Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee boycotted a virtual hearing on the spread of online misinformation and the resulting threats to democracy Thursday, citing security concerns about holding the meeting online. The meeting was unclassified and featured testimony from nongovernment experts about the risks posed by the rapid expansion of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the role of elected officials, including President Trump, in spreading unverified rumors.
“The vast majority of the committee’s work necessarily takes place behind closed doors,” committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., noted in his opening remarks. “But we also have a responsibility to take public testimony from those outside the U.S. government, and inform the public about growing trends that could endanger our nation in both the short term and the long term.”
Jack Langer, communications director for the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told Yahoo News in an email that “[House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] Republicans don’t think it’s a good idea for the House Intelligence Committee to conduct its business in an unsecured manner over the Internet.” Nine of the committee’s 13 Democratic members participated in the hearing, while none of the eight Republicans on the panel were in attendance.
Republican members followed their party’s official guidance to “not participate in Adam Schiff’s Democrat online meeting because intelligence and classified matters should not be discussed or leaked over the internet,” Maddie Anderson, a spokesperson for Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, told Yahoo News. Anderson added that “congresswoman Stefanik voted to condemn QAnon two weeks ago.”
The rapid and widespread expansion of QAnon — a cultlike conspiracy theory whose adherents believe that President Trump is secretly working to dismantle an international child trafficking ring run by a cabal of global “elites” — was of particular concern for both panelists and committee members who did attend the hearing. The conspiracy theory, which originated with an anonymous 4chan post in 2017, is steeped in anti-Semitic tropes and was deemed a potential domestic terrorist threat by the FBI last year. And yet it’s continued to snowball across a variety of more mainstream social media platforms whose algorithms promote the spread of disinformation.
Melanie Smith, head of analysis at the research firm Graphika, said she’s been studying QAnon for the past two years, during which she’s watched it evolve from “fringe conspiracy theory into part of mainstream discourse.”
QAnon’s “success lies in its ability to shape-shift,” said Smith, explaining that the movement’s unique ability to adapt to the news cycle has made it especially “adept at reaching new audiences.” This has been especially true during the coronavirus pandemic, as the promotion of other conspiracy theories and disinformation threads about things like vaccines, masks and social distancing measures by QAnon social media accounts, especially private Facebook groups, has boosted the movement’s popularity and exposure.
“Now I believe it to be the most pressing threat to trusting government, public institutions and democratic processes,” Smith said, pointing specifically to the dangers of QAnon’s “systematic undermining of facts and truths on topics of genuine concern such as the integrity of elections, human trafficking and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Only recently, the social media platforms that have been most crucial to QAnon’s growth, like Facebook, Twitter and, as of Thursday, YouTube, have taken steps to crack down on content related to the conspiracy, as QAnon’s followers have been increasingly involved in real-world acts of harassment and violence.
However, because of QAnon’s adaptability and the fact that “it has permeated the mainstream in many countries,” Smith said, “it has become very difficult for social media platforms to take meaningful action to stop the spread.”
Joan Donovan, research director for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, added that the country’s “political polarization” is also playing into the pervasiveness of QAnon and other sources of misinformation.
“Political elites say with a wink and a nod that this is OK content and a movement worth following,” said Donovan. Not only has President Trump promoted the conspiracy theory on his own social media feeds, he and others in the Republican Party have proclaimed their support for QAnon-linked congressional candidates, several of whom have made it onto their state’s 2020 election ballots.
Just this week, Trump retweeted a post from a QAnon-linked account promoting an ultra-fringe conspiracy theory that Navy SEALs faked the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden may have arranged for members of the unit to be killed to cover up the plot.
Asked about it during an MSNBC town hall Thursday night, Trump said he was merely retweeting a story — to be clear, a story that implicates the previous president and much of his administration, the military leadership and members of America’s most elite Special Forces unit in an enormous conspiracy and cover-up that could have fallen apart at any time in the last decade if bin Laden had so much as posted a video.
“I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves,” he said. Asked specifically about QAnon, he deflected the question with the claim “I know nothing about QAnon.”
QAnon-related claims aren’t the only types of misinformation promoted by Trump and other high-profile allies.
Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, noted how efforts by social media platforms to crack down on fake accounts after the 2016 election have led to the rise of what she called “information laundering” by foreign actors, employing “authentic local voices or organizations to conceal the origin of and lend legitimacy to a given malign narrative.” One of the most well-known examples of this tactic, she said, is “the nexus of conspiracy theories related to Ukraine, the 2016 election and Vice President Joe Biden” that were “endorsed by the president’s advisers, treated as fact by portions of the media and legitimized within the halls of Congress.”
The theories revolved around the unsubstantiated claim that, as vice president, Biden corruptly pushed for the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor to stop an investigation into an energy company that employed his son Hunter.
“Individuals that served as sources for the theories have since been discredited, sanctioned and revealed to have active connections to Russian intelligence services,” said Jankowicz. And yet, Trump and allies including Nunes sought to revive the baseless narrative once again this week by seizing on highly questionable new reporting from the New York Post.
Jankowicz — an expert in Russian foreign influence operations who previously testified on countering foreign influence operations before the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations — argued that this kind of high-profile amplification of misinformation “does our adversaries’ work for them.”
“I believe we are more vulnerable to online disinformation from both foreign and domestic sources than ever before,” she said.
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