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Lies sent Trump supporters to Washington. Can Big Tech bans stop the misinformation?

Julia Terruso, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — Lisa Mickles sat on a bus heading from Harrisburg to Washington, D.C., last week and pulled up her phone to check the latest on Parler, a social media network favored by Trump supporters that is replete with conspiracy theories and misinformation.

“Did you see about this Italy thing?” she asked. “They found somebody in Italy that started changing the votes. It’s the first time they have proof. I didn’t get a chance to really listen, but it seems pretty messed up.”

No one in Italy changed votes. There is no evidence of widespread fraud or any kind of rigging in the presidential election. But the 52-minute video to which Mickles referred, in which a woman baselessly claims vote tallies were manipulated in Rome, has been watched more than 100,000 times.

For Mickles and the people with whom she traveled to Washington, videos like this have fueled the myth that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump. The president’s relentless false claims of fraud and calls for his supporters to show up in Washington and “fight” helped incite the violent mob that stormed the Capitol. Five people died in or near the Capitol, including a police officer.

As the precursors to the attack come into focus, Apple, Amazon and Google have removed from their platforms social media sites like Parler, where users called for violence at the Capitol. Twitter and Facebook suspended Trump’s accounts, and some supporters have distanced themselves from Trump and his baseless claims of fraud.

But Trump’s most faithful followers are even more convinced that their news — the news that led to the Capitol attack — is the real story, now being unfairly censored.

 

“They’re ripping the First Amendment out,” Richard Pruett, a photographer and Trump supporter from Drexel Hill, said Monday. “In 2021, what are the most popular forms of communication? It’s social media. To suspend somebody from getting their message across … it’s a disgrace.”

The First Amendment of the Constitution restricts the government from curbing free speech, not private companies.

With the help of conservative media and a wide swath of Republican elected officials, Trump’s campaign to convince his supporters that the election was rigged has been hugely successful. Polls show that about a third of voters, and a majority of Republicans, don’t trust the results of the election. This segment of the electorate has turned further inward since then to conservative social media networks that are now being scoured by law enforcement and even employers in the wake of the violence.

Research shows that removing content from platforms helps stop its spread, said Deen Freelon, an associate professor of media and journalism at the University of North Carolina. But with the far-right media ecosystem particularly prolific, it’s hard to keep up, he said.

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