We know the what.
On Jan. 6, an armed mob attacked the Capitol building in an effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. The lives of Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other national leaders were threatened. Five people were killed, including a Capitol Police officer, and a second police officer committed suicide afterward. The Capitol, the seat of American democracy, was vandalized.
We also know the why.
The mob was incited by then President Donald Trump, who sought to overturn the results of an election in which Joe Biden received seven million more votes and won the Electoral College 306 to 232.
Trump falsely claimed the election was stolen from him – as he said he would even before the election was held if he lost – and launched more than 60 lawsuits to challenge state results. Trump’s team provided no proof of fraud and the lawsuits were laughed out of the courts.
State officials, including Republicans, then refused to bend to his will and, in the case of Georgia in a recorded phone call, refused to alter the vote.
Chris Krebbs, a lifelong Republican put in charge of the election by Trump, called it the “most secure” ever. Attorney General Bill Barr, a staunch Trump enabler, said the Justice Department had concluded there was no widespread fraud.
Still, 17 Republican state attorneys general took their own ludicrous legal challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court with the support of more than half of the House Republicans. The high court, composed of six Republican appointees and three Democrat appointees, tossed the suit out.
More than 140 Republican senators and House members then refused to perform their constitutional duty and certify the electoral votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania. After the assault on the Capitol.
And now more than two-thirds of registered Republicans still say they believe the election was not free and fair.
So much for the why. The questions that now remain are how so many people could come to believe a Big Lie that the election was stolen and how to prevent the spread of disinformation in the future.
Those are the questions that were posed to a panel recently hosted by Blank Slate Media on disinformation, “fake news” and social media.
One of the panelists, Hofstra Assistant Professor Russell Chun, presented the stakes succinctly in a recent book he co-edited with fellow Hofstra professor Susan Drucker, “Fake News; Real Issues in Modern Communication.”
“In this dizzying post-truth, post-fact, fake news era, the onslaught and speed of potentially untrue, incorrect, or fabricated information (some crafted and weaponized, some carelessly shared) can cause a loss of our intellectual bearings,” the co-editors wrote. “If we fail to have a common truthful basis for discussions and opinion and policy, the integrity of our democracy.”
The how has many reasons.
You can start with Trump. He is not the first elected official to lie or mislead, but no one has done it on such an epic scale or with such disastrous consequences. Just take a look at the number of deaths from COVID-19 and the attack on the Capitol.
But what distinguishes Trump and other purveyors of false information from their predecessors are social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
The social media platforms have allowed Trump and others to spread false information directly to millions of people. Who, in turn, spread the information through likes, shares and tweets to millions more.
Online misinformation about election fraud dropped 73 percent after several social media sites suspended Trump and key allies following the assault on the Capitol, according to Zignal Labs, a San Francisco-based analytics firm.
Until the attack on the Capitol, the social media platforms had resisted taking action against Trump with Facebook even granting him an exemption to its sporadically enforced rules regarding the spread of misinformation.
Social media companies, unlike newspapers and television stations, were made exempt from legal liability for the spread of falsehoods and even libel under legislation passed in the 1990s to protect the then-new industry.
The platforms have now become breeding grounds for extremist groups.
Congress and the Justice Department are now considering antitrust actions against social media companies to reduce the monopoly control they wield. The lawmakers and the Justice Department should act forcefully and soon.
They should also address the posting of news generated and paid for by newspapers that appears on social media platforms at no cost to the social media platforms.
Howard Schneider, a former editor of Newsday and founder of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, said part of the problem in the spread of disinformation is that people have not been taught how to distinguish between truth and lies.
Schneider, who is now executive director of Stony Brook’s Center for News Literacy, said this begins with teaching students to consume media laterally, not vertically – meaning to not rely on a single source of information but to go elsewhere and check the information presented against other sources.
“That’s how professional fact-checkers work,” Schneider told the Blank Slate Media forum. “They leave a text, interrogate it elsewhere and come back.”
Verify the information, he said, before liking it or retweeting it.
Schneider said that though it may be a long-term answer to a current crisis, teaching news literacy should become a required part of all middle school curriculums.
He also urged the public to support newspapers, which provide crucial local coverage that undergoes scrutiny before being published and carries consequences if it is wrong.
Craig Burnett, an associate professor in the political science department at Hofstra University and director of its Kalikow School Poll Program, said as one of the most prominent sources of news Facebook must be more responsible in policing its posts.
“It’s not a question of resources as it is a question of will,” Burnett said. “So now they’re finally starting to do that and [the Capitol attack] was the event that pushed them over the line.”
Trump and social media are certainly not alone in spreading misinformation.
Cable television beginning with Fox has routinely featured hosts and guests who spread misinformation on everything from the presidential election to COVID-19.
Republican elected officials, either because they agreed with Trump or feared his hold on the Republican base, have echoed his false claims.
But many large corporations have announced they would not finance the campaigns of elected officials who refused to certify the results of the presidential election.
Consumers should do the same by boycotting news outlets that help spread disinformation.
And voters should do their jobs by sending home elected officials who try to deceive them.