Why Disinformation Campaigns Are Dangerous

Disinformation can convince people to believe absurdities and commit atrocities.

Posted Jan 15, 2021

Lies and disinformation campaigns can kill. This is the risk of leaving people unprotected from misinformation and subjected to internet disinformation campaigns.

Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

In the last week we have watched the horrific effects of inundating people with lies and disinformation. I am writing a week after the attack on the US Capitol. This has highlighted the danger when people believe and act on disinformation campaigns. But has been evident for last year. People have refused to wear masks because of Covid disinformation campaigns.

Lies and conspiracy theories can infect minds. Over the last few months, people came to believe the election was stolen. Even with recounts, court cases, and a lack of fraud evidence, they stuck with this false belief. Why? They have been living in a news and information ecosystem constantly repeating the misinformation. They’ve been subjected to a ceaseless disinformation campaign. In a disinformation campaign, people actively create and spread lies with a political goal.

A disinformation campaign is different from a single person making a mistake or telling a lie. We all make errors.

But the lies about the election were part of a clear disinformation campaign. President Trump spread this set of lies. But he did not act alone. His campaign and their lawsuits were based on false information that failed to convince any court that the election was flawed. But they kept repeating and promoting the false information.

Many prominent republicans repeated some of the lies. They continued to argue that Trump won, that there was substantial fraud, and that the election was being stolen. They made this claim from the moment vote tallies began, continuing as Congress began considering the electoral votes. Most of them stuck with the disinformation after the invasion of the US Capitol when they were evacuated.

Conservative news channels also repeated various false claims and invited guests stating the election was stolen. The lies were repeated across social media platforms. For people in this environment, their friends shared and repeated claims that the election was stolen. For some people, almost all of information they encountered following the election argued that Trump really won, and the election was being stolen.

What happens if a person encounters the truth once but a lie 1000 times? The truth doesn’t stand a chance.

How do you expect any person to find the truth, when they are drowning in a sea of lies? With a lack of information external to the disinformation, critical thinking will only confirm the false belief and reject the truth. People will compare a few presentations of truth against the rest of their knowledge. They will evaluate the reliability of the information and the source. They will engage in critical thinking. But critical thinking will reinforce the false belief.

In the days since the failed insurrection, I have read several news reports describing some of the people involved. Most reports are similar. Friends and family describe someone who started down a path, finding some information and then coming across more. This occurred over a long period of time, not just the last two months. The friends note that it became more difficult to talk with the person. I’ve watched people slide down these paths through social media connections. I have talked with others who have lost contact with friends and family members. More than likely, you know someone who has gone down a rabbit hole following a trail of misinformation. And you may no longer be able to have conversations with that person.

And here’s something critically important about disinformation campaigns. If a person has come to believe one set of false information (maybe about the election), they are likely to hold other false beliefs (they may be anti-maskers or climate change deniers). When a person holds one false belief, they will be exposed to others. That exposure will be through news and social media. As they search for information on the internet, the search engines will suggest other false information and new people to follow. The internet search systems suggest these other false ideas once you adopt and start posting about one.

And thus, as Voltaire noted, a person can come to believe an absurdity. But this is not completely their fault. Yes, everyone made choices as they started falling for a disinformation campaign. And they made a choice to go to Washington and to break into the Capitol.

But the outcome reflects both the person and the context. We too often blame the individual while ignoring the situation (something known as the fundamental attribution error). We must acknowledge that there are people and companies spreading disinformation campaigns with the goal of leading people to believe false information, develop false beliefs, and engage in unjustified actions.

People have been swimming in an ocean of false information. They were in a context in which the false information was presented as true. And as they critically evaluated the information, everything seemed to hold together. The false information made a coherent narrative.

And here is an interesting point – people who spread one set of disinformation generally spread other sets of disinformation. They have spread disinformation about the election, Covid, and climate change. Many extremist news sources do the same. They have presented the false information about the election being stolen. But they have also presented false information about Covid, telling people it isn’t serious and that masks don’t work. You can see the evidence because the people who invaded the Capitol were not wearing masks.

These fountains of misinformation have convinced many people to believe absurdities. And that led them to commit atrocities. They broke into the Capitol. They assaulted police officers, killing one and injuring others.

But there is hope. In my companion piece, I outline why we should be hopeful moving forward.

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