*A previous version of this article claimed that Richard Donoghue, the former acting Deputy Attorney General, was “persuaded” to claim that the results of the 2020 election were fraudulent. He was only encouraged to claim that, not persuaded. The statement has since been edited for clarity.
For the past five weeks, the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been conducting hearings to investigate and explain to the public the exact events that took place at the Capitol on that fateful day. Formed last summer, the Select Committee has only just begun its proper deliberations, as its leaders have been focused on collecting the dozens of witness statements and documents required to craft the best possible case for its position on the attack. A primary goal of the Select Committee is to hone in on former President Donald Trump and his role in the insurrection — whether it be marring his image as an executive or prosecuting him for his involvement, the Select Committee hopes to make it known that Trump played an integral role in the plot.
By utilizing key witness testimony and creating a precise timeline of events, often down to the minute, the committee is determined to inform the American public and prove that the riots were premeditated, and even encouraged, by certain politicians. In the most transparent way possible, the Select Committee aims to prove that the events that took place on January 6 posed a direct threat to American democracy, and that from that day forward, the sanctity of a democratic government would forever be held in jeopardy. As additional evidence surfaces, more testimonies are collected and the hearings continue, the officials behind the Select Committee continue to demonstrate their commitment to protecting democracy and exposing those who have endangered it.
With the goal of defending democracy in mind, the Select Committee is making strides to prove that the claims of election fraud in 2020 were not only baseless but also a coordinated misinformation attack. Richard Donoghue, the former acting Deputy Attorney General and a key witness, stated that he was encouraged in December 2020 by then President Trump to claim that the results of the election were fraudulent, after which he explained to Trump that there was no credible evidence of election fraud. Since the 2020 election, Trump and his allies have spread falsehoods about election workers and mechanisms, which in turn has defiled the trust that many Americans had previously held in the integrity of U.S. democracy.
In a recent hearing, the intricacies of a December meeting in the Oval Office were discussed, where Trump and his personal lawyers expressed their idealized chain of election events. When other officials present did not subscribe to the same beliefs, the Select Committee claims that Trump lashed out, and hours later sent out the infamous tweet that requested crowds of his “be there” to defend his so-claimed victory. As the Select Committee has shown, that lie — that Trump defeated Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election — fueled the series of events leading up to January 6. And that lie, in turn, was propagated by months of misinformation about election officials, voting machines and mail-in voting. If the public takes one thing away from the hearings, it should be the importance of rejecting misinformation wherever it may be found.
While the Select Committee continues to bring the truth about the January 6 attack to light, it is important to keep in mind how propaganda and misinformation has historically been used to bring about substantive policy changes. One of the best examples of this is how American media and the United States government have perpetuated lies surrounding Cuba for decades in order to prop up aggressive anti-Cuban policies. Cuban journalist Liz Oliva Fernández, creator of “The War on Cuba” docuseries on Youtube, analyzes the disconnect between reality in Cuba and the way the United States reports Cuban news. Though Cuba recently experienced its largest anti-government protest since the Cuban Revolution, Fernández — who was at the protest herself — shows numerous American media outlets that hugely exaggerated both the violence committed during the protests and the duration of the protests, with some media outlets falsely reporting that the protests went on for weeks. In turn, Americans who were misled by United States media sources called on Biden to further economically suffocate Cuba, to which Biden hastily responded with new sanctions on Cuba. This is just one example of disinformation — at times perpetuated by our very own government — swaying policymaking.
Yet another example of falsehoods shifting public opinion and influencing policy proposals occurred in 2013 with the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Following 9/11, xenophobic and Islamaphobic rhetoric circulated and spread quickly in response to widespread public fear of global terror. This, too, was largely fueled by misinformation and fear-mongering practices. Despite the obvious fact that anti-immigrant perspectives lacked merit, the Senate swiftly and bipartisanly passed the bill, which would have wreaked havoc on immigrants seeking citizenship in the United States had the House considered it and enacted the bill into law. Again, misinformation stuck its claws into the backs of our own elected officials, heavily swaying their decision-making to be much more extreme (and bigoted) on the issue of immigration.
Even today, propaganda and misinformation can be found in everyday minutiae. Because of Big Dairy lobbying the United States government, elected officials are incentivized to perpetuate misinformation about the necessity and healthiness of dairy products in both marketing campaigns and through the FDA’s dietary recommendations. Many of our school curriculums blatantly rewrite or ignore essential parts of American history for the sake of saving face, like notoriously lying about George Washington’s “wooden” dentures that were actually made of enslaved people’s teeth or leaving out the Tulsa Race Massacre from school curriculums. Even Marvel movies feed its viewers propaganda through their promotion of the United States military — the U.S. military helped to design Captain America’s character. While we Americans have been conditioned to point fingers at China or Russia for their blatant propaganda and misinformation campaigns that target civilians, it is important to recognize that Americans unknowingly undergo this same process, oftentimes muddling truth with fiction.
Given that some of the media we consume is false, or at least misleading, we ought to be actively mindful of how we navigate the media landscape. Not everything that we see, hear or read is true or helpful, and in many cases, that misinformation has the capability to be harmful. The importance of media literacy becomes more apparent each day, and we must pay close attention to its definition if we are to be better informed citizens. Determining whether the posts, articles and video clips we consume are biased a certain way or not is an essential skill. Misinformation and digitized propaganda have the reach and ability to rouse people to action — sometimes even violence — and in understanding the signs of misinformation, we may be able to reduce its impact.
Misinformation has an everyday impact on Americans: It has brought about major national policy shifts and, as the January 6 Committee has helped show, poses a threat to American democracy itself. Moving forward, we must work to stop the spread of misinformation by learning to recognize it. From election fraud to the U.S. military, falsities of all kinds pose a threat to the nature of our government and community. False news spreads nothing but resentment and damage, and educating ourselves against it is the best way we can deplete its capacity to harm us. Thankfully, there are ways we can fight misinformation without even leaving campus. The University of Michigan offers a free online learning series on media literacy that’s open to all. Recognizing misinformation and propaganda at their roots and cutting them off before they can further fester is crucial in the pursuit of protecting our general welfare and the intellectual integrity of American society.