The social conditions that brought so many people to believe the falsehoods Trump has told about the election and a litany of other issues took root decades before he became a political figure and will extend far beyond the four years of his administration, according to scholars of disinformation and conspiratorial thinking.
“What’s unique about Donald Trump is that he took advantage of this widespread distrust of government and media to say everyone is lying to you except for me. We have never had a president so devoted to spreading disinformation and trying to overturn an election,” said Kathryn Olmsted, a historian at the University of California at Davis. “The people who stormed the Capitol are absolutely convinced that the election was stolen. They’re not being opportunistic; they really believe this. And all of the social science shows that if someone really believes a conspiracy theory, it is just about impossible to change their minds.”
Among the most extreme in their views about the election outcome are believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, who imagine Trump as a messianic savior battling the forces of a government “deep state” that worships Satan and traffics children. Their large numbers on Jan. 6, when rioters stormed the Capitol, were a stark example of how communities that form in fringe spaces on the Internet can tangibly affect the nation’s political discourse.
The rise of QAnon and similar groups can be traced to the decades-long erosion in trust of social institutions like the news media and government, said Ethan Zuckerman, a scholar of the Internet at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He described it as the culmination of decades of anti-government rhetoric dating to the Reagan era and beyond, exacerbated by flash points like the Iraq War and the financial crisis.
“Every time we minimize QAnon as stupid and obviously wrong, we’re doing ourselves a disservice because we’re making it harder to understand. It’s much more akin to a cult, and not only weak people fall for cults,” he said.
Zuckerman said that banning Trump from Twitter and other social media platforms was a “reasonable and necessary” step toward preventing more anti-government violence in the coming weeks and months. But he warned that it could have unintended consequences in the long run. In the past, people who are “deplatformed” often move to darker corners of the Internet. The communities there are smaller, but also more radical.
Experts said that addressing the supply of disinformation alone does not temper susceptibility to it.
The unfounded belief in widespread election fraud is a symptom of a broader openness to conspiratorial thinking that is born of human psychology, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. People want to believe information that already aligns with their world view, and when presented with it, they often do not give it rigorous scrutiny. She and other experts in human communication and information sharing, including neuroscientists, say that people can be primed to believe false information simply by hearing it repeated several times.
In this time of heavily partisan news consumption, people are subjected to few reality tests.
“What Trump did was take tactics of deception and played to confirmation biases that were already circulating in our culture, and embodied them in somebody who is president of the United States. He didn’t change what was available, but he changed its accessibility,” said Jamieson, who co-founded FactCheck.org. “That crazed content has always been there. But it becomes dangerous when it is legitimized and when it has the power of the state behind it.”
Once people fall into “an alternative universe” of conspiratorial thinking, it is very difficult to break out of that logic, she said. That is because part of the premise of their world view is that the official “custodians of knowledge” themselves cannot be trusted. People who believe deeply in conspiracy theories are in many cases already inoculated from evidence and fact checks.
“Our goal needs to be to prevent any more people from falling into conspiracy world views. If people are in that world, they are largely unpersuadable,” she said.
Conspiracy theories have been a fact of life in the United States since the Colonial era, said Olmsted, the historian at UC Davis. Before the 20th century, such beliefs were most often focused on marginalized minority groups, including Catholics and Jews. As the United States became bigger and more powerful, particularly during World War I and in the years following it, conspiratorial thinking became more centered on the government itself. That was at times reinforced by real schemes and coverups by people in government, like attempts to control wartime speech with the Sedition Act of 1918, Watergate, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Church Committee report on U.S. intelligence abuses, not to mention a drumbeat of falsehoods about the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
But the Internet, she said, has changed how easily false beliefs can spread, and social media has also created a profit system by which bad-faith actors can even make money by spreading conspiracy theories. Often, it is people who feel victimized in some way or another who most ardently believe in conspiracy theories, said Olmsted. Recent political history has shown just how relative those perceptions of victimhood can be; many of Trump’s most aggrieved supporters and deep-state truthers are affluent and White. They have felt like victims even while wielding immense political power.
Nonetheless, it is very difficult to quantify conspiratorial thinking, and not all scholars agree about whether more people believe in disinformation today than in previous historical eras.
Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami, rejects the notion that belief in conspiracy theories and misinformation has become more common or widespread in recent years. He has polled the tendency for people in the United States to believe in conspiracy theories since 2012, he said, and has found the overall trend lines to be stable. Post-election accusations of cheating themselves are not new, he said, and polling he conducted about election fraud over the previous three presidential elections has also been consistent. What is different, Uscinski said, is that now conversations about conspiracy theories are on social media where they can be shared and studied.
“Conspiracy theories are for losers. Who complains after a game or an election? Well, the losers, usually,” he said. “These feelings are going to be out there after every election. Tens of millions of Americans will feel cheated, and normally nothing comes of it.
“The Trump part is not normal. Trump has mobilized this form of thinking” for political gain, Uscinski added. And Trump’s amplification of falsehoods has shown how extreme susceptibility to conspiracy theories can become a big social problem.
“We have to turn the focus away from the specific theories themselves and toward the people who believe them. Because it’s the psychological antecedent — it’s being predisposed to accept that really matters,” he added. “We’re really only dealing with a small number of people who believe in the craziest conspiracies. And we have to make these distinctions because policymakers are talking about censoring the Internet and regulating social media.”
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about what makes some people more susceptible to conspiracy theories than others, Uscinski said.
For now, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s removal from popular social media sites and his leaving office will tamp down the political fury among those most convinced the election featured widespread fraud, said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. For many who stormed the Capitol, or considered doing so, the outcome of the events of Jan. 6 were “a win because they demonstrated strength,” she said.
In the long run, she said, she would like to see social media accounts with large followings become subject to public interest regulations. She warned about technology companies clamoring for influence in the Biden administration, which could undercut regulatory efforts by inculcating their corporate interests into the proposed solutions.
One way to try to reach common understanding with people who resist fact checks on their false beliefs is to appeal to common understanding about how proof works, said Jamieson. That involves presenting “converging evidence” — facts from various sources with disparate interests that could not all be in on the conspiracy.
But when challenged with evidence, the boundaries of conspiracy theories often shift and can become even more grandiose, said Jamieson, citing a feature of QAnon’s evolution. Already, people on message boards and on social media who sympathize with Trump have claimed that the mob that stormed the Capitol did not consist of Trump supporters but rather people pretending to be Trump supporters.
“The cleverness of the conspirators will always trump the available evidence,” she said.
Zuckerman and Olmsted both noted that conspiratorial thinking and susceptibility to disinformation is not historically unique to conservatives. But today, part of what has made claims of widespread election fraud so potent is the amplification by right-wing media like Fox News and high-profile conservative politicians who are acting disingenuously, experts said.
They have a crucial role to play in helping to create a consensus about the election results.
“There have been countless fact-checking and other efforts designed to rid social media of misinformation. They’re not going to work until the [Republican] Party and the major ideological amplifiers start explicitly renouncing these points of view,” Zuckerman said. But “a majority of Republican representatives voted to overturn a democratic election. Until there are consequences for perpetuating those falsehoods, don’t count on changes to the media to solve this problem.”