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

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.

A rioter is bleeding after an injury sustained while trying to push past police through the doorway of the Capitol Building in Washington on Jan. 6.
A rioter is bleeding after an injury sustained while trying to push past police through the doorway of the Capitol Building in Washington on Jan. 6.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Lisa Mickles sat on a bus heading from Harrisburg to Washington 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.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking false claims about Pennsylvania’s presidential election by Trump and his allies

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.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans showed Trump’s grip on the party after the attack on the Capitol

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.

“You have almost an impermeable bubble for right-wing content,” he said. “What that leads to is an audience that is overwhelmingly accepting of and believing of mis- and disinformation so it creates a market for new entrants. Even though something like Parler may be shut down, other folks can pick up the slack because there’s a market out there for it.”

Just as there was a range of Trump supporters in Washington last week, there’s also a range in how radicalized people have become, said Claire Wardle, U.S. director of First Draft News, a group working to fight misinformation online. “You had dads who like to play golf and you had extremists and white supremacists and all those in between. Some de-platforming decisions will stop the dads in golf shirts, but I think the people who really believed in this and have other reasons for believing this will find other places to congregate.”

And the prospects for some people to become radicalized increases as their information-sharing communities become smaller, said Marc Ambinder, senior fellow at USC Annenberg, who also studies misinformation. While some followers will start to question the credibility of the content on sites like Parler given its ban, “for some it’s the proof of the conspiracy.”

“There are millions and millions who feel — even for reasons we may find horrendous — disconnected and totally shunned,” Ambinder said. De-radicalization efforts, like encouraging interventions between family members, and more elected officials publicly separating fact from fiction, will be needed, he said.

And those conversations may need to come with ultimatums, Freelon said. “Threatening to cut ties with them if they don’t come around, I think helps people know this is something serious and they’re going to have to face if they’re going to engage in ideas that are, quite frankly, deadly,” he said.

» READ MORE: Trump supporters in Washington rejoice over an attack on the U.S. Capitol: ‘Today, it’s biblical’

The misinformation was flowing freely on the bus from Harrisburg. “There’s no two sides,” Mickles said. “It’s proven that it definitely was fraud.”

Mickles, a forklift operator, wasn’t always so dismissive of fact-based journalism. For 15 years she was a reporter for the Pike County Dispatch in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She covered county government and local political campaigns.

But her trust in news shifted during Trump’s presidency. Mickles now reads the far-right Epoch Times, along with postings on Parler and the video platform Rumble. “I just want truth,” she said. “And if we don’t get it now I don’t think we’ll ever have a fair election ever again. It’s scary.”

Many Trump supporters have blamed the attack on the loosely knit group of far-left activists known as antifa, despite no evidence to support that claim. Even before the insurrection, there were rumors circulating.

“Are you aware that police escorted antifa busloads into the city?” David Stauffer, a retired truck driver from York, asked on the way to Washington. “There’s videos of it on Parler.”

How did he know the buses captured in the video had members of antifa onboard?

“Because the eyewitness testified to it.”

How did he know the eyewitness was being truthful?

“Well,” he said, “I accept conservative people as being truthful.”