UW expert on disinformation warns against ‘next round of conspiracy theories’ after attack on Capitol

Jan 7, 2021, 8:51 AM | Updated: 10:17 am
Conspiracy theories, Capitol attack, Proud Boy...
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Just hours after a pro-Trump mob forced its way into the U.S. Capitol building, conspiracy theories already began to fly on social media. Dr. Kate Starbird, who studies the spread of disinformation at the University of Washington, tracked how those theories first started to spread Wednesday, both on social media and across conservative news networks.

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“Hearing some Fox News pundits are spreading conspiracy theories trying to shift blame for today’s riots on left-wing protests,” Dr. Starbird noted on Twitter. “Not surprising, as we’ve seen these same folks amplifying misinformation before.”

That included Fox News host Sean Hannity, who claimed to have “reports that groups like antifa … were there to cause trouble,” stopping short of offering evidence to support that claim. That was further amplified by fellow Fox News personality Brit Hume, who warned that we should “not be surprised if we learn in the days ahead that the Trump rioters were infiltrated by leftist extremists.”

Later on in the evening, California Rep. Matt Gaetz repeated that message himself, claiming that “some of the people who breached the Capitol … were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”

In reality, the mob that pushed into the Capitol building were a product of a social media following made up of “pro-Trump accounts and QAnon adherents,” Dr. Starbird said.

“These were the folks we saw yesterday storming the Capitol, stepping out from their online worlds into the physical one, but still wearing their online persona, and many seemingly not quite understanding that this wasn’t an online role playing game anymore,” she detailed.

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As Dr. Starbird pointed out, theories positing that members of antifa were masquerading as Trump supporters were largely championed by “repeat offenders” with a lengthy history of spreading misinformation.

That’s part of what she describes as a larger strategy to shift the perception of reality so thoroughly that it becomes difficult to accurately discern fact from fiction.

“Here come the next round of conspiracy theories,” she cautioned. “They’ll ask their followers to ignore what they saw with their own eyes (and for some what they experienced and perpetrated themselves)… and believe another alternative reality.”

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UW expert on disinformation warns against ‘next round of conspiracy theories’ after attack on Capitol