MICHIGAN — Beginning Tuesday, during his impeachment trial, former president Donald Trump will face tough questioning for allegedly inciting the riots that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
“We’re going to fight like hell. If we don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said to a crowd of thousands of people at the Stop The Steal rally in Washington D.C. minutes before the riots began.
Dustin Carnahan, a professor at Michigan State University who studies misinformation, believes that conspiracy theories and misinformation is what led hundreds of Trump supporters and QAnon believers to storm the building that day, which disrupted congresspeople from certifying Joe Biden's electoral college win and forced them to evacuate the chamber and hide in undisclosed locations.
“There was this conspiracy that there’s this individual in government, Donald Trump, [former] President Trump is acting to kind of combat this cabal of secretive actors,” Carnahan said during a Zoom interview last week.
The conspiracy’s cabal included Hollywood stars and global elites working together to take over the government and the world, he said. GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene supported and perpetuated this theory and others in past social media posts. The House on Thursday February 4 voted to remove her from committee assignments.
“With conspiracies it’s all about how people formulate explanations about why the world is the way it is and how it operates,” Carnahan said. “It’s just understanding how it is that people go about kind of creating their own reality. It’s not necessarily rooted in actual facts.”
Carnahan said conspiracy theories and misinformation tend to be feelings-based and pry on people’s already anti-government sentiment. Trump’s rhetoric toward the media over the last four years, calling journalists ‘fake news,’ only fueled the sentiment even more.
“We’ve seen kind of a sustained attack against the press and kind of the generation of skepticism that journalists aren’t giving us the whole story, that they’re selectively choosing different types of facts to present in other facts. They’re omitting and they’re protecting people in power,” Carnahan said. “So, when you have those sustained attacks overtime what you see is a public decline in trust in news.”
He also said there's been a decline in trust towards the medical and public health fields. There’s been increased attacks on doctors, scientists and other experts; people questioning their fact-based research and work.
“When you have the skepticism and you have that decline in trust in news media, and this almost anti-intellectual movement where we’re questioning and pushing back against official stories and experts,” he said, “what you see is the potential for people to start gravitating towards other sources of information and other explanations as to why something happened or why an election turned out the way it did or why a disease or how a disease originated.”
Those other sources that people gravitate to, he said, tend to be websites or online groups dedicated to misinformation, which in the wake of the riots on January 6, many social media giants have banned from their platforms.
More importantly, he said people started leaving the QAnon movement.
“You started seeing people say ‘wait a second this isn’t what we were told was going to happen. We thought President Trump had our back,’” Carnahan said. “You start to see people abandon the ideology and starting to abandon the conspiracy.”
Carnahan said the best advice he gives to people grappling with misinformation and conspiracy theories is ‘if it sounds like a sales pitch and is too good to be true, then it probably is.’ He also suggested being aware of extremist language on websites that are created for only click-bait purposes.
“We want certain things that make our side look good or the other side look bad, especially around politics. We want those things to be true and so we just have to be very self aware,” he said. “We have to recognize what is our tendency to want to believe this thing. When it feels too right, that’s when you need to pause and say ‘hold on, is this really the truth?’”
That's a question to ask loved ones as well. If someone is trying to help a loved one leave QAnon, he recommends approaching them by being non-confrontational and using language -- or asking questions -- that don’t make them feel attacked.
He said the moment they feel threatened, they’ll get defensive. So, it’s best to remain calm.
“You have to protect the individual while attacking the belief. And the best advice I can try to give people is to try to help them see the light themselves. We don’t like being told what to do, or what to think, what to believe, even when it’s our friends or family,” Carnahan said. “When people come to their own realization that this isn’t true, this is wrong, that tends to have a long-lasting affect.”