The Vile Attack on Capitol Hill was Fueled by Years of Misinformation and Lies

What we’ve witnessed yesterday was the culmination of years of misinformation and propaganda, aimed at distorting the truth, promoting falsehoods, and delegitimizing facts. It was the violent consequence of constant attacks on the custodians of truth, from the media and the scientific community. Since Trump announced his run for presidency (and even before that), he continually lied to the American public, incited fear and anxiety, and promoted unsubstantiated conspiracies, that attracted and resonated with some of his fan base, as well as to extremist groups that were lurking in the American shadows since the dreadful days of the Patriot movement, the Oklahoma bombings, and the Waco siege / Ruby Ridge or Bundy ranch standoffs.


We’ve been warning for years that those “violent delights” will have “violent ends”. It had to come to the attack on Capitol Hill yesterday. And it was planned. Agencies knew in advance that January 6th was a day marked by extremists, planning to interfere with the democratic process. The masses who attacked Capitol Hill yesterday were directed there by the incumbent president, who told them (lying again, of course) that he will join them in marching into the Capitol to protest a non-existent, never-proved, voter fraud efforts against him and his followers. Trump incited the violence we saw yesterday, and even while Congressmen and Senators were hiding from the mob of violent domestic terrorists who stormed the federal building, he did find it in himself to call the thugs to retreat and surrender themselves to authorities, instead he kept promoting blatant lies aimed at saving his hurt ego from admitting he had lost the elections fair and square.


Some people find it hard to fathom how so many people believe the conspiracies and lies coming out of the president and his administration in recent years. What they may underestimate is the total and complete reliance of some segments of the population on the Fox News and Breitbart propaganda machine. Starting from the late 1980’s with AM talk radio hosts and culminating in today’s online information environment, people like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Rielly, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, Breitbart writers, Alex Jones and other alt-right celebrities like Mike Cernovich and others, worked diligently to question and undermine the existence of truth and facts. By attacking the mainstream media day in and day out for decades, Fox News and some leading political figures in the Republican party have locked their audiences in a bubble, an eco-chamber of opinion, that was often disconnected from reality, as was evident, for example, in the Fox News coverage of the Iraq war, and more recently in the proliferation of conspiracies on right wing media, that started off on fringe platforms and made its way to reddit and then Twitter and Facebook, in part with the help of leading politicians like Donald Trump, who promoted and legitimized extremist fever dream conspiracies like Qanon or the Proud Boys.


Under those circumstances, it becomes extremely hard to persuade people with facts. You can present those who stormed the Capitol yesterday with evidence for fair elections, but they were told by Fox News and Donald Trump for years, for decades, not to trust anyone - authorities, institutions, or other media organizations. Only them. This is why it was so extremely important for the president to step up yesterday above his petty politics and ego and finally admit that the elections were not fraudulent, as is by now supported by myriad of evidence and investigations led by his own people and evaluated by judges across the country. Alas, this president cannot speak the truth and cannot abandon his conspiracies even in a time of crisis.


The domestic terrorists that attacked the government yesterday were the direct and indirect result of a sick information environment that needs an intervention, a cure. To move forward and heal we will need to carefully examine and learn from the Fox-Trump feedback loop, the Trumpization of the Republican party, and the wanting lack of regulation of social media, where digital entrepreneurs have built platforms based on algorithms that prioritize emotional, misleading, exciting lies and rumors over the truth, while refusing to admit their editorial and gatekeeping role. While ignoring their influence and power while enjoying the economic benefits of their immense success.


Yesterday was a sad and shocking day, but definitely not a surprising one. All of us who study misinformation have been warning about it for years. And if we won’t learn the lessons from it, it shall happen again, and could end up even worse. We are heading into challenging times, where people’s trust in science, in vaccines, in climate action, would determine the health and survivability our near and far future society. If we won’t fight misinformation, we will find ourselves incapable of coping with the risks and challenges ahead.


Yotam Ophir, Ph.D.


Image from ABC.com


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