This past week, Americans watched in horror as a mob bearing Trump flags and “MAGA” hats stormed the U.S. Capitol, temporarily stopping government in its tracks, assaulting members of the police and press, and sending the nation’s leaders into secure locations in the seat of the most powerful government on the planet.
The scenes stood in contrast to the scene outside, where tens of thousands of Trump supporters were peacefully gathered to support their president in his unfounded allegations that the election was stolen from them.
Near the Capitol, however, photographers for the New York Times and The Associated Press were assaulted for doing their jobs, the latter incident being captured on video. America watched in horror as a woman who supported Trump was shot by authorities protecting Congress in the hallowed halls of government. Another police officer was seen in video footage being crushed by the mob. One officer later died as a result of his injuries.
Media coverage over the last several days has depicted both the violence within the building as well as the perspective of the peaceful protesters outside of it, many of whom were dismayed and saddened by the violence that has come to define the day’s demonstrations. But ultimately, those who descended on Washington last week were there for the same reason, unified in their shared, unsubstantiated belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from them.
Around the world, members of the media and researchers in political polarization raced to chronicle and understand the root causes of Wednesday’s events, a carnival of misinformation marking a culmination of years of “alternative facts” peddled by those outside the mainstream media and government officials, two groups that have faced escalating levels of mistrust from conservatives.
A November Reuters/Ipsos Poll found that more than two-thirds of all Republicans believed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was “rigged,” a narrative researchers have tied to countless out-of-context videos, memes and speculative articles by untrustworthy news sources that reigned rampant on social media for months.
Based on who you follow on social media, the news sources you read or the people you engage with, the events of Wednesday — or the past five years, for that matter — likely looked very different from the version seen by those on the opposite end of the spectrum. As a reporter, it’s something I’ve found myself engaging with even more consistently over the last several years as I’ve struggled to make sense of the divide.
On Monday, I found myself covering a protest against Gov. Mark Gordon and the public health orders implemented by his administration to stall the spread of COVID-19. At that rally, I counted more firearms than face coverings, and encountered not only a swath of misinformation I’d never even heard of, but an enthusiastic and attentive audience for it.
I saw a sign from one man promoting a conspiracy theory called “#ShadowGate,” which suggests without evidence that advanced data collection techniques are being exploited by government contractors to put their thumb on world events in an effort to orchestrate a coup against Trump. I heard numerous claims that masks don’t work, a verifiably untrue assertion. A former congressional candidate, Darin Smith, suggested that more people died in the United States in 2019 than in 2020, a claim that is demonstrably false and based on outdated statistics. One man at the microphone suggested a cure for COVID-19 could be bought for $4 at Bomgaars and that it was “criminal” the state’s doctors weren’t prescribing it.
One unmasked woman suggested I could prevent myself from contracting COVID-19 by “strengthening my immune system” with supplements like vitamin D and vitamin B-12.
“Where do you get your information?” I asked, after saying I’d look into it.
“Facebook,” she responded.
While some of the claims I heard were jarring, the most startling feature of Monday’s protests were the strength of their convictions. I heard people refer to Gordon as a “murderer” for refusing to promote illegitimate cures to the virus. I asked one young man why government leaders would suppress a readily available cure to one of the deadliest viruses this country has ever seen. He insisted with full confidence it was to tear down the economy and the populous in an effort to impose socialism. He drove home his point by sharing with me the unproven story about Joseph Stalin plucking a live chicken and feeding it, a metaphor that has gained new life in the age of COVID-19.
“This is how you govern stupid people,” the story goes. “They will follow you no matter how much pain you cause them, as long as you throw them a little worthless treat once in a while.”
The pervasive implications of social media are well-documented in our politics, as well as in the current public health response. The World Health Organization has deemed the trend as an “Infodemic,” a threat the organization has attributed to undermining the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A lot of the issue is psychological as well, dependent on one’s willingness to be open to a broad range of credible information in order to draw their conclusions.
Peter Ditto, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, once conducted a study that found people who were morally opposed to condom education were less likely to believe that condoms were effective at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, a conclusion he told the American Psychological Association in 2017 shows that people “blur the line between moral and factual judgments.”
This has been one of the most challenging features in a troubling and violent time. As the violence raged at the U.S. Capitol, I saw many criticize the media coverage of riots in places like Minneapolis and Portland as “mostly peaceful” in comparison to the violent mob that emerged from a peaceful demonstration in Washington last week.
In response to Wednesday’s violence, right-wing Fox News host Tucker Carlson — who condemned movements like Black Lives Matter at the height of last summer’s protests against proven racial disparities in policing — suggested some violent response was to be expected from the unsubstantiated claims an election was stolen.
“If you don’t bother to pause and learn a single thing from it, from your citizens storming your Capitol building, then you’re a fool,” said Carlson.