“As long as people sincerely believe they can change things by voting, they stay calm. They don’t burst into the House chamber. They talk and they organize and they vote. But the opposite is also true if people begin to believe that their democracy is fraudulent, that voting is a charade, that the system is rigged and it’s run in secret by a small group of powerful, dishonest people who are acting in their own interests. Then, God knows what could happen.”
- Tucker Carlson, 1/6/20
What went down yesterday at the U.S. Capitol building was nothing short of terrifying and deeply frustrating. As domestic terrorists broke past security and police — which, to clearly underscore, were puppies compared to the attack dogs brought out over the summer for Black Lives Matter protests — many of us were gravely concerned for the safety of those inside the building. The backlash appears to be growing as even Trump seems to be receding, perhaps to save face before being dishonorably impeached. Many are rightfully blaming Trump and Republican legislators for stoking the fires that led to such violence.
Though, as with most stories, there also seems to be an underlying piece of the puzzle that’s missing from these analyses. For the better part of the entire last year, right-leaning media sources like Fox, Breitbart, TheBlaze, and others, have been pushing these conspiracy theories and violence-inciting lies. And we know that Trump doesn’t come up with these ideas himself, but often parrots the media he live tweets along with.
The same must be true for some of the more outrageous legislators, and is absolutely true for the regular people who so fervently believe they need to fight to retake “their country.” I’ve been studying this in the context of COVID misinformation, but the same is true of any popular issue: belief in conspiracies and lies is starkly split along partisan lines, and just as strikingly by media source. In fact, one of the speakers from the rally preceding the storming of the Capitol leveled a diatribe against mask-wearing in the same breath as advocating to “stop the steal.” The narratives come hand-in-hand because they all come bundled together from the same sources.
These circumstances pose a deep question for those who wish to have a full critique of our bizarre new world: if we accept that media is spewing falsehoods that lead to violence, what do we do about it?
The balancing act between protecting free speech and stifling hate speech has been an incredibly tricky one for technology companies and critics of the media landscape. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have progressively become bolder in their flagging of misleading tweets, and recent locking of Trump’s accounts. While these moves are praised by some on the left, others have advocated that censorship is not an answer, but instead sets a dangerous precedent for when your views may be considered worth suppressing.
Moreover, while the half of the social media narrative which points to right-wing radicalization gets told ad nauseum, there is scarcely mention of how social media also serves as an invaluable tool for bringing people to the left, and into organizing spaces. The information landscape in the age of social media has shifted so drastically — with algorithms that promote sensational content, unprecedented availability, and ability for anyone to appear credible — that the old arguments surrounding how people get their views no longer hold water.
While there may not be any answers to the misinformation problem that are both compelling and nuanced, more people should be thinking through it, because it’s unlikely to go away any time soon. During the time of COVID, Fox News has enjoyed a massive increase in advertising revenues, correlating with what appears to be a massive increase in fear-mongering falsehoods. Violence-inciting, scary misinformation grabs sustained, habituated attention, and leads to enormous profit in an ad-driven model. This has been known since the early 20th century, and social media news feed algorithms have learned this strategy as well.
Nevertheless, as we justly criticize and call for the removal of the louder, and more hateful mouthpieces in our political realm, we would do well to include the equally-influential “straight-talking reporters” behind their rhetoric. Without addressing the layer beneath, we’re likely in for more violent conspiracies, and more Trump-like charlatans who consume and resell them to audiences of willing consumers.