Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (CNN Business)In the capital of Pennsylvania — the state that ultimately tipped the election in favor of President-elect Joe Biden — supporters of President Donald Trump gathered to protest the election result this weekend.
The past four years in America have been an education in how grievances and misinformation on social media don’t just stay online — they spill out onto the streets, can manifest as violence, and, as seen in Harrisburg, this weekend, be used in attempts to undermine the bedrock of American democracy: free and fair elections.
Trump supporters here gathered under the banner “Stop the Steal,” convinced the election had been stolen.
One woman told me she had seen so much “evidence” that the election had been rigged she would support a total re-vote.
“When you have video footage of people taking bags of ballots and showing that they are for Donald Trump and lighting them on fire,” she said, “there’s a problem.”
But the video she cited as evidence of a rigged American election is not real.
It has been circulating on social media for days, even being retweeted by Eric Trump, the President’s son, but the video does not show Trump ballots being burned, as some have claimed.
Election officials in Virginia, where the papers that looked like ballots appeared to be from, have explained that what you see in the video are sample ballots. They have been trying to correct the viral misinformation for days.
“Note the absence of the bar code markings that are on all official ballots. The ballots in the video were sample ballots,” the City of Virginia Beach said in press release last week.
Trump supporters’ use of false information in this way is not unique; it is not a one-off.
Other protesters I spoke to in Harrisburg cited a sudden change in an online result map in favor of Biden on election night in Michigan as evidence that something had gone awry. Trump had amplified that claim himself on his Twitter account. But that too has been shown to be misinformation (a thorough debunk here). Twitter labeled Trump’s post with a message that read “Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading”
The use of false information didn’t start with “Stop the Steal.” Trump and some of his supporters have weaponized misinformation throughout the election campaign. CNN has previously shown how deceptively edited videos of Biden had contributed to some Trump supporters’ belief that Biden was not fit for office.
This, of course, does not happen in a vacuum.
The President himself, his allies, and Fox News personalities, embrace misinformation. Sometimes Trump will retweet a post with false claims that is already going viral. At other times, Trump will create his own misinformation by posting false claims. Trump and his followers have used misinformation as “evidence” to prove the validity of more misinformation.
Social media exacerbates the problem — serving as an engine for misinformation to spread.
Over the past week, Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, have taken aggressive steps to label as misinformation false posts from the President as he seeks to undermine the integrity of the election.
But those labels won’t convince Trump supporters who have already embraced conspiracy theories about the election. Some view labels and fact-checks as proof that they are actually correct and that Big Tech is trying to censor them.
“I think that’s not their place. That’s not their place to determine what the truth is for the people. We have a mind of our own. We can determine what the truth is,” the woman in Harrisburg, who had cited the fake burning ballots video, told me.
The middle-aged woman told me her name was Melissa but did not want to share her full name citing “cancel culture.”
Although she might have been wrong about that video, she did identify the role platforms like Facebook play in shaping American political discourse as catalysts for confirmation bias.
“We’re like one big science experiment for social media,” she said. “If I’m seeking a certain viewpoint and they seem to see that I favor that viewpoint more, that’s the viewpoint that they’re going to feed me and then the other side’s going to get a different viewpoint,” she said.
Asked if it concerns her, “I mean it concerns me, yes. Because of the fact that, unfortunately, people fail to think for themselves. They feed into everything that they’re seeing without questioning it.”