On January 6, as public officials met to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 Presidential Election, supporters of Donald Trump stormed the capitol by mob, resulting in a riot that left five people dead.

In the days leading up to the riot, supporters of President Trump used a myriad of mainstream and fringe social media sites to organize and discuss the possibility of violence. Websites like Parler and TheDonald.win were “rife with posts about storming the Capitol,” according to an article in The Hill.

According to reporting by the New York Times, as Donald Trump ended his afternoon rally by calling on protestors to march on Congress, right-wing groups immediately took to these sites to promote the attack. At least 12 people openly posted about carrying guns inside the Capitol building, with others recommending tools that could help pry open doors.

Some were dressed in Viking costumes, some looked like soldiers in camouflage military uniforms, and others carried with them symbols of hate.

But they all united — as they had been for months — around a common falsehood: The election had been unlawfully stolen from Trump, who deserved the victory.

Fake news, from what it is to how it spreads, has been a hot topic throughout the past few years, especially amidst the recent election.

In the weeks following Election Day, President Trump has been making claims of widespread fraud that wrongfully resulted in Joe Biden’s win.

Jeff Hemsley, Professor of Information Studies at the iSchool, says that there are always minor amounts of fraud in every election. Out of nearly 160 million votes, he suspects that only a tiny fraction of ballots may have been fraudulent. Probably less than 1%.

“[President Trump] is essentially creating and instigating a fake news story,” he said.

Hemsley argues that these instances of fake news are really just propaganda — something that has been around since there have been governments and churches at all.  

At its core, propaganda is simply distorted information that’s published for someone’s political gain. And whether it’s a wartime newspaper ad or a seemingly innocent social media post, propaganda is only successful to the extent that people believe it and it spreads.

So what is it that makes something go viral?

Hemsley says the key thing to remember is that stories don’t go viral unless a lot of people share it (“a lot” being relative to the audience and platform).

A CNN video with a million views, for example, isn’t necessarily viral.  CNN simply has a lot of viewers.  

But if that video is frequently shared and spreads as a result, then we might call it viral.

According to Hemsley, one reason fake news spreads is because it’s often inflammatory in some way. That makes it exciting and worth talking about it.

“The things that tend to spread are things that are remarkable,” he said, “Remarkable just means people are talking about it, or remarking on it. And that’s virality.”

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement is largely the result of many viral events linked together, Hemsley argues. The general public became aware of the severity of police brutality and racial injustice ultimately because videos from bystanders went viral again and again.

Another well-known example is “Pizzagate,” a fake news story started on the conspiracy-oriented online message board 4chan.

In 2016, a 4chan user fabricated a story about the Comet Ping Pong pizza shop in Washington, DC, falsely claiming that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic elites used the pizza shop’s basement as a site for child sexual abuse.

In response, a North Carolina man attempting to investigate the conspiracy himself drove to the restaurant and fired a semi-automatic rifle inside in order to break the lock to a storage room.

As it turns out, Comet Ping Pong doesn’t even have a basement at all — nor does it engage in any of the alleged illicit activities.

Pizzagate is often considered to be a predecessor to other conspiracy theories such as “QAnon,” whose central premise is that Satanic cannibals run a global child sex trafficking ring that plots to overthrow Donald Trump.

While admittedly far-fetched on its own, in August 2019, the FBI published a report calling QAnon a possible source of domestic terror.

These stories and countless others show just how severe the consequences of fake news can be, though the logistics of preventing it can be difficult to sort out at scale. 

Hemsley does think that public pressure can play a significant role in shaping the prevention of fake news. Facebook’s decision to disable the “share” button on viral posts after a certain limit, for instance, likely came about as the result of public concern.

More recently, these companies have cracked down even harder in an effort to mitigate social tensions. Facebook banned thousands of QAnon accounts in October and, following the attack on the Capitol, placed an indefinite suspension on Donald Trump’s account there “at least until his term is over.”

Twitter also made the move to permanently suspend the President’s account, while Amazon, Apple, and Google have all withdrawn infrastructure support for Parler by denying service from AWS, the App Store, and Google Play, respectively.

He warns us, however, to be careful about the way we answer the question of whether online platforms and media outlets should limit fake news.  

Once we say that a decision needs to be made, it becomes tricky to determine exactly who gets the power to decide.  Who becomes the arbitrator?

A more pragmatic approach would be to take individual responsibility for the information we receive and evaluate it critically.

Hemsley recommends checking out the interactive Media Bias Chart published by Ad Fontes Media.

The tool plots news media outlets on a graph with axes representing political bias (from “most extreme left” to “most extreme right”) and overall source reliability (from “fabricated info” to “original fact reporting”).

“Almost all news organizations are biased, but some lie more than others,” Hemsley said,  “If you’re going to look at Fox News, also look at MSNBC.  If you’re going to look at things on the far right, look at things on the far left. But focus mainly on the sources in the middle.”

The best news, he says, tends to come from the center and is less driven by value statements than by factual statements.  These include outlets like Reuters, the Associated Press, and CBS Local.

At the end of the day, the most important thing to do is to pay attention and seek out the truth regardless of your own personal beliefs and biases.

“The world can change as the result of viral events,” Hemsley said, “The thing we need to understand is that [it] can change for better or for worse.”

“If it turns out that the lie is sexier than the truth, then we’re in danger of undermining our very democracy.”