We Just Witnessed the Dangers of the Autocratic Disinformation Playbook

January 8, 2021
Tyler Merbler/Flickr
Genna Reed
Senior Analyst

Even with all the warning signs that something like this could happen, there was nothing that could have mentally prepared us to watch a mob storm the halls of the US Capitol building this week, disrupting a process that is a constitutional function and threatening the safety of hundreds of elected officials and staff.

But sadly these events were a predictable outcome of an autocrat’s deadly disinformation spiral.

Disinformation is persistent, it is pervasive, and it runs deep in our country. It has been incited by our own President, members of his administration, and elected officials for the past four years. After years spent chipping away at our democracy, attempting to discredit reputable news sources, and filling social media newsfeeds with conspiracy-filled rhetoric, a mostly white mob sowed chaos on the streets of my city and in the halls of a building I revere. Their cause? Stopping the purported steal of a free and fair election won handily and fairly by President-Elect Joe Biden.

At UCS, we have studied disinformation sown by corporate actors to manufacture doubt and spin the science of unsafe products. We have seen those same tactics employed by President Trump and those in his administration to bury evidence about the dangers of COVID-19 and fuel distrust in election integrity. The goal of disinformation, regardless of its source, is the same: to confuse the public and control the narrative for financial, political, or ideological gain.

From the start of President Trump’s term, he actively worked to erode trust in the wheels that turn our democracy: the free press, science-based agencies, state election boards, even the Postal Service. By giving his audience no hope in the integrity of our institutions, he positioned himself as the only hope, an autocratic ruler, rather than the person who governs three branches of government and does the bidding of the electorate. In a speech before the Senate floor yesterday, Senator Cory Booker compared the sight at the Capitol on Wednesday to the British soldiers who set it ablaze in 1814, ”waving flags to a sole sovereign, to an individual, surrendering democratic principle to the cultic personality.” There were no patriots standing on the steps of the Capitol and taking selfies in the chairs of elected officials on Wednesday, only followers of a man whose movement is built upon lies and hate. For, in addition to Trump campaign flags, there were confederate flags—symbols of racism and treason—being marched across the halls of the seat of our democracy.

In the weeks before the general election, millions of voters were preemptively convinced that the election was “rigged” without any evidence supporting the claims. In fact, the nearly 60 lawsuits filed by President Trump’s legal team since the election have failed based on lack of standing and lack of evidence. But, while evidence is required by judges, somehow, evidence isn’t necessary for many to believe these outlandish claims. Information spreads even faster when it’s false. And President Trump is no stranger to spreading disinformation. By Washington Post’s count, in four years, he has made almost 30,000 false or misleading claims. For President Trump, disinformation has always been part of the plan to leverage the discord it created.

We saw this as the President shamefully equated the peaceful counter protesters in Charlottesville with the violent white nationalists including one responsible for the death of Heather Heyer and injuries of dozens of others, saying that there was “violence on many sides.”

We saw this with the President’s implicit support of the QAnon movement, based on conspiracy theories about the so-called “deep state.”

We saw this with irresponsible lies about the effectiveness of ridiculous and dangerous COVID-19 “miracle cures” such as taking hydroxychloroquine and injecting disinfectants.

We saw this with downplaying the threat of COVID-19, telling us, “don’t be afraid of covid” even though it had killed over 200,000 Americans at that point in October.

We saw this with baseless claims about voter fraud in mail-in ballots in the weeks leading up to the election.

We saw this with claims that majority Black cities, including Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee, were participating in election fraud, in a thinly veiled attempt to continue the historical disenfranchisement of Black voters.

We are seeing it in repeated unfounded and debunked claims by Republican members of Congress and conservative commentators that the mob was made up of members of antifa.

We are seeing misinformation spread by providing woefully inadequate “fixes” to address the deepening divides we’re seeing in our country, like shoveling our neighbors’ driveways as articulated by Senator Ben Sasse on the Senate floor.

This disinformation architecture must be dismantled

We need clear dividing lines between fact and fiction. We need honest leaders. We need to hold accountable those who are perpetuating disinformation, threatening our democracy, elected officials, and journalists, and inciting violence in our nation’s capital. UCS has called upon the President’s cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment and remove him from office as a result of the insurrection for which he is responsible. We also need to hold accountable the 139 members of the House of Representatives and the eight senators who perpetuated President Trump’s disinformation and enabled the January 6th events to transpire.

Social media companies, journalists, and government officials have an important role to play in limiting disinformation and its spread. First and foremost, the federal government needs to allow the free flow of information, including amongst its own scientists, and affirm the independence of the news media. Social media companies have taken some first steps toward removing harmful disinformation from their sites. Twitter has done the bare minimum of removing false or misleading content from the President’s account and suspending access for 12 hours after the insurrection. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat all banned President Trump until at least the inauguration for “inciting violent insurrection.” But, more must be done to improve transparency and to reduce the echo chamber effect.

We must learn from disinformation-fueled actions witnessed over these past few years and make reforms to our system that allow the free flow of accurate information, foster trust in our elections and regulatory decisions, and repudiate racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. What will it take for us to keep this democracy? This question demands all of our attention and UCS will be a part of that conversation in the days and years ahead.

About the author

More from Genna

Genna Reed is a senior analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she researches political and corporate influences on science-informed decision making—working to inform the public about issues where science is stifled or obscured, and to ensure that federal, state, and local policies are based on rigorous, independent science.