The Spread of Political Misinformation and How to Stop It

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #81 | By: Rudolph Lurz | June 21, 2023
Photo taken from: hewlett.org

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On December 4th, 2016, Edgar Welch drove several hours from his North Carolina home and entered the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. carrying an AR-15 rifle. He demanded to know where Hillary Clinton was keeping the child sex slaves. Mr. Welch proceeded to fire rounds into locks to gain access to rooms, finding only pizza supplies and terrified employees. He was later sentenced to four years in prison and expressed remorse for his actions. Mr. Welch felt compelled to help the children after reading horrifying things online about how prominent Democrats were torturing kids in the basement of that particular pizza restaurant. Employees and customers suffered psychological damage as a result of Mr. Welch’s actions, believing that they were about to become the victims of a mass shooting.

Mr. Welch acted on a popular conspiracy theory, spread by disgraced outlets such as Alex Jones’s “Infowars”. It is one of the central tenets of the Q-Anon group. Roughly 1 in 3 Republicans believed that the radical views espoused by Q-Anon were “mostly true” at the time of Mr. Welch’s crimes. 

The core of these theories sounds like the plot of a bad Netflix movie. Global elites have a child sex trafficking system and prominent liberals from D.C. to Hollywood are their pedophile clients. Elderly Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are consuming the blood of these tortured children to artificially prolong their lives. The more grievously children are tortured, the stronger the amount of adrenochrome in the kids’ blood. “Adrenochrome” is the fabricated element that provides longevity for anyone who drinks the blood. In this foul conspiracy theory, sex trafficking children have two positive outcomes for the liberal elites – producing revenue for the Democratic Party and producing “adrenochrome” for the powerful to consume. 

Donald Trump steadfastly refused to condemn Q-Anon, even during the 2020 election four years later, stating that he liked how they “were against pedophilia”. Trump’s public acceptance of Q-anon’s beliefs has contributed to its staying power in the public sphere. In 2022, 16% of Americans, nearly 44 million people, still believed that there was truth to the conspiracies espoused by Q-Anon.

Analysis

It is hard for me to believe that we are in this dystopian post-truth position as a nation. Yet at the same time, it can be seen as the inevitable consequence of the movement from the neutral news broadcasts of Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw to 24/7 partisan news consumption via social media and outlets like Newsmaxx and Fox News.

I teach logical fallacies and cognitive biases in my classes. The primary issue I see playing out with Q-Anon and Pizzagate is confirmation bias. It’s a major issue with high school and college students on their academic essays. They seek out and cite information that helps their argument and ignore anything that contradicts it. 

Partisan talking heads provide folks with high volumes of confirmation bias on demand. If folks are listening to Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, they think that government bureaucrats are socialist Deep State operatives with far more influence than they actually possess.

If they are listening to Alex Jones or virulent Q-Anon peddlers online, they can fall victim to the kind of mental poison which brought Mr. Welch to that D.C. pizza shop and later brought 10,000 furious rioters to the Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

People who don’t like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden will click on negative links about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. If those links reinforce their existing beliefs, they will share them with their friends and online followers. If they see an article has been shared or viewed thousands of times, it gives it an aura of legitimacy, even if the information it describes makes zero logical sense. 

Marjorie Taylor Green, a U.S. representative from Georgia, frequently espouses Q-Anon theories in the public sphere, including calling Democrats a “party of pedophiles” on 60 Minutes. Seeing politicians like MTG or Trump say these things further solidifies viewpoints tainted by confirmation bias. 

Insults of Democrats which denigrated their policies as socialism and big government have been in the public sphere since the days of Harry Truman. It’s one thing to disagree with political opponents, even furiously. It’s quite another to actually believe that political opponents are consuming the blood of tortured children.

How can we engage with 44 million people whose beliefs are so far removed from reality? 

If one person with a rifle can be convinced to terrorize a pizza shop, and ten thousand rioters can be compelled to storm the U.S. Capitol four years later, what will come next if we fail to act?

It has to begin with digital and information literacy measures at all levels of our education system. Students have to be able to identify legitimate sources, recognize biases, and defend arguments with evidence in a civil manner. There is more information available on a cell phone today than an entire library two decades ago. 

What good is it to have all that information if we cannot recognize reality when we see it? 

I cannot believe that it is necessary to write and publish this article, but the fact remains that 44 million people cannot be ignored. For the future of the country, these ridiculous and dangerous falsehoods must be confronted and refuted. Students need to learn the skills to be able not only to thrive in an Information Age economy, but also how to avoid and neutralize the virulent misinformation which leads to political extremism.

There were college graduates among the ten thousand rioters who assaulted democracy itself on January 6th, 2021. We have to do a better job with our future graduates. We must abandon this post-truth dystopia that leads to terror and authoritarianism. Otherwise, the next attack will arrive with even more numbers and more violence.

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