Like most Americans, I watched Wednesday’s events in Washington, DC, unfold with a mix of heavy emotions: white-hot anger at the rioters, fear for the people inside the Capitol building and a profound sadness that an insurrection aimed at stopping a fair and free election was taking place in my own country.
But I wasn’t shocked. And I certainly did not wonder how we got here.
Think about what you saw. Thugs with Nazi and Confederate banners and tattoos. Rioters wearing shirts saying in code that the Holocaust did not go far enough. To correct the record, these people are not “very special;” they are putschists gleefully wrapping themselves in the colors of some of the worst parts of history.
Add in the followers of the delusional QAnon conspiracy. And insurrectionists who carried restraints into the legislative chambers, making it clear just how horrible of an event this could have been if they had succeeded in reaching members of Congress.
But there was another group of people camping out on Capitol Hill: seemingly ordinary people, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that President Donald Trump had handily won re-election, only to be thwarted by a cabal of Democrats, centrist Republicans, dastardly international financiers, voting machine companies and deceased South American dictators.
Sure, it all sounds a little far-fetched, but the president of the United States said it! The most powerful person in the world, from behind the lectern with the presidential seal! So did America’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani. He was Time’s person of the year once, you know, before that whole Borat thing.
When leaders talk, people listen, even if they’re bad actors talking about baseless global election conspiracies too far fetched for the X Files. And when they’re left unchecked on social and digital platforms and backed by prime time hosts, talk radio stars and new media mavens, millions of people listen.
The mass spread of disinformation is partially to blame for the deaths of five people on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and for an incalculable number of lives throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The private sector has not taken this seriously enough. Wednesday’s events show this must end.
Part of leadership is telling hard truths, things that people do not want to hear but have to be told. This week and the past year have made it abundantly clear that much of this country’s Republican political class is incapable of doing that, with fantasy stories of mass voter fraud and theories that COVID-19 will disappear in warm weather.
So what can any of us do? Let’s start with accountability. Our words matter. Those of us in the media must push back on disinformation, and we must prioritize accuracy over fake balance. But that’s not enough, as it’s clear from this week that a significant part of the country has already tuned us out in favor of other sources, some of which are extremist and have no interest in reality, and others that just tell their partisan audiences what they want to hear.
Companies, whether advertisers or content creators, need to begin to hold social and digital media platforms truly accountable for monitoring their users and stopping the spread of potentially harmful or violent content. Boycotts like this year’s #StopHateForProfit push can only do so much. Brands must hold the platforms’ feet to the fire and demand higher standards for fact-checking and the removal of harmful accounts, or take their dollars elsewhere.
Update: In a welcome step in the right direction, Twitter permanently suspended the account of @realDonaldTrump on Friday.
And most of all, leaders, from the president of the United States to the founder of a two-person boutique firm must tell their stakeholders the truth. It’s critical to the country’s future.
As the country looked on in horror as law enforcement slowly regained control of the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, some brands and industry organizations quickly posted statements expressing shock and horror. Some even called for the use of the 25th Amendment for the first time in U.S. history while the looting was still going on.
Denouncing an insurrection or distancing your brand from it is a good first step, but only a first step. Businesses and leaders need to do whatever they can to stop the flow of misinformation before it’s too late. And it’s up to all of us to make sure that happens.
Frank Washkuch is PRWeek’s executive editor.