The Misinformation Pipeline

Outrageous political conspiracy theories have begun to dominate social media. Often ending up violent and sometimes deadly, they must be stopped.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Laurina Xie

Misinformation, scams, and hoaxes have been part of mainstream culture for as long as mass information has been spread. From outlandish hoaxes, such as the “War of the Worlds” radio show, to the more realistic Sidd Finch, a fictional baseball player created by Sports Illustrated, the widespread belief in these hoaxes has exposed the gullibility of the American people. But with the advent of social media, these fun hoaxes have become far more malicious. Social media can distribute much more information to a much larger audience than ever before, allowing just one person to broadcast inaccuracies and intentional lies to thousands of people. While this can remain harmless, with April Fools’ jokes and staged videos dominating many platforms, this ease of lying in our increasingly digitized world has been able to influence far more serious matters.

Politics has undoubtedly taken a much larger stage in the social media environment. Digital campaigning has experienced massive growth, with the budget for ads on social media beginning to reach the billions. Platforms like Facebook often find their conversations dominated by political news and opinions. However, this increasing popularity has opened up yet another platform for misinformation to spread and conspiracy theories to thrive, especially since Facebook’s fact-checking has proven reluctant and lackadaisical, allowing for the rampant spread of fake news and infographics. These lies are either outright false or loosely based on true events sourced from social media. This leaves many older—and younger, though Facebook is mostly used by the older generation—Americans, who get most, if not all, of their information from Facebook, extremely vulnerable to fake news. Indeed, 44.3 percent of Americans visited at least one untrustworthy news site during the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign. Though this is not exclusively an issue with Facebook—Twitter’s prolific political discourse has also presented considerable issues—the social network is by far the largest source of false information.

This spread of misinformation can devolve into extreme conspiracy theories that have real-world effects. George Soros is a Jewish Democratic mega-donor who escaped the effects of the Holocaust and made billions as an investor and hedge fund manager. However, his status as a philanthropic, powerful Jew has made him the target of many antisemitic attacks. He is frequently described as a puppet master of politics, a corrupt and evil man who undermines democracy, pays protestors to disrupt America, and uses immigration to destroy the natural order of society. He has even been made to be a Nazi, a ridiculous claim given that he was a Jewish child during the Holocaust. These baseless attacks have had a wide reach and a major effect. The conspiracy theories surrounding him have been echoed on Fox News and throughout Republican politics, including by Donald Trump Jr. These attacks reached a fever pitch when an explosive was delivered to the mailbox of Soros’s home. Though entirely false, the tales of Soros’s influence, after being spread throughout Facebook and Twitter, wound up putting his life in danger.

This is not the only false story that has gained significant support and caused severe real-world repercussions. After the emails of John Podesta, a Hillary Clinton campaign manager, were leaked, threads regarding pizza and a potential fundraiser led to a massive conspiracy theory that the emails were encoded and that he, Clinton, and other major Democratic figures had facilitated and participated in a child sex-trafficking ring. Though heavily debunked, the theory is still widely popular. According to a 2016 poll, 46 percent of Trump voters and 17 percent of Clinton voters believed the rumors. Like the lies about Soros, the Pizzagate conspiracy manifested into a physical attack. The major site rumored to be a sex-trafficking location is a Washington D.C. pizza place: Comet Ping Pong. As a result of Pizzagate, the founder of Comet Ping Pong, James Alefantis, and many employees have been harassed. The worst instance was when Edgar Welch, armed with an assault rifle, entered Comet Ping Pong, fired shots, and pointed the gun at employees. Thankfully, nobody was injured, though his fruitless search for hidden children undoubtedly terrified and traumatized employees and customers alike. Alefantis said it best: “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences. I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today and stop promoting these falsehoods right away.” Major officials spreading and legitimizing baseless theories have created a track record of harm.

Pizzagate has also spawned a larger conspiracy theory, QAnon, which alleges that Q, a government official with Q-level security experience, is exposing a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against President Donald Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. It also posits that Trump was recruited to fight against them. All of this information is delivered on anonymous online forums such as 4chan. This theory has also gained massive amounts of traction among Trump supporters, including former lieutenant general, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Security Advisor to Trump Michael Flynn, as well as presumptive Congresswoman Majorie Greene, whose primary win was lauded by Trump despite her extremely public support of QAnon. Trump has even acknowledged the conspiracy without condemning it, saying, “I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate. But I don't know much about the movement.” When asked if he supported the theory that he “is secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals," he responded: “Well, I haven't heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” The belief in QAnon has undoubtedly been boosted by the oft-unfiltered spread of information on Facebook and Twitter, in spite of the fact that the FBI has deemed QAnon a potential domestic terrorism threat. Though the attacks due to QAnon have been less direct than those spawning from other conspiracies, there have been examples of attacks due to ideas pushed by Q. Inspired by Q, an armed Nevada man engaged in a 90-minute confrontation with the police asking for Hillary Clinton’s emails. Even more saddening, a New York City man claimed that his belief in QAnon led to him murdering a mob boss who he believed was part of the aforementioned cabal working against Trump. The belief in QAnon has proven to be deadly, yet another example of the dangerous impact of conspiracy theories.

Of course, misinformation is not limited to one side. In the age of common activism, young Democrats have sometimes found themselves posting information that appeals to their points of view but is ultimately false. Sociologist Eve Ewing explains in an infographic format: “Graphics like this can be a helpful teaching tool, but some of the ‘racial justice explainer’ posts that go viral grossly oversimplify complex ideas in harmful or misleading ways or flat-out misstate facts.” In addition, they “are not attributed to any transparent person, people, or organization who can be held accountable for errors and draw on the work of scholars and activists who go uncredited.” Though not as malicious or dangerous as the right-wing conspiracy theories, it is imperative to hold all sides accountable to the truth.

Social media has thus become vulnerable to both right-wing conspiracy theories and left-wing misinformation. The conspiracies must be unilaterally shut down and debunked by websites, Fox News, and the Republican Party—the perils of doing otherwise have grown too apparent. We must ensure that those organizations establish reliable, accurate fact-checks that shut down dangerous conspiracy theories before they reach the violent point they so often do. Americans must also prioritize fact-checking while consuming media. If a story seems too good, absurd, or upsetting to be true, try to verify it yourself. Sites like Snopes.com spend hours checking the validity of stories, both petty and significant. If not, stories blaming Democrats and other powerful people for all sorts of horrific crimes will continue to proliferate. America is increasingly vulnerable to lies, and the extreme and popular demonization of “the other” must be strongly refuted. If it isn’t, lives are at risk.