud, they will believe it,” Rand said. “There’s good scientific evidence that it works.”
Adding to the effectiveness of social media in spreading disinformation is the tendency of social media consumers to prefer communicating with like minded people. “There’s no dialog occurring,” Troy said. “They are different factions, and there’s always some reason why you can’t talk to the other factions.” This factionalism was exploited by Russian intelligence during the 2016 Presidential election as a way to spread disinformation, and other groups have accelerated this, notably Qanon followers who are making use of the tendency of groups to not communicate with others.
A Coordinated Disinformation Campaign
“These are large coordinated disinformation campaigns,” Troy said, “It’s a big networked effect.”
Rand said that he and Pennycook also studied why people shared false content. “Largely it’s inattention,” Rand said. “They forget to think about whether it’s true, but rather how many likes they’ll get. Another feature 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 that were Republicans and Democrats. “People are three times more likely to follow co-partisan accounts,” Rand said. “It’s very basic human psychology. There’s reason to believe that you want to associate with people who share your partisanship.”
While the practice of spreading falsehoods on social media as was done around the 2020 election is new, the practice itself isn’t. And unfortunately, once people buy into the falsehoods, they appear to be self-sustaining, at least for a while.
While you can’t tell people what to think, it is possible to inhibit the spread of falsehoods and the perpetuation of the big Lie. Social media companies did this after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Other organizations can do it by limiting the spread of social media withing their organization, either through active management, or by technology methods that limit access to social media, or the sharing of social media, on their networks. And of course, knowing that this phenomenon exists at least gives you a chance to control it.