How years of disinformation led to an insurrection at the Capitol

People shelter in the House gallery
People shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington.
Andrew Harnik | AP

Updated: 2:10 p.m.

Last week, a violent crowd of Donald Trump supporters overwhelmed police and forced their way into the U.S. Capitol building, where they broke windows and doors, rummaged through lawmaker’s possessions, and took selfies on the evacuated Senate floor. 

Why? Because for months, the president has told them — falsely — that the 2020 election was stolen from him. In fact, just hours before the extremists stormed the Capitol, President Trump had told them to go there and encouraged them by saying, “you will never take back our country with weakness.”

Experts say what the country witnessed in horror last week is the culmination of years of disinformation spread largely by the president and his supporters. No longer confined to the fringes of society or the darkest corners of the web, 2020 is the year conspiracy theories went mainstream.  

Growing beliefs with no supporting evidence

A new NPR/Ipsos poll is proof. It found one-third of Americans believe Joe Biden only won the 2020 election due to fraud, despite the fact that multiple sources — including the U.S. Justice Department — found no evidence of fraud that could have changed the outcome. Almost 40 percent say there is a “deep state” working to undermine President Trump — a major tenet of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

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“Many people (at the Capitol) were giving testimonials saying that they were there because this was the last stand,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center. “They were very specific as well, about the different ways in which Democrats and Republicans had colluded to steal this from Trump.”

Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who focuses on trust in information systems, said that considering the vast amount of disinformation and misinformation that led up to the 2020 election and following, she and fellow work colleagues who track and research disinformation didn’t find the violent actions as a surprise.

“Myself and many of my colleagues were shocked and disappointed and disheartened by what happened at the Capitol. But I don’t think this came as a complete surprise to any of us who had been watching all the misinformation around the election in the past few months.”

Polls also show other attempts of disinformation shaping the public’s view. Almost half believe the protests after the killing of George Floyd were violent, even though the vast majority were peaceful, while 40 percent of Americans believe the coronavirus was manufactured in Chinese lab, even though there’s no evidence for this.

Emotional responses to perceived threats to values

Donovan highlights a study by Cornell University early in the pandemic, were able to link President Trump to misinformation about the coronavirus.

“Trump is at the helm when it comes to spreading some of the more terrible misinformation,” Donovan said. “Especially if we think about how afraid people were of the pandemic and people didn’t know what to do. He was hawking bogus cures and then also suggesting that light or injecting chemicals might help.”

Politicians and those in power — like Trump — will use disinformation to try to address and target the values of their target audience.

“We all have different values,” Koltai said, “and when we hear a bit of misinformation, or there’s something that potentially threatens our values, that is really striking to us. It holds on to us. Misinformation becomes powerful and it creates an emotional response within us. That’s why we also want to share it. It’s novel, it’s interesting, it’s shocking and it spreads.”

“So if you are worried about threats to your freedom or threats to democracy, or feel like someone is threatening your way of life, you are going to be drawn into misinformation that caters to that sort of value system,” Koltai said.

Those who peddle conspiracy theories also use the tactic of encouraging individuals to seek out information independently to confirm their evidence and uncover a “greater truth,” while also connecting their theories to larger events in the news.

“It’s those kinds of moments where these groups are really able to expand and bring other people in,” Donovan said. “But once you start to see the layers — once you start to, you know, peel the onion — you start to realize that it’s really a lot of old conspiracies in a new form.”

Koltai cautions that it’s not necessary for the average citizen to seek out these corners of the internet to find what’s happening, because it’s easy to become enveloped and start believing the misinformation.

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above. Coming soon — how to talk to a loved one caught in the web of conspiracy theories. 

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