For his Honors College thesis, Lead News Reporter, Ben Gretchko is writing a series of columns on disinformation in the media. You can find the whole series here.
The Capitol riot was a culmination of election misinformation driven by former President Donald Trump and partisan divides. The riot showed misinformation exists and when it is spread by top officials, it can be dangerous.
During the Capitol riot, people who watched the news coverage of the event saw rioters, some with Trump 2020 flags and American flags, breach security and enter the Capitol.
Protestors gathered because they believed the election was stolen from Donald Trump. They believed various claims from Rudy Giuliani and Trump that Dominion voting machines were programmed to flip votes from Trump to Biden and that thousands of dead people voted in the election.
Other claims that Trump made, like widespread voter fraud and tampered ballots, were proven to be baseless before and after the election but not everyone was satisfied.
According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of Republicans said the Trump campaign was a major source for election information and they believed that mail-in voting was a recipe for fraud, compared to 36% who did not turn to the Trump campaign as a major source.
Once the protestors started to leave the Capitol, false claims about who was responsible began emerging.
After the riot, The Washington Times published a story on Jan. 6 that quoted an unidentified retired military officer, who falsely claimed a facial recognition system from XRVision used technology to identify two members of Antifa were among the rioters.
XRVision denied the claims and said it identified two neo-Nazis and a believer in QAnon who had been associated with the riot. The article was corrected on Jan.7 but not before it was shared on social media by some republicans like U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R- Fla) who used the article as proof that some Democrats played a role in the riot. Other people echoed this claim on Twitter, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward.
This is an example of how misinformation can spread. The sheer repetition of false information can lead people to believe it is accurate. According to a 2018 report from the Brookings Institution on misinformation, social media companies have algorithms that prioritize content with more engagement over content with less engagement. The Washington Times story was shared by Gaetz and retweeted by others over 17,000 times, according to Gaetz’s Twitter account. This can lead to more people seeing the story, which could lead to more people believing it.
How can you avoid believing misinformation? According to research from the University of Southern California, you should consider certain aspects of a story. Such as:
Where is the story coming from? Is it coming from a credible source or a source that posts divisive one-sided news?
Does that story have embedded links and if so, where do the links lead? Are the claims verified with credible sources or evidence, such as data?
Who is sharing the story on social media? Is it a group of diverse people and organizations, or a singularly-focused group with highly divisive and often unproven positions?
If information is false, don’t repeat it and don’t share it.
Misinformation is just that, misleading. Stories in the past have been misleading or untrue but you can try to avoid misinformation by knowing where you get your news from and only sharing verified information.