Cindy L. OtisSocial media and financial platforms are taking unprecedented action after last week’s violent siege on the Capitol building, which wa
Cindy L. Otis
Social media and financial platforms are taking unprecedented action after last week’s violent siege on the Capitol building, which was openly planned and promoted online. However, the reality we must contend with is that the insurrection was the result of a massive, five-year disinformation campaign waged by Trump and his supporters who have weaponized lies, conspiracies, and the reach of social media to gain and attempt to hold onto his power and to distort reality.
The false claims have been consistent, and often militaristic, from the beginning:
You can’t trust election results unless Republicans win.
Democrats and the media are our enemies.
You can only believe Donald Trump.
Be prepared to fight.
An entire ecosystem was created online over the years to parrot those talking points, through vast networks of self-proclaimed “independent news” websites, Facebook pages and groups, forums, social media influencers, and fringe platforms advertised as the place for uncensored speech. The Trump campaign went so far as to create a “Trump Army” that many, we see now, took quite literally.
A constant diet of lies and conspiracies
As a disinformation researcher, I watched and warned as messages from supporters online within the last year, especially, increasingly discussed civil war or a second revolution as inevitable and violence and death as a given.
In the months ahead of the 2020 election, the Trump campaign went full-throttle on the lies about election tampering. When the day came, his supporters dutifully amplified any and all conspiracies on social media. The campaign then used those very same social media posts as evidence in its entirely unsuccessful legal campaign to overturn the results, even though by all accounts the election was safe and secure.
His disinformation campaign has worked. A Quinnipiac University poll from December found 77% of Republicans believed there was widespread voter fraud. In statements made by many of those who have been arrested for participating in Wednesday’s attempted insurrection, they have made it clear: The president told them to come.
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Until now, everyone from major social media platforms to elected officials brushed aside the militaristic disinformation online as harmless memes, or simply as trolling, largely ignoring the obvious effects of the repetitive diet of lies and conspiracies Americans have consumed. But in my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in October, I warned that conspiracy theories were and would translate to real world harm.
“Be it a foreign government, a domestic group, or a for-profit entity, we are seeing in real-time the impact of an American information space cluttered with voices trying to mislead and manipulate … Facts and truth are the difference between life and death, the situation could not be more dire,” I said. This is our reality, and disinformation researchers have been warning about it for years.
Wake up to real-life dangers
In the wake of the deadly Capitol attack, Twitter has permanently banned Trump, while Facebook has temporarily suspended him. YouTube has finally taken down some of the channels that have openly called for violence, like Steve Bannon’s show in which he advocated for beheading Dr. Anthony Fauci in November. Apple, Google and Amazon collectively took down Parler. Paypal, Stripe, Venmo and Shopify have de-platformed some of the more dangerous purveyors of disinformation. All of this comes after years of warning by researchers like myself that their platforms were not only being leveraged by nefarious groups, but were enabling them to connect, recruit and profit from dangerous disinformation.
De-platforming, including financially, when done strategically and consistently, can help limit both the reach of content and the incentives to putting it out there in the first place. People may increasingly migrate to fringe platforms. They may be harder for researchers to find, but they’re also harder to reach by potential recruits or converts. Social media companies should also focus on building their platforms around transparency so users are armed with information about where the content they see is coming from.
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As foreign government and domestic groups continue to weaponize lies, the Biden administration must treat disinformation as the national security threat it is, and acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that Americans themselves are the main producers and amplifiers of it. It should invest in community education in digital media literacy to build a more resilient society that is less likely to fall for lies and conspiracies. It must also invest in efforts to track and analyze how violent groups in the United States are using disinformation to recruit and mobilize.
The violence in D.C. has brought many companies and political officials together out of necessity to respond, but this is an opportunity to be more thoughtful about how we as a society address the menace of disinformation. Because the reality is, even a violent insurrection has yet to wake everyone up to its dangers.
Cindy L. Otis, a disinformation expert and former CIA analyst, is vice president of analysis at Alethea Group, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News.” Follow her on Twitter: @CindyOtis_