That’s because the events that took place on Wednesday, according to the people who study conspiracy theories for a living, are a “predictable” culmination of the conspiracy theories and disinformation that have taken root in the dark, not-so-hidden corners of social media.
“Anybody can say anything on Twitter and communicate it to seven billion people in the world for free,” explained Russell Muirhead, a professor at Dartmouth University who co-authored the book A Lot of People Are Saying, which explores the impact of conspiracy theories on democracy.
“We have these massive global communication platforms in which anyone can say anything to the whole world for free, and that allows the amplification and dissemination of baseless and extreme views.”
On Wednesday, the baseless views at the core of the riot were that U.S. President Donald Trump had secured a landslide victory, and that the election was being stolen from them.
Trump had been sharing the unfounded claims of election fraud on Twitter, Facebook and any other platforms for months — only occasionally having a disclaimer added to his tweets.
That changed with the violence on Wednesday, at which point Facebook, Twitter and YouTube began taking down content and ultimately issued a temporary suspension on Trump’s ability to use the platform.
Still, Trump had already urged hordes of his supporters at the rally to “walk down to the Capitol” and resist the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
“We are going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” he said, suggesting the crowd “walk down to the Capitol.”
“And we are probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them — because you will never take back our country with weakness.”
As the mob descended upon the Capitol building in a riot that left four of the protestors dead, members of the crowd were heard chanting “Stop the Steal” — a hashtag used frequently on social media.
It was only at this point, after a woman had been shot and killed, that social media networks started to take action. First, Twitter reduced users’ ability to engage with Trump’s posts, then deleted some of them altogether. YouTube and Facebook also took down a video in which Trump told his supporters to “go home,” all the while reiterating the very claim of election fraud that sent them to Capitol Hill in the first place.
The “predictable” culmination of Trump’s claim of election fraud, Muirhead said, was the result of a perfect recipe for a viral conspiracy theory.
“The first ingredient is a mode of communication in which there’s no gatekeeping function whatsoever,” he explained.
Both Twitter and Facebook, as well as more niche social media platforms such as Parler and 4chan, provided that space for the theory to feed and grow.
“The second ingredient, in the United States, is that the highest official in the land and great popular leader who has the trust and confidence of millions of Americans, President Donald J. Trump, would abuse that trust and confidence by himself disseminating this kind of baseless view,” Muirhead added.
This cycle of information being repeated and then legitimized by authority figures cemented the baseless conspiracy as fact in the minds of Trump’s supporters, explained Muirhead.
It’s the cycle that underlies any conspiracy breaking through into the mainstream consciousness or attracting a significant following: repetition, and legitimization by an authority figure.
“Repetition has substituted for validation. Nobody’s asking whether something’s true anymore. They’re just saying, do a lot of people think it, do a lot of people say it? And if enough people say it, that’s true enough to say it one more time. So that repetition function is what’s substituting for the truth function in democracy,” Muirhead said.
“But you need more than that. You also need public officials who sit on their hands because they like the way the conspiracy theory works for them, and who refuse, therefore, to speak truth to conspiracy. Those two things have to be both happening in order for a conspiracy theory to really get traction.”
There are notable examples of politicians doing the opposite, though. During the 2008 U.S. election, Republican nominee John McCain was met by a round of boos after he swiped the microphone from a supporter who was spreading conspiracy theories about his opponent Barack Obama.
“I have to tell you that he is a decent person, and a person that you don’t have to be scared (of) as president of the United States,” McCain said.
“He is a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Conspiracy theories can’t be contained at the border
Canada is by no means safe from the spread of conspiracy theories, warned Ahmed Al-Rawi, who runs the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University.
“As Canadians, we are really connected, linked to the United States in so many ways…and this includes also information. So when it comes to, for example, support for Trump, we see many people yesterday holding rallies and showing support for Trump in cities like Vancouver or Toronto, Calgary and elsewhere,” Al-Rawi explained.
Al-Rawi pointed to the anti-mask movements, which have resulted in protests in Canadians cities, as further evidence that Canadians can just as easily fall prey to misinformation as our American counterparts.
“They believe that wearing a mask, having lockdowns and and social distancing will not be useful for them. And, of course, they might risk their lives and the lives of other people. So that’s the danger of conspiracy theory — because it shapes the way they think of the world and what they should do.”
Breaking the misinformation cycle
In order to disrupt the cycle of conspiracy, at least one of two parties responsible for the proliferation of baseless claims needs to be addressed.
First, citizens need to ensure they aren’t elevating conspiracy theorists to political office, Muirhead said. Second, the social media platforms that provide fertile soil for conspiracy theories to grow must stamp out the users that plant the seeds of disinformation.
In the wake of Wednesday’s violence, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram did take steps to prevent Trump from sharing further content they said contained a “risk of violence.” Twitter suspended Trump’s account for 12 hours, following the storming of Capitol Hill, and Facebook and Instagram have frozen the outgoing president’s accounts indefinitely.
“I think Twitter’s latest action was mostly a message sent to Trump and his followers that such kind of misinformation or disinformation will not be tolerated anymore. But notice here, this is only happening near the end of his term, which is really sad. It should have happened, they should have been braver, bolder, more courageous in limiting his disinformation a long time ago,” Al-Rawi said.
Muirhead echoed concern that the very platforms needing to quash the spread of conspiracy theories profit off those who flock to their website to share those untruths.
“I think the completely uncurated platforms are the one to worry about. Those are the ones that have absolutely no gatekeeping function whatsoever — and they don’t have it because that’s how they make money,” Muirhead said.
When Global News contacted Twitter on Wednesday as the violence raged on and Trump’s account remained active, a spokesperson said they “don’t comment on action we may or may not take against individual accounts”
In a statement shared to Twitter, the company said they were “working proactively to protect the health of the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules.”
Trump’s account was later suspended, with Facebook and Instagram following suit.
There is proof that de-platforming individuals who spread conspiracy theories actually works, Muirhead said. American far-right radio host Alex Jones lost his platforms on Apple, YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere after the companies said Jones had violated their rules against hate speech.
Jones had a long track record of spreading conspiracy theories, including painful, untrue allegations that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting never happened.
“After he made that charge and was sued for libel by the grieving parents of these dead children, it was only after that that YouTube de-platformed him. And since he’s been de-platformed, he’s been marginalized,” Muirhead said.
“He has not been able to access the audience that he did before. His power is now peripheral. So it worked with Alex Jones. But that took an extreme sort of event, for these for these platforms to de-platform him.”
Muirhead said he has hope that social media companies are trending in the direction of increased action.
“I’m optimistic that citizens might learn and elect much better leaders. And I also am optimistic that those who create these great platforms might grow into their true civic responsibility,” he said.
And if the social media companies fail to step up, that’s when governments must step in.
“I think that these are now the equivalent of public communications monopolies, and I think that the E.U. is going to regulate them, and I think that the E.U. is probably going to get there long before the United States, but the United States is going to regulate them, too,” Muirhead said.
“Will it take that? I think that, yes, the shadow of that threat is probably necessary to motivate the CEOs and senior leaders in these corporations to take care not just about profits, but also about their effect on the world.”