The Vicious Cycle Of Right-Wing Disinformation: Lie, Incite, Repeat
Enhancing our understanding of the cycle of deception and violence in right-wing disinformation campaigns is vital to improving our ability to combat them.
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Donald Trump’s first lie as President wasn’t just about the size of his inauguration crowd. He told an even bolder lie.
At his inaugural ball, just hours after giving his inauguration speech in the rain, Trump said, “The crowd was unbelievable today. I looked at the rain, which just never came…”
While this was one of his more harmless lies, it’s notable that Trump began his presidency with an easily debunked lie that contested America’s universally recognized reality. Trump lied about something we could all very clearly see with our own eyes. But that’s what’s sinister about disinformation.
Disinformation seeks to manipulate you into believing something in spite of all available evidence, including your own judgment. When lies are weaponized, like fake claims of election fraud, for example, they can become dangerous.
Over the course of Trump’s presidency, which I documented every day of, Trump’s lies grew increasingly larger and more nefarious. According to The Washington Post, Trump told over 30,000 lies as President, including his election lies that incited an insurrection at the Capitol.
As I covered his lies and the various right-wing disinformation campaigns that have defined the past decade, I gleaned a lot of insight into their patterns and tactics. I edited and published over 1,600 articles from journalists and PhDs with expertise on disinformation, conspiracy theories, and right-wing extremism. I now cover what I’ve learned in media literacy lectures I deliver to high school and college students.
Disinformation is a tool utilized by extremists, authoritarians, and grifters seeking to gaslight the public for their own corrupt ends. These lies can take the form of complex or simplistic conspiracy theories that mobilize people to take actions they wouldn’t usually take under normal circumstances.
These conspiracy theories often feed a vicious cycle of deception and violence. Authoritarians weaponize disproven conspiracy theories that incite violence again and again with no remorse. Before I talk about this cycle, an example from 2016 foreshadowed the sharp rise in far-right violence we’ve seen over the past seven years and embodied the tactics present in all disinformation campaigns.
The Resilience Of Conspiracy Theories
The Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which Elon Musk recently got into the headlines again due to his promotion of the conspiracy theory on Twitter/X, sparked a near-terrrorist attack in 2016. The lie claimed that Hillary Clinton and her campaign aide, John Podesta, were running a child trafficking ring out of the basement of a DC pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong. It was sparked by a Wikileaks-revealed email Podesta sent to the owner of the pizzeria asking to host a fundraiser.
A gunman armed with an AR-15 drove from North Carolina to DC to take down the alleged pedophile ring. He fired shots in the restaurant but luckily took no lives. To his surprise, there was no basement in the restaurant, let alone a pedophile ring. You would think that would be the end of the lie, but it wasn’t.
4Chan users and the fringes of the internet have kept the lie alive over these past seven years, and Elon Musk has just brought it some mainstream attention once again. Musk has since deleted his meme about it, but the damage is already done. If you read the responses to my post about it and the followings of some of the accounts, you’ll see that there is still quite a sizable online community that believes this conspiracy theory despite the fact the gunman himself debunked it. The New York Times did an excellent debunking of Pizzagate if you need a refresher.
Pizzagate shows the resilience of disinformation narratives fueled by conspiracy theories. Pizzagate evolved into a wider QAnon conspiracy theory and now is getting back to its roots. Disinformation can become impervious to facts and take on an almost religious framework where common belief in the lie ties the community together. This exploitation of community and a sense of purpose that comes from conspiracy theories are key parts of successful disinformation campaigns.
I say all this to get to the right-wing conspiracy theory cycle I want to highlight in this piece. The Pizzagate example, thankfully, didn’t end in any deaths, but many other conspiracy theories did. Whether it’s the White Supremacist Great Replacement Theory spread by Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson or the anti-LGBTQ disinformation that sparks hate crimes, conspiracy theories can be deadly.
Authoritarians see how regular people can create conspiracy theories that take on a life of their own. They exploit these tactics. When authoritarians create and weaponize conspiracy theories, as Russia did in 2016 with its interference in the election or Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, it can have really damaging impacts on our democracy.
This is why we must understand the cycle of right-wing conspiracy theories, not just as an academic exercise but as a civic necessity
The violent right-wing conspiracy theory cycle goes like this:
1) Inception: Create a baseless lie that serves your interests
2) Repitition: Repeat the lie as often and through as many perpetuation mechanics as possible
3) Delusion: The lie is repeatedly disproven publicly, but lives on
4) Incitement: People radicalized by that lie commit or attempt a violent act
They have no remorse. After their lie causes violence, they shamelessly move on to the next lie or, in some cases, continue the cycle with the exact same lie.
Let’s break this down.
The Never-Ending Cycle Of Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories
Step 1 - Inception: The Creation Of A Baseless Lie
It begins with a lie, often ludicrous, always unfounded.
These lies usually take on the form of a vast conspiracy theory that aligns with the disinfo-peddler’s goals. Conspiracy theories are particularly nefarious because they usually exploit a kernel of truth or a pre-existing suspicion to develop their "secret plot" narrative.
These conspiracy theories prey upon the confirmation bias of their targets. They offer simplistic explanations for complex problems and often scapegoat groups of people that the target audience already doesn’t like. A group of people who already distrust a particular demographic group or government institution will be more likely to believe that they’re part of some cabal that seeks to destroy them.
These disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories often employ the projection method, which is a tactic historically used by authoritarians. Accusing the other side of what you are doing inserts confusion and disorientation into the public discourse. They will also deploy misdirection by claiming they’re defending the things they’re working to undermine - like the rule of law or democracy.
We’ll use Trump’s Big Lie, his claims that the 2020 election was stolen, as a case study throughout this piece.
While voter fraud does happen in American elections, it’s in rare cases and by no means widespread. The fact it does happen in rare cases is the kernel of truth. Trump used these anecdotes to falsely extrapolate a narrative of vast plots to steal the election. He did this in his 2016 lie about millions of undocumented immigrants voting, and his 2020 election lies about fraudulent mail-in ballots.
Trump had spent years already priming his base to believe outlandish lies, so it wasn’t a steep climb to get them to buy into evidence-free voter fraud lies. Trump laid the groundwork by repeating the lie well ahead of the 2020 election.
Once the election was lost, Trump racheted up his election lies and outright accused his opponents of seeking to steal the election, which was an act he himself was engaged in - and later indicted for.
Once the lie is created, it is then perpetuated by trusted sources of that target audience and repeated over and over again. This brings us to step two.
Step 2 - Repetition: The Lie Is Spread & Repeated Over And Over
Repetition is a key method of disinformation campaigns. False narratives are repeated over and over again in an almost rhythmic fashion, so they stick in the brains of the target audience. This exploits the illusory truth effect, which is the phenomenon of increased belief in false information after it has been repeated.
The perpetuation mechanics of these repeated narratives are important. Authoritarians will often exploit trust by enlisting news anchors, journalists, and influencers to parrot their lies. This goes a long way toward making a false narrative appear to be conventional wisdom.
In Trump’s 2020 election lies, he repeated that the election was stolen so often and even created a “Stop The Steal” slogan for his base of followers to embody. Trump used social media and traditional media to spread his lies.
A quarter of Trump’s 6,081 Facebook posts in 2020 contained misinformation about COVID-19, the election, or his critics. Facebook did not limit this reach, and his posts were shared and liked more than 927 million times, according to The Washington Post.
Right-wing media organizations, like Fox News, perpetuated Trump’s election lies daily, exploiting the trust their audience has for them.
Due to the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News and the multiple investigations into January 6, we now know definitively that Fox News anchors and Donald Trump knew these election fraud claims were baseless. They pushed them anyway. Fox News did so in order to keep the audience share they were losing to Newsmax, and Donald Trump did so in order to try and overturn the 2020 election.
These pieces of disinformation are repeated over and over again in spite of the fact they are easily debunked.
Step 3 - Delusion: The Lie Is Disproven Publicly, But Persists
Rational thought and factual analysis challenge disinformation narratives. Experts debunk them, and sometimes, reality itself renders them implausible. But rather than dying, like a virus, these disproven theories mutate, persist, and plague more people.
The same election fraud narrative, repeatedly debunked by countless audits, investigations, recounts, and court cases, refused to fade, instead morphing to fit new narratives.
Suddenly, the lies became about voting machines being run by Hugo Chavez or innocent election workers bringing in fraudulent ballots.
When conspiratorial beliefs withstand the full force of objective reality, they can radicalize people into a state of hopelessness and anger, which unfortunately leads to violence.
Step 4 - Incitement: Radicalization And Acts Of Violence
The most harrowing step in this cycle is the leap from rhetoric to violence. Ordinary people, radicalized by these persistent lies, can become extremists who commit acts of violence.
The violent storming of the Capitol on January 6 was the culmination of years of radicalization. It wasn't just an attack on a building but on the bedrock of democracy, fueled by the relentless spread of conspiracy theories.
In some cases, like the January 6 attack, the violence is a tool of the disinformation campaign. In this case, Trump sought to use the violence to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 election.
There are countless other examples of violence caused by right-wing disinformation campaigns. There’s the white supremacist terrorist El Paso shooter who murdered Hispanics after being radicalized by the Great Replacement Theory and echoed, almost verbatim, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in his manifesto. There’s David DePape, who was radicalized by right-wing conspiracy theories and attacked Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer.
The list goes on.
Step 5 - Start Over: The Shameless Cycle Repeats
In a rational world, violence would prompt reflection and remorse. When it comes to right-wing disinformation campaigns, it’s met with a pivot to the next unfounded claim. The silence or support from Republicans after such events only emboldens the cycle’s continuation.
In some cases, they simply move on to the next lie, but if the lie is big enough, they just continue the cycle with the exact same lie. They offer no apologies. No corrections. They just keep going.
Tucker Carlson never stopped spreading the Great Replacement theory after each white supremacist terrorist cited the theory. Donald Trump never stopped spreading the lie that the election was stolen, even after the violence at the Capitol.
Fox News only stopped spreading lies about Dominion voting machines because they lost their lawsuit. To this day, you’ll still see Fox hosts give credence to false election fraud claims.
It’s important to note that conspiracy theories only have mainstream appeal when people with a platform spread them. Republicans could have held Trump accountable after January 6 and convicted him in his Senate impeachment trial. Instead, they opted to let him off the hook and cozy back up to him. Now, we’re dealing with a 2024 race where Trump is on the ballot again, and promising to do truly authoritarian things in his second term.
When accountability is not levied, this depraved authoritarian cycle continues.
Combatting The Cycle
Breaking this cycle demands concerted efforts. Media literacy initiatives, critical thinking in education, responsible journalism, and public figures standing firmly for truth are part of the solution. It's about creating an environment where lies find it harder to take root, and the truth isn't a matter of opinion.
I like to use an example in my media literacy lectures of a public anti-disinformation campaign that worked. Over the course of 6 months, the January 6 Committee's hearings served as a national de-radicalization and anti-disinformation project at scale. Afterward, the 2022 midterms saw huge losses for election deniers in key battleground states. There’s a lot we can learn from their performance.
The January 6 Committee not only took on the Big Lie, they used the same tactics Trump used to spread his lies, but this time to debunk them. Here are five key takeaways for journalists and Democrats on how to take down a disinformation campaign head-on:
1. Establishing A Pattern And Intent
The Committee highlighted Trump's pattern of lying and clearly demonstrated his intent. This unmistakably established that this was deliberate disinformation and not innocent misinformation.
2. Dissecting The Anatomy Of The Lie
The Committee repeatedly laid bare the mechanics of the Big Lie. They outlined and debunked each piece of disinformation (false claims about mail-in ballots, voter fraud, election officials, etc).
The Committee combatted the Big Lie by repeating Big Facts over and over again. Repetition of truth that directly debunks a piece of disinformation counters the illusory truth effect. This was a major key.
4. Using Trusted Sources
The Committee delivered this information through witness testimony from credible arbiters within the community of their target audience - former Attorney General Bill Barr and other ex-Trump officials. This proved incredibly effective.
5. Compelling Storytelling
The Committee produced powerful presentations using video to make their case. Presenting the truth through compelling storytelling narratives that captivate the attention of your audience is key.
In 13 races in six key battleground states where an election denier ran for governor, secretary of state, or attorney general, all 13 lost, according to NBC News. By dealing major defeats to Trump-backed election deniers, Americans proved the Big Lie’s appeal was waning. In fact, the more extremist the candidate, the less likely they were to move to victory in toss-up races.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen since 2022, the continued widespread belief in Trump’s election lies, and his continued popularity showcases the need for more consistent anti-disinformation efforts.
I think media literacy education is the best long-term solution, like the media literacy education laws passed in New Jersey and Delaware. But until then, it’s up to us to increase our own literacy and for journalists to push back against lies whenever we see them. We have to try and disrupt this cycle as best we can. Our democracy depends on it.