How The Internet Facilitates the Spread of Misinformation

The internet has made credibility harder to detect, opening the door for misinformation and conspiracy theories.

The internet has led to great advances, namely the dissemination of massive amounts of information to billions of people around the world. However, this glut of information has made it easier for malicious actors to publish misinformation and conspiracy theories.

This was seen during and after the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential Elections, where various actors on both sides engaged in propaganda and misinformation campaigns online. After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Democrats claimed that Russian foreign actors intervened in the election illegally by posting misinformation online. These claims were proven false in a lengthy investigation by Robert Mueller, but there was no doubt quite a bit of misinformation spread in favor of Donald Trump.

In 2020, Joe Biden defeated Trump in that year’s presidential election. Misinformation and accusations from Trump that the Democratic party permitted widespread voter fraud were partially responsible for the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. The destruction displayed in the most important federal building in the country showed how dangerous misinformation can be to the liberal democratic system.

The most prolific of such misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories is QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory started on 4chan by an anonymous user that claims that Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Machine learning has since been utilized to find the man responsible for this conspiracy theory. While relatively small, the following garnered by this anonymous user on an obscure imageboard left a considerable mark on modern political discourse in the United States.

Misinformation is not a new phenomenon, as it fueled the satanic panic in the 1980’s among other conspiracy theories. It is possible that fact checking has been made easier through the internet, therefore putting an end to such conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns. However, the rise of QAnon and claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election have suggested otherwise.

The internet, in allowing just about anyone to publish their opinions on the world stage, has opened the door for a substantial increase in the spread of misinformation. It used to be very difficult to do such a thing as an ordinary person. In the information age, it is relatively easy to go viral and broadcast your opinions to the world. While this has opened discourse to new opinions, many of these opinions are rooted in falsehood.

Some may think that misinformation and conspiracy theories are isolated to the far right. As was seen after Trump’s election in 2016 and the resulting claims of Russian collusion, this is not the case. Some on the left are also guilty of making outlandish claims about their opposition. Additionally, not even centrists are immune to misinformation, as much information about the ongoing war in Ukraine, namely that of Snake Island and the Ghost of Kyiv, has been contested or even proven false. These lies were perpetuated by social media sites such as Twitter and Reddit. Even those on the ideological center were spreading these claims, not knowing the dangerous consequences of spreading unfounded claims.

The internet is truly a blessing. It has allowed us to see the world through many different perspectives. It is also a curse, as many of these perspectives are at best false and at worst dangerous. That is why fact checking by independent and unbiased sources is important in today’s society.

Because of deeply rooted biases in virtually every news source, even prominent news sites like the New York Times and FOX News are not immune to spreading misinformation. Fact checking before making claims online is necessary and vital because the effects of spreading misinformation can cost lives, as was seen on January 6th. If we make a conscious effort to check claims before responding, we will be more informed and safer overall. In short, be careful what you read online. You never know when you will be exposed to misinformation online.

Matthew Kovacev
Matthew Kovacev
Student at George Mason University majoring in Public Administration with a concentration in Public Policy.