Capitol siege highlights powerful pull of conspiracy theories, experts say

Experts say that conspiracy theories became more prevalent with social media.

January 22, 2021, 6:00 AM

On Jan. 6, an angry mob staged a deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol.

The almost unthinkable act, on the day that Congress was ratifying Joe Biden's victory, was based for many on the erroneous belief that the election was "stolen," a notion that President Trump and many of his allies propagated since November (and laid the groundwork for long before).

The only problem was that the assertion was untrue.

Still, President Trump and a number of his congressional allies pushed forward, repeating unfounded assertions that the election was unlawful and irregularities had occurred.

Now -- five deaths and dozens of arrests later -- the nation is left grappling with the very real and harmful effects of conspiracy theories, which have gained larger audiences in recent years.

PHOTO: Pro-Trump protesters clash with police during a rally at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
Pro-Trump protesters clash with police during a rally at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Who is susceptible and why?

Scientific literature tells us that everyone -- regardless of political leanings -- is equally vulnerable to the pull of conspiracy theories. But in recent years, some dangerous narratives have been given extra oxygen, fueled by the uncertainty of a global pandemic, an unregulated social media landscape and authority figures willing to peddle falsehoods for political gain.

Experts say that feelings like uncertainty and fear create suspicions in people, leading them to search for answers that provide them a feeling of regaining control.

“Psychologically [conspiracy theories] serve to give people a sense that they understand what's happening, because we don't like uncertainty and it's a very scary time," said Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this fear, experts said.

"The virus could strike at any moment to any one person," Friedman said. "If you had a theory that explained exactly what's going on, even if it's bad, you would have an explanation for what was happening, and it will make you feel a little bit better."

Bree McEwan, an associate professor of communication studies at DePaul's College of Communication, said that conspiracy theories help close gaps.

“People are afraid,” said McEwan. “If you have some uncertainty about something and there's a message that seems to fill in that gap, sew in the information for you, you're likely to believe that.”

PHOTO: Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol Building, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol Building, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Why conspiracy theories have become pervasive

Believing in misinformation and conspiracy theories is easier when they have been propagated by trusted and powerful officials, like the president of the United States, with the aid of social media.

For example, not only did former President Trump wrongly claim the election was stolen from him, he reinforced those claims with a flurry of Twitter messages (which were ultimately flagged for misinformation).

But it wasn't just the president.

"Elected members of Congress that continue to spread misinformation," Stefanie Friedhoff, the senior director of content, strategy and public Affairs at Brown University said. And other pro-Trump allies continued to advance versions of these conspiracy theories about the election.

"Digital media is the means by which all of these ideas, true and false, are spread and become viral, so it makes it possible for a false idea, a lie, to spread exponentially.” said Friedman. “It just accelerates it, it's like gasoline on a fire.”

Throughout history, prominent public figures have peddled conspiracy theories for personal or political gain, experts said. But now, because of social media and the internet, we are drowning in information.

In addition, people do not instinctively fact-check what they hear, Friedman said. And Friedman explains that in an ad-driven social media market, algorithms determine what content users experience, making it feel like an addiction in some cases.

Dr. Danny Rogers, an adjunct assistant professor at NYU and expert on disinformation, describes this information ecosystem as being akin to eating junk food that tastes good in the moment but is harmful over time.

“It’s not healthy, right? It doesn't actually solve any problems or help anyone actually deal with those feelings. But it is sort of a Band-Aid. makes them feel better," said Rogers, the co-founder of the non-partisan Global Disinformation Index, which aims to disrupt disinformation sites.

And this can happen to anyone, Rogers added.

“I think everyone is susceptible in one form or another to some warped version of reality that tailors to whatever their biases are,” he said.

But the personalized and intimate environment of social media "is specifically designed to cater to everyone's personalized, most engaging warped version of reality," Rogers said, bolstered by algorithms that serve up what people want to read and hear.

"So every single user on Facebook can be fed this kind of warped version of reality, that so warped you can't even call it reality," Rogers said.

Social media companies have tried to crack down on disinformation with varying results. In 2016, Facebook began flagging fake news posts through partnerships with five fact-checking organizations. Users are provided with a link explaining why the post is being disputed.

McEwan said people can sometimes overlook truthful information for theories that better suit their personal storylines. “They are so ego-involved,” she said, “The smarter you think you are the less likely you are to evaluate the argument quality well if you already agree with it.”

PHOTO: Supporters of President Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by Congress, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Supporters of President Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by Congress, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

A way forward?

Even in our increasingly polarized media landscape, experts say social media platforms may soon make reforms.

Rogers said this begins with regulation.

"What we need to do is build a system of accountability online so that those who spread misinformation are being held accountable," said Friedhoff.

And although social media companies are private, CEOs have often made exceptions for President Trump, who routinely violates user terms and conditions. That is, until earlier this month, when his rhetoric helped ignite an insurrection -- an action for which he was impeached for an unprecedented second time.

Friedhoff describes this as “just one example of a change that has long [been] asked for that we're now seeing.”

Others are more wary, calling social media regulation a dangerous limitation of free speech and free expression online. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, has called President Trump's banishment from Twitter "problematic."

Ultimately, much of the work of dismantling conspiracy theories may be in trying to find any common ground that still remains, according to the experts.

"People who believe in conspiracies in most cases have a good reason to do so," said Friedhoff. "We want to be open to listening in and engaging. This is where the change happens."

Studies show that being combative has an opposite effect -- driving people to cling tighter to their false beliefs.

“We need to stay strong,” Friedhoff said. “There will be a different internet. People are working on this and we're going to [get back] from this crisis, we will be fixing the media ecosystem. I am very hopeful about that. But right now, we're at the worst part of this revolution that we're in.”

Dr. Sabina Bera, a psychiatrist in New York, contributed to this story.

Heather Guzman is a production coordinator for ABC News' Investigative Unit. Mishal Reja, M.D. is an incoming gastroenterology fellow at SUNY Downstate. Both are contributors to the ABC News Medical Unit.

This report was featured in the Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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