In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection on January 6 that left five people dead, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube promised to crack down harder on false claims that the US presidential election was stolen and on dangerous fringe movements like QAnon. But two weeks later — on Inauguration day, no less — it’s easy to find this same kind of misinformation on their platforms.
That these theories continue to spread on social media impacts all of us, regardless of whether or not we believe them. As the Capitol insurrection earlier this month showed, online misinformation doesn’t just stay online. It can fuel real-life violence.
“[If] you’re not a keyboard warrior, and you don’t argue with people and you’re ultimately even-keeled about it, that doesn’t mean that you get to ignore it,” says Gordon Pennycook, who studies the psychology of believing misinformation at the University of Regina in Canada. “We live in a social world, and people’s beliefs do have consequences.” While some people discount misinformation as largely a fringe phenomenon, even a small number of people intensely buying into such theories can lead to offline violence, he explained.
Early data shows that social media companies’ recent moves to boot President Trump, some of his allies, and tens of thousands of QAnon-affiliated accounts off their platforms have contributed to a massive decline in misinformation. But accounts promoting conspiracy theories continue to show up online — as the misinformation surrounding Joe Biden’s inauguration makes clear. Here are some of the false claims and theories that are still managing to spread on major social media sites.
The false claim that Biden’s inauguration is fake and that the military is going to reinstall Trump as president
As of this morning, Joe Biden has officially been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. But in the week leading up to his inauguration, the false claim that his inauguration had been canceled racked up about 15,000 mentions on social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit and other websites, according to data from Zignal Labs, a misinformation tracking firm.
A related false claim pushed the idea that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and use the military to maintain the presidency (which did not happen). Still, the idea was propagated on platforms like YouTube, including on some videos with tens of thousands of views, as well as on pro-Trump Facebook groups. (To be clear, back in August, the highest-level general in the US, Gen. Mark Milley, said that the military would not play a role in any election disputes.)
Another false theory that Trump will become president again on March 4 has been spreading on Twitter and Facebook via links to a video viewed tens of thousands of times on the video platform Bitchute, in which a woman claims that Trump — the outgoing 45th president — will become the 19th president under a “restored republic,” referencing a wild conspiracy theory that the United States hasn’t truly existed since the 19th century and that our current government is actually controlled by London.
Meanwhile, in the past two days, there have been more than 130,000 online mentions of the idea of a “new party” or “Patriot Party” led by Trump, according to Zignal Labs.
The false claim that high-profile Democrats are being arrested
On several social media platforms, the idea continued to spread that high-level Democratic politicians, such as former President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were to be arrested right before the inauguration. The baseless claim is a fixture of the right-wing QAnon conspiracy theory movement, and its most recent iteration saw QAnon adherents citing the timing of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s posts to the internet as “evidence” that some significant event was coming, calling it #pompeocountdown.
This is obviously untrue. As of Wednesday morning, Trump had already left the White House and Obama and Pelosi were still at large. And yet some influential social media accounts seemed to echo QAnon theories that a “storm” was coming. Tyler Woods, a country singer who is featured on the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiner show and who has in the past shared QAnon talking points about politicians being pedophiles, posted a Christianity-focused Facebook video that was viewed more than 300,000 times, with the caption “The storm is upon us,” a phrase sometimes used by QAnon adherents. In the video, he vaguely declares: “It’s going to be the biggest thing we’ve ever seen in the history of the United States.”
The false notion that Joe Biden won the presidency through election fraud
The disproven claim that voter fraud was responsible for Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election continues to pick up traction on the internet.
Fact-checkers have regularly debunked this theory. Even Bill Barr, the outgoing US attorney general appointed by Trump, has said there is no evidence that fraud could have changed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Still, discussions of voter fraud or election fraud picked up more than half a million mentions in the past week, according to Zignal Labs, which tracks social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, as well as content published to the web.
Some of this misleading content recycles misinformation narratives that have surfaced since the election, including ideas perpetuated by the “stop the steal” movement, a wide-ranging conspiracy that alleges the election was stolen from Donald Trump. While Facebook has now banned even referencing “stop the steal,” groups related to the movement that have thousands of members are still active, and have simply changed their names to avoid takedowns, according to preliminary research from the nonprofit Avaaz, which researches mis- and disinformation.
Trump leaving office isn’t going to be the end of these conspiracy theories
While these narratives might seem obviously false to many, some Americans believe them — and they believe them enough to act out violently in the real world. That’s not entirely surprising when you recall that Trump helped promote some of these ideas.
“We have to trust some people. You have to trust the mechanic to fix your car. You have to trust the scientist to tell you about global warming,” Pennycook told Recode. “So it’s not at all surprising that people believe that [misinformation] because it was being touted at the highest level.”
Social media companies have been forced to reckon with the danger of misinformation this month and have ramped up enforcement. But content still falls through the cracks. YouTube, for instance, took down a post flagged by Recode for violating its rules about claims of election fraud. And after Recode flagged to Facebook two voter-fraud-focused pro-Trump groups, the company took down several posts shared in the groups for violating its rules on coordinating harm. (Update: Following publication, Facebook took down both groups, again citing its policy against coordinating harm.) Similarly, Twitter permanently suspended several Twitter accounts — which were identified by Recode — that pushed the idea that Trump would again become president on March 4 or that foreign countries interfered in the election to elect Biden, citing violations of the platform’s civic integrity policy.
These posts and accounts have been removed, but they show misinformation is spreading and that these companies still haven’t developed a comprehensive way to handle conspiracy theories, according to Fadi Quran, a campaign director at Avaaz.
“[E]ven the latest wave of demotions and removals misses the wider universe of election disinformation that has the potential to grow and incite more violence this week and in the weeks to come,” he told Recode. “The platforms keep applying Band-Aids to a bullet wound and hoping nobody will notice.”
Trump has left office and been deplatformed, but misinformation and the radicalization it encourages aren’t going away — especially as influential sources, like Fox News and well-known political figures, continue to espouse it.
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