The violent insurrection against the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, could prove to be a critical time for how our media ecosystem deals with disinformation and the individuals and organizations that produce it. On that day we witnessed what those of us who study the problem of disinformation feared most, a direct attack on democratic institutions fueled by lies and conspiracy theories. While it might not be the worst case scenario, he was dangerously close.
In some ways, we find ourselves in a situation similar to Sandy Hook, when 20 first graders and six educators were brutally murdered. In the wake of December 14, 2012, many have asked: If a tragedy of this magnitude does not lead to change in gun control, can we ever expect change? Debate to find out whether the Sandy Hook tragedy spawned the kind of institutional change it should have continued eight years later. For many, Sandy Hook has become a touchstone against which subsequent gun violence efforts are evaluated.
We should ask a similar question of the insurgency. While the disinformation and calls for violence that fueled this democracy-threatening attack do not lead to meaningful responses from policymakers, media, educators and other stakeholders able to counter the growing threat of disinformation, can we ever expect significant change? January 6 should be a touchstone in assessing our subsequent efforts to combat disinformation.
The first indications are that the insurgency may indeed turn out to be an inflection point. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and Twitch have banned Donald Trump until at least after the inauguration, and have taken various other measures to combat disinformation and calls for violence. Twitter bans Trump permanently, extending the ban not only to his personal account but also to many affiliate accounts. And, in the increasingly fragmented social media ecosystem – where the most partisan, inflammatory, and often downright bogus content migrates to newer services like Talk – Google, Apple, and Amazon all fall Talk about their platforms. Traditional media distributors such as cable and satellite systems are also meticulous examination for their role in the dissemination of information networks which often disseminate outright disinformation. Even the talk radio industry is showing signs of a new desire to to prohibit their hosts to spread election-related disinformation. Yet it is unclear yet whether all of this represents the start of a radical change in the way old and new media platforms govern themselves, or whether this is a failure caused by an unprecedented conflux of circumstances that will subside once public attention turns away.
Will policymakers, who have accomplished next to nothing in response to a misinformation problem that has transparently affected the democratic process for half a decade at this point, will they remedy their inaction? We have seen the inevitable announcement of a Congress disinformation survey. Regardless of the fact that what we are seeing in the wake of the events of January 6 represents the new normal in terms of how media platforms operate, these events also highlight – as the 2016 election and the coronavirus pandemic did. before them – the need to accompany action on the political front.
This is necessary not only because of the disinformation crisis, but also because the massive power of control that a few select digital platforms can wield is also concerning, even at this time when the majority would find their more aggressive approach to disinformation and calls for violence laudable. Unfortunately, platforms have a well-established tradition of inconsistency, ineffectiveness, opportunism, and somewhat haphazard design and implementation of their content retention and moderation policies. Moreover, massive aggregations of uncontrolled powers of control represent democratic threats in their own right. For these reasons, January 6 and its aftermath should also be a crossroads that ultimately leads to action in the long crippled area of platform policymaking.
If we can’t see January 6 as a turning point in our country’s response to disinformation, then, sadly, it may well be that the violent assault on our democracy we have witnessed was just one harbinger of things to come.
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