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The January 6th events at the Capitol were heinous, lethal, and extreme. They were also predictable. For a nation that touts itself as the beacon of a liberal world order, many were left scratching their heads and wondering, “how could this happen here?” The answer to that question has been hiding in plain sight for the last five years.
A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World
The late Samuel Clemens, more popularly known by his pen name of Mark Twain, is often attributed with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.” The irony? Modern investigating suggests Clemens did not come up with the line, and potentially never uttered it at all.[i] By the time you reached the end of this paragraph, the lie behind the quote was already far ahead of the truth.
This old adage still holds true in the modern day, arguably more so with the rate at which information travels across the globe. The question must be asked: in this day and age, who are the purveyors of truth? If that question was posed to people with far-right ideological views, they may not have a consensus on who those individuals or organizations might be. They will have a consensus on who they are not: the mainstream media (CNN and MSNBC specifically).
In today’s world, the truth is something subjective and modifiable to many. The truth is often engineered to fit one’s own narrative, especially if the raw facts and data are at odds with one’s biases and preconceived notions. “Alternative facts” may be used in lieu of the cold, hard truth. For those of the far-right variety, whatever information aligns with their views will ultimately be the information that they hold true, no matter how invalid that information actually is.
The Impact of the Trump Administration’s Rhetoric
It is no secret that the Trump administration’s rhetoric had, at the very least, condoned right-wing extremism.[ii] And although the rise of right-wing extremism in the U.S. did not begin when President Trump took office, his term undoubtedly helped enable its evolution and prominence.[iii]
One would be hard-pressed to find another American President or administration in recent memory that was as openly xenophobic or racist in its policies, viewpoints, and tone.[iv] This rhetoric resonated particularly well with young, white men who felt that their way of life was being threatened and were glad that their President shared their concerns.[v] Few quotes better capture this than then-candidate Trump stating in 2015 that, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”[vi]
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has collected data on various left-wing and right-wing incidents since the early 2000s. Left-wing extremist incidents were exponentially dwarfed by right-wing extremist incidents from 2017-2020. These incidents include, but are not limited to, propaganda publishing, events and gatherings, murders, terrorist plots, police shootouts, and antisemitic incidents. When President Trump assumed office in 2017, the ADL reported 541 total right-wing incidents. 2018 saw 1,336, 2019 saw 2,832, and 2020 witnessed an astonishing 5,216, nearly doubling the previous year’s amount.[vii]
The Role of Disinformation, Social Media, and Alternative Media
If the Trump administration’s rhetoric was a gift to right-wing extremists, disinformation helped that rhetoric go viral. Then-private citizen Trump’s embrace of the birther conspiracy during President Obama’s term ignited the former’s political run.[viii] Disinformation was vital in garnering personal support for President Trump and enhancing the far-right narrative while he was in office.
For disinformation to be effective, it must have a vessel from which it can spread. The extremist ideas that had once been confined to anonymous messaging boards on the fringes of the Internet are now mainstream topics. How is this possible? The availability of smart phones and computers with access to social media platforms has provided a soapbox for the miseducated public and devious trolls. Assisted by algorithms that continue to push polarizing content into users’ news feeds, social media platforms have created echo chambers where disinformation is spread like a contagion.[ix]
The onus for perpetuating the epidemic spread of disinformation does not fall solely on the average American. Your estranged uncle spreading conspiracies about pedophilic sex rings out of pizza parlors can usually be written off as ineffective due to the small viewing audience he maintains. Media outlets, however, own a much larger share of that burden. They do not have to explicitly make a claim that is rife with disinformation to be successful in spreading it. They simply have to cast a shadow of a doubt on an existing claim and rely on their audience to take it and run with it.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, mainstream media has generally tightened its grip on vetting their reporting and guests. Tucker Carlson recently wrote an opinion piece on Fox News’s website titled “Mainstream media disinformation more powerful and destructive than QAnon.”[x] If one reads only the title, they can argue that Carlson has a point. Within the article however, Carlson unsurprisingly fails to acknowledge that he and Fox News are as mainstream, if not more so, than the networks he accuses; recent data supports this claim. Fox News dominated the other two networks in the final quarter of 2020 during primetime viewing and had higher views than their competitors in the 25-54 age demographic.[xi]
For the sake of this essay, I will not dive into the semantics of what truly constitutes “mainstream”. Rather, I will focus on alternative media. Alternative media sources exist on both sides of the political spectrum, but left-wing sources seem to be lesser known than their antitheses on the right. Breitbart, Infowars, and Newsmax are all examples of alternative right-wing media that have a history of spreading disinformation, and if you are plugged in to the Internet at all you have likely heard of them. These alternative media sources and a litany of others have been instrumental in spreading disinformation like the plague, infecting most social media platforms.
What are the motives for these alternative media sources in spreading disinformation? Numerous theories exist, but one is highly likely: money. Each click on a news source’s link generates revenue. Provocative headlines help enhance the spread of their stories. For instance, Breitbart’s article headlines are published in capitals, implying a sense of dire urgency, regardless of what the headline reads or how valid it is.[xii] The birth of new alternative media sources in the Trump era as well as old sources vaulting to the forefront of many online discussions has been vital in increasing the far-right’s relevance.
The months-long false allegations that the election was stolen from President Trump, repeatedly spouted by individuals across social media platforms, alluded to (or directly claimed) by media outlets, and most importantly reiterated by the President himself, served as the perfect catalyst for the Capitol insurrection. Social media platforms’ decisions to temporarily and subsequently permanently ban President Trump’s accounts in the aftermath of the events at the Capitol signified just how influential his role in promoting disinformation was.[xiii]
The Right-Wing in The Post-Trump Era
Right-wing extremism will not simply fade into the darkest recesses of society and the Internet because President Trump is out of office and his access to social media platforms has been severely constrained. It was here before President Trump took office and it will remain for the foreseeable future.
Last October, the Department of Homeland Security listed white supremacist extremists as the “most persistent and lethal” threat to domestic US interests, and recent data certainly backs that claim.[xiv] But as the January 6th events at the Capitol showed, those who participated in the insurrection were not all violent extremists or members of far-right groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. Many of those were college educated, white-collar workers.[xv] Whether they were truly adhering to the views of their more radical counterparts or simply opportunistic is up for debate. What is clear is that the more mainstream these extremist ideas become, the more potential they have to radicalize en masse.
Despite the best efforts of social media companies and government officials, disinformation will continue to thrive and stimulate the right-wing narrative in the post-Trump era. And disinformation, like a genie out of its bottle, is incredibly difficult to capture and return. Unfortunately, the threat of right-wing extremism in the U.S. is here to stay.
[i] Niraj Chokshi, “That Wasn’t Mark Twain: How a Misquotation Is Born,” The New York Times, April 26, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/books/famous-misquotations.html.
[ii] Glenn Kessler, “Analysis | The ‘Very Fine People’ at Charlottesville: Who Were They?” The Washington Post, May 10, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/05/08/very-fine-people-charlottesville-who-were-they-2/.
[iii] Stephen Tankel, “Riding the Tiger: How Trump Enables Right-Wing Extremism,” War on the Rocks, November 5, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/11/riding-the-tiger-how-trump-enables-right-wing-extremism/.
[iv] Priyanka Boghani, “Racism in the Era of Trump: An Oral History,” PBS,January 13, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/racism-in-the-era-of-trump-an-oral-history/.
[v] Adam Serwer, “The President’s Pursuit of White Power,” The Atlantic, January 14, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/trump-embraces-white-supremacy/579745/.
[vi] Ella Lee, “Fact Check: 12 of 28 Comments Deemed Racist on Viral List Are Trump’s Direct Speech,” USA Today, 30, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/10/30/fact-check-12-28-trump-comments-deemed-racist-direct-speech/6062530002/.
[vii] “ADL H.E.A.T. Map,” Anti-Defamation League, 2021. https://www.adl.org/education-and-resources/resource-knowledge-base/adl-heat-map?s=eyJhcmVhcyI6W10sImlkZW9sb2dpZXMiOlsiUmlnaHQgV2luZyAoQW50aS1Hb3Zlcm5tZW50KSIsIlJpZ2h0IFdpbmcgKE90aGVyKSIsIlJpZ2h0IFdpbmcgKFdoaXRlIFN1cHJlbWFjaXN0KSJdLCJpbmNpZGVudHMiOltdLCJ5ZWFyIjpbMjAyMCwyMDIwXSwiemlwY29kZXMiOltdfQ%253D%253D.
[viii] Boghani, “Racism in the Era of Trump: An Oral History.”
[ix] Brent Kitchens, Steven L. Johnson, and Peter Gray, “Opinion | Facebook Serves as an Echo Chamber, Especially for Conservatives. Blame Its Algorithm,” The Washington Post,October 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/26/facebook-algorithm-conservative-liberal-extremes/.
[x] Tucker Carlson, “Tucker Carlson: Mainstream Media Disinformation More Powerful and Destructive than QAnon,”Fox News, February 24, 2021, https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/tucker-carlson-media-disinformation-more-powerful-destructive-qanon.
[xi] Amy Watson, “U.S. Most-Watched News Network 2020,” Statista, February 5, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/373814/cable-news-network-viewership-usa/.
[xii] Adam Gabbatt, “Reading Breitbart for 48 Hours Will Convince You the World Is Terrible,” The Guardian, August 19, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/aug/19/reading-breitbart-news-steve-bannon-donald-trump.
[xiv] “Homeland Threat Assessment October 2020,” Department of Homeland Security, October, 2020, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf.
[xv] Steve Inskeep, “’A Long Time Coming’: Given DHS Warning, A Look At U.S. Domestic Extremism Threats,” NPR, February 3, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/02/03/963343220/a-long-time-coming-given-dhs-warning-a-look-at-u-s-domestic-extremism-threats.