Thursday, September 9, 2021
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Misinformation leads to madness

A seditious mob erected gallows steps from the U.S. Capitol and called for sitting Vice President Mike Pence to be hanged. Insurrectionists hunted for congressmen. Revolters thrashed through Capitol buildings smearing feces on the walls.

What we witnessed on Jan. 6 is the most exigent threat to American democracy: misinformation. We saw misinformation mutate into concrete consequences.

The rioters were there because they were lied to. They were deceived little by little over a period of years causing them to believe in an alternative reality. I don’t say that figuratively; it is a literal alternative reality.

A reality where hundreds of thousands of people believed that on Inauguration Day, the 30,000 troops present would turn on the Democrats and arrest them. They would be imprisoned for running a satanic cabal that molests and eats children. Rampant voter fraud by the deep state would be uncovered, and Trump would ascend like a phoenix to the presidency once again. The light would overtake dark, or so says QAnon.

This, of course, didn’t happen.

These beliefs also didn’t develop overnight. This has creeped in front of us for a number of years.

People don’t trust the news anymore. A Gallup poll in September 2020 found 60% of U.S. adults have little or no confidence in mass media. That same number jumps to 89% when asking only Republicans. This is a natural outgrowth of former president Trump repeatedly labeling the news media as “the enemy of the people.”

Fox News was the old whipping post for deceptive conservative media. Now it finds itself not extreme enough, ceding viewers to Newsmax and OAN.

Many quit viewing television news altogether, going deeper down the rabbit hole of the internet sites like 4chan, 8chan and 8kun. These sites overflow with conspiracy theories, misinformation, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and the like. A far cry from the cultivated and verified stories of conventional news outlets.

As paths diverge, many are pulled into various subcultures. Some join the many variants of QAnon, some are drawn to white nationalism, others still subscribe to flat-Earth theory.

Once in their subculture, the adherents reinforce their beliefs in online groups. Facebook and YouTube algorithms suggest these interest groups because their goal is engagement with the platform. And who spends more time on Facebook than your QAnon-believing uncle?

These groups breed a false reality. They see the same memes, the same logical fallacies, the same false news stories and they believe more and more. They block friends who don’t believe and in many cases get shunned by friends and family, which only serves to harden their resolve and dedication to the cause.

Their reality plays out like the second act of the DaVinci Code or National Treasure. They are so close to piecing it all together. There will be a reckoning and the truth will be exposed. The doubters will be shown to be fools.

This, of course, hasn’t happened.

We can’t let these people pretend any longer. It is dangerous. When you have become a true believer in falsehoods, there are repercussions. Sometimes it’s as brazen as storming the Capitol. Other times it’s more subtle, like not taking a vaccine that could save lives. Many times, it looks like someone voting against their interests.

Misinformation must be stamped out for our democracy’s sake.

tjwggd@mail.umkc.edu

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