“Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” —Voltaire
The carnage on January 6 was precipitated by a lie that the election was stolen from President Trump. The events that day would have remained in the realm of the unthinkable without the motivating lie of a stolen election. President Trump certainly bears primary responsibility, but he alone could not have pulled off these tragically improbable events without decades of preparatory work by countless partisans, activists, leaders, and entrepreneurs.
But it is far too simple to blame the orchestration of the lie solely on social media without taking into account the decades of partisan media that led to this moment. The long, painful, and necessary process that lies ahead is to reform the institutions and structures of partisan media that have been transformed into a platform for propaganda. Journalists must play a central role in this process.
Over the last several years, Trump turned the right-wing media ecosystem to his advantage. In the leaked January 2 call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, he spells it all out in sharp clarity. Not only does he go through an exhaustive list of conspiracies, but they have this exchange:
RAFFENSPERGER: “Mr. President, the problem you have with social media, they — people can say anything.”
TRUMP: “Oh, this isn’t social media. This is Trump media. It’s not social media. It’s really not, it’s not social media. I don’t care about social media. I couldn’t care less. Social media is Big Tech.”
Simply put, social media serves Trump media, whose main product is networked propaganda — the distribution of false narratives that reinforce partisan identity while crowding out true narratives, even when these are presented by leading insiders.
The key function of political information systems to provide people with the knowledge they need to make decisions is all too frequently eclipsed by a focus on building a compelling political narrative. Right now, Trump media signifies a deeply broken information system used to sustain and propagate a lie that has been decisively and repeatedly disproven. The deplatforming of Trump media ranges from his own personal accounts, those of his allies, and his supporters, but also extends deep in the stack to cloud services for Parler.
This may help in the short-term but falls far short of the changes needed in political media ecosystems required to shore up our democracy.
No one is surprised that Trump, the author of more than 30,000 false statements according to The Washington Post, would invest so much in such a falsehood. As our and others’ research at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy shows, a broad and diverse set of actors helped nurture and sustain the voter fraud narrative across every social media platform. The only way out of this hole is to rediscover a collective understanding of reality and to reinstall the mechanisms of accountability in media where they are missing, to ensure that accuracy and objectivity are rewarded and disinformation is not given the space to metastasize.
Trump has cultivated the election fraud narrative for years, starting with his presidential campaign in 2016. Disinformation campaigns tend to be repeated ad nauseum until they catch hold. Those who operate disinformation campaigns know that repetition across accounts and platforms provides the opportunity for a viral response. This is precisely why groups like Claire Wardle’s First Draft train journalists not to engage or spread disinformation. It is more critical than ever that journalists deny those who spread disinformation the attention they crave — and also require — to propagate their lies.
Our research shows response is the lifeblood for disinformation operators to create a long tail of engagement with their content. It doesn’t seem to matter, though, if the engagement is positive or negative. The point is to keep it moving, so that true narratives cannot compete. For example, the more Republicans like Georgia Governor Brian Kemp tried to correct Trump’s claims, the more he became the target of Trump’s vitriol. When Vice President Mike Pence accurately stated that he does not have the constitutional powers to overturn election results, Trump targeted him, and some of the January 6 rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence” while inside the Capitol building.
The more troubling question is how Trump was able to get so many Republicans to accept the lie. According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, while 95% of Democrats accept the election results, only 24% of Republicans do. The answer is in the structure of political information systems in the U.S. and the success of conservative activists in creating their own media world — the rise of Christian broadcasting, the ascent of conservative radio led by Rush Limbaugh, and the emergence of Fox News in the late 1990s. Social media, while not the origin of this fracture, has only served to exacerbate the division and provide a distribution system for the most extreme voices.
Since its inception, conservative media in America has operated under different rules, so often preferencing partisanship over truth when the two are in conflict. Audiences took to it and, as a result, politicians adapted to a world in which their voters were informed by a more purely partisan press. Conservative media, voters, and politicians have co-evolved within this insulated ecosystem into the system we have today. The outcome: a cleavage in the U.S. public sphere and a schism in the marketplace of ideas. The news media of the center and left, with all its flaws and faults, operates in a milieu in which fact checkers have influence and the standards and practices of objectivity and accuracy still hold sway.
In addition to introducing a conservative-friendly press, the partition of political media was completed with the discrediting of traditional media, a decades-long process that has culminated in a frightening hostility to the free press, as demonstrated during the Capitol siege. For conservative political leaders and their supporters, the net effect is a wholesale dismantling of a primary source of accountability — an independent press.
This is not to say that conservative media do not hold conservative leaders to account. They police their own based on allegiance to conservative causes. Neither is it true that right-wing media holds the power. They are beholden to the expectations and desires of their audiences, with ample competition for attention, especially as networks like Newsmax and One American News Network (OAN) rise in popularity.
The same structures that are needed to give a pass to little lies — whether it is SharpieGate or the size of the inauguration crowd — over time can be put to service in perpetuating bigger lies. The big lie is composed of hundreds of smaller ones. As long as an insular conservative media ecosystem is willing to tolerate the falsehoods of Republican leaders and to undermine fact checking efforts, the influence of journalists working in good faith is weakened. Journalism and civil society have struggled with the normalization of mendacity that Trump has ushered in, which persists even after January 6, as evidenced by Republican lawmakers continuing to propagate the stolen election lie by giving airtime to Peter Navarro, the author of “The Immaculate Deception,” a report detailing speculation about election fraud.
Trump has tested the limits of conservative political and media systems and proved them to be remarkably pliant. He wasn’t the one to remove the guardrails, but he was the one to drive the bus over the cliff. Mechanisms that could pull the emergency brake, such as other Republicans calling him out or a conservative press that fact-checked him, were stripped away long ago.
A question for the coming months and years is whether conservative America can use this as an opportunity to begin to rebuild its information systems such that political action is once again constrained by facts and evidence, reversing the downward spiral of partisan disinformation. Fox News could turn the tide by ridding itself of propaganda and providing cover for Republican leaders willing to take on the extremists in their party. Social media companies have helped by deplatforming many of the more radical voices from the right. While conservative commentators may squawk at this suppression of conservative voices, this is a chance for the core of conservative media to distance itself from the radical reaches of the right and leave them to occupy smaller, less influential digital enclaves.
The events of January 6 should represent a historical inflection point. While it may not fix everything broken in our media ecosystem, lawmakers must hold each other accountable for their actions because it would have reverberating effects throughout right-wing media. Hopefully, in the process, it would also reduce the reach of Trump media to guest spots in pillow commercials.
Rob Faris is a senior researcher at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Joan Donovan is the research director at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.