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How Disinformation Is Shaping The Political Process


The 2020 election was not stolen, yet disinformation continues over President Joe Biden's win. Later today, the man who pushed this big lie, whose extremist supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol, will speak again to his supporters. This time it will be in Florida at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Former President Donald Trump remains a potent political force in the Republican Party, and he and some of his allies have refused to back off from false claims that the November elections were rigged. In the first part of our series on disinformation, NPR's Sarah McCammon has this report on how it's now shaping the political process at all levels of government.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: On the day before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, thousands of miles away in Northern California, anger began to boil over at a meeting of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is a scamdemic (ph). It's a plandemic (ph), and it's a damndemic (ph). We're sick of it.

MCCAMMON: Shasta County is heavily rural, mostly white and strongly leans Republican. Many residents there are upset with their government, an anger fueled in part by false conspiracy theories that have taken root online about the coronavirus pandemic.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're not going to go down the road of poverty in the name of health or safety or other fabrication.

MCCAMMON: A majority of Shasta County board members had voted to meet virtually that day because of the virus, which has killed more than 50,000 Californians. But two board members who showed up in person allowed members of the public inside the board chambers.

LEONARD MOTY: It really served no purpose other than allow a certain group of people who have been very vocal...

MCCAMMON: That's Supervisor Leonard Moty. He participated remotely and watched with concern as it all played out online.

MOTY: ...And continue to attack the board, the state, the governor. They don't believe in wearing masks. They sort of have said many times that if less than 1% of the people are dying, what's the big deal? - which I find very offensive.

MCCAMMON: Again and again, residents expressed anger at public officials for enforcing social distancing rules, and some warned of possible violent resistance from militias and other groups.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So when the ballot box is gone, there is only the cartridge box. You have made bullets expensive. But luckily for you, ropes are reusable.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Please let your eyes be opened because otherwise, we will open them for you.

MCCAMMON: The next day, Moty, a retired police officer, watched from afar as insurrectionists motivated by Trump's election lies attacked the U.S. Capitol. He says he couldn't help but wonder, could something like that happen here?

Andra Gillespie is a political scientist at Emory University.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Will people who feel disaffected not show up in elections and kind of become indifferent to everything, or will they be compelled to engage in other forms of political activity that would be destabilizing?

MCCAMMON: Another danger, Gillespie says, is bad policy promoted through false narratives. She points to efforts by Republican lawmakers in several states to pass new voting restrictions, saying they need to protect election integrity after Trump's loss. In reality, Gillespie says, those measures would disproportionately hurt lower-income voters, people of color and Democrats.

GILLESPIE: What does it mean when you see legislators responding with legislative and policy proposals that would be aimed to address a problem that in fact didn't exist in the first place?

MCCAMMON: An Ipsos poll taken after the attack on January 6 found that only 27% of Republicans believe that Joe Biden legitimately won the presidential election. And a third of all respondents expressed the false belief that voter fraud helped him win. More than three-fourths said they fear political violence in the next four years.

In Shasta County, Supervisor Leonard Moty says another problem is simply disruption of the political process. The board has a lot of work to do at each meeting - managing things like public health, law enforcement and roads.

MOTY: The extremists aren't the majority at this point, so business can still be done, but it's much more difficult.

MCCAMMON: He says meetings used to take two or three hours, but now they're sometimes around six, a lot of that public comment filled with personal attacks.

MOTY: There's no constructive criticism. It's just trying to disrupt the meeting and disrupt county business. And I think you always see an example at the national level for quite a few years where they're in gridlock.

MCCAMMON: Moty worries that reasonable residents won't feel safe coming to public meetings or running for public office. Adam Enders, a political scientist at the University of Louisville, says distrust in institutions and political polarization are a dangerous combination.

ADAM ENDERS: And that's when we see institutions start to fall apart and norms start to crumble. And that's the environment that we can't really predict.

MCCAMMON: Leonard Moty says he's hopeful that Shasta County and the country will someday get back to a place where reasonable people can come together to solve problems through their government, but he's not sure what it will take.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.