President Trump, disinformation, and the threat of extremist violence

Dr Kurt Braddock

Assistant Professor at American University, studies the strategic communication employed by extremist groups for the purposes of recruitment and radicalization. His work has been used to inform policy and practice at the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the UK Home Office, and other national and international organizations.

Twitter: @KurtBraddock

Section 7: Democracy in crisis

Per The Washington Post, President Donald Trump and his administration have told more 22,000 lies while he has been in office, clocking in at a remarkable 16.9 lies per day. Despite the astonishing rate at which Trump and his allies spread disinformation over the first three years of his Presidency, the runup to the 2020 Presidential Election was marked by an even more concerted effort to mislead audiences. In June of 2020, Trump made more than 700 false claims. In July, he made nearly 900. By the end of the summer, the Trump administration was making more than 1,400 misleading claims per month. Over the last four years, it has become clear that the Trump administration has sought to weaponize disinformation to motivate supporters, frame his actions as unqualified successes, and in the leadup to the 2020 election, discredit and attack the then-Democratic-nominee and now-President-Elect, Joe Biden.

Of course, false claims and rhetorical attacks against one’s political opponents are not unique to Trump. So pervasive is lying in politics that researchers have produced models to explore its effects, written articles describing (failed) efforts to stop it, and authored reports documenting its modern history. Although political exaggeration is nothing new, the magnitude and character of Trump’s disinformation efforts have produced unprecedented effects. In addition to misleading audiences in reference to more traditional topics of political significance (e.g., economic policy, immigration), Trump has consistently sought to use disinformation to sow confusion and discord in relation to the 2020 election itself.

Poisoning the well

In the months leading up to the election, Trump made deliberately false claims about the use of mail-in ballots and the potential for foreign actors to print and submit ballots, and his supporters spread baseless claims about the likelihood of a Democratic “coup” during the election. As a result of this disinformation’s proliferation and spread, a significant number of Trump’s constituents went into the election believing its results would be illegitimate. Worse, during the 2020 election itself, Trump made false statements concerning alleged widespread voter fraudlaid claim to several states in which he had lost, and falsely asserted that he had won the election before all the ballots had been counted. On Saturday, November 7, when Pennsylvania was called for Biden, he was projected to be the winner of the election. As of November 9, Trump had yet to concede, citing the unfairness of the electoral process.

Disinformation and growing aggression

The disinformation groundwork laid by Trump before the election, coupled with his unfounded claims of fraud and election interference following his loss, has resonated with a significant number of supporters. In the wake of Biden’s election as President-Elect, protests erupted in support of President Trump, characterized by unsupported claims of election fraud by protesters.

In addition to the protests, the disinformation perpetuated by the Trump administration has also triggered more nefarious responses. Some groups in the far-right have expressed an intent to mobilize – sometimes violently – on behalf of the President. In the wake of the election, the leader of Proud Boys, the far-right extremist group that President Trump infamously told to “stand back and stand by” during a televised presidential debate, said that “standby order has been rescinded” and that the group was “rolling out.” Meili Criezis, a research fellow at American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, also found that Proud Boys Telegram channels erupted in excitement at Donald Trump Jr.’s argument that supporters should be ready for “total war” to fight the purported election fraud (see Figure 1 for a screenshot of one such channel).

Figure 1 – Proud Boys

Calls for violence also emerged on social media. In a review of a Facebook group entitled Stop the Steal, referring to the false claims that the election had been fraudulent, The Center for Countering Digital Hate found explicit calls for violence. Some members of the group argued that in the wake of the election, it was time to “clean the guns” and “hit the streets.” Others overtly said that they must “resort to violence if [they] have to.”

It has become clear that the disinformation proliferated by Donald Trump and his allies has transcended traditional political exaggeration. Trump’s claims before the election effectively readied his supporters to reject the results of the election, and his claims of fraud following his loss have reinforced the false notion that he and his administration are being cheated. As he continues to refuse concession and make false claims about the election’s integrity, it is likely that his more extreme supporters will grow increasingly aggressive towards the election apparatus, including Democrats, the media, and election officials themselves.

Over the course of his presidency, President Trump has used disinformation to manipulate his supporters. In the case of the 2020 election, this manipulation looked increasingly as though it could result in violence as supporters look to challenge an electoral process that Trump has falsely characterized as fraudulent.