Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, (@DeanObeidallah) a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Donald Trump’s lie that he was cheated of a victory in the November election, which he peddled on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, was a driving factor in spreading misinformation on this issue. How do we know? Research released Friday found that online discussions about election fraud plunged a whopping 73% since Twitter and other social media companies banned Trump and his key allies on January 8.
The study was conducted by Zignal Labs, a San Francisco-based analytics firm, between the day after Trump was banned from Twitter through this past Friday. Zignal’s research confirmed the view of many experts that Trump and his allies had created via social media what the Washington Post calls “a powerful, integrated disinformation ecosystem” that was central to pushing millions of Americans to reject the election results.
Zignal found that online conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Twitter banned Trump. And since Trump and some of his supporters were blocked on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms, the use of hashtags such as #FightforTrump and terms like “March for Trump” had fallen a remarkable 95%.
What if the social media platforms had banned Trump from its platforms after he first began spewing lies about election fraud in early November? Would that have impacted views on 2020 election integrity and the results? If people had not been fed Trump’s election lies for two months, would the January 6 attack on our Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to “Stop the Steal” still have taken place?
There’s no disputing that Trump’s primary means of peddling lies about the election was social media. Trump ramped up his campaign of election misinformation within hours after the polls closed on Election Day by amplifying claims that votes for Joe Biden showed an unexplained jump. Over the next two days, Twitter had labeled 38% of Trump’s tweets about the electoral process as misleading.
Trump’s efforts to undermine the election then went into overdrive. In the 24 days post-Election Day, as Variety documented, Twitter had labeled 200 of Trump’s tweets as including “disputed” or false information about the election. At the time, Trump was peddling false claims that the election was “100% rigged” and that “There is NO WAY Biden got 80,000,000 votes!!!”
In the midst of Trump’s misinformation campaign a Monmouth poll released in mid-November noted that nearly 70% of Republicans said Biden had only won the election due to “voter fraud.” A Reuters/Ipsos poll found 52% of Republicans saying Trump had “rightfully won.”
Trump continued non-stop to employ social media to undermine our democracy as well as call for his supporters to attend his January 6 rally. For example, on December 19 Trump tweeted, “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” then added, “Be there, will be wild!”
From there we all saw what happened as Trump supporters laid siege to our Capitol to stop Congress’ certification of Biden’s electoral victory. As one protester was heard saying during a livestream while in the Capitol during the attack, “Our president wants us here. … We wait and take orders from our president.”
Obviously, there’s no way to know with certainty if events would have unfolded differently if social media had not waited until after the deadly Capitol siege to ban Trump. But it appears a substantial number of Americans lay the blame for this incident at the feet of social media. A new NBC poll released Sunday morning found that 38% percent of Americans say social media is “solely” or “mainly” responsible for the “rioters overtaking the U.S. Capitol.” Another 41% responded social media is at least “somewhat” responsible for the attack – with only 19% absolving these platforms of any responsibility. (In contrast, 52% of American say Trump is “solely” or “mainly” responsible for the attack while 29% responded he’s not to blame.)
As a passionate advocate of freedom of speech who believes that the best way to counter speech you don’t like is with more speech, I fully defend the free exchange of ideas. But it’s abundantly clear that social media companies need to act far more swiftly in the future when people – especially public figures with immense followings – use their platforms to spread dangerous misinformation. If not, we may see even more deadly attacks by those radicalized by the lies of morally bankrupt social media users.