Matt Williams for NPR
The day before the mutiny at the US Capitol Building in January, thousands of miles away in Northern California, anger boiled over at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors in Shasta County.
“This is scamdemic, it’s an epidemic, and it’s a bloody epidemic. We’re tired of it!” A woman shouted.
again and again, Residents complained against Public officials to enforce social distancing rules. Some warned of a “civil war” and the potential for violent resistance from militias and other groups.
The potential consequences of the misconceptions surfaced deadly on January 6, when extremists supporting former President Donald Trump – inspired by his lie that the November elections – attacked the Capitol. But the widespread acceptance of disinformation shapes the political process at all levels of government.
Conspiracy theories, disinformation, and distrust of the election system have sparked controversy, and even violence, at all levels of government in recent months. In many societies – including Sequim, wash., And the San Luis Obispo, California.Local officials’ support for the unfounded Qanun conspiracy theory angered and divided residents.
Last year, the FBI foiled a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. many of Right-wing extremists They were arrested in connection with the plot, apparently Influenced by unfounded conspiracy theories Including kanun.
In Shasta County, a densely rural, mostly white, and heavily Republican area that Republicans lean toward, many residents are upset with their government – an anger partly fueled by false conspiracy theories entrenched online during the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 50,000 lives. California residents.
Although a majority of the members of the Shasta County Board of Directors nearly voted to meet that day, due to the virus, two board members who attended in person allowed members of the public to enter boardrooms, taking turns expressing anger at county officials.
A man shouted, “When the ballot box disappears, there is only the cartridge box. I made bullets very expensive, but luckily for you, the ropes are reusable.”
Superintendent Leonard Motti, a retired police officer involved remotely, anxiously watched everything I played on the Internet.
Muti said, “It really served no purpose other than allowing a certain group of people who spoke so loudly, to continue to attack the board, the state, and the governor. They don’t believe in wearing masks. People die, so what’s the big problem, which I find very offensive. “
The next day, when the rebels motivated by Trump stormed the Capitol building, Muti said he could not help but wonder if something like that could happen in Shasta County.
Andra Gillespie, A. Professor of political science At Emory University in Atlanta, he said growing disillusionment with the political process, fueled by widespread disinformation, could generate political violence and rebellion.
“Are people who are upset not going to show up in the election and become kind of indifferent to everything?” She said. Or will they be forced to engage in other forms of political activity that would be destabilizing?
Another danger, Gillespie said, is bad policy – promoted through false narratives. It indicates Efforts of Republican lawmakers In several states to pass new restrictions on voting, saying they need to protect election integrity after Trump’s loss.
In fact, these measures will disproportionately harm low-income voters, people of color, and Democrats, Gillespie said.
“What does it mean when you see legislators responding with legislative and political proposals aimed at addressing a problem that did not, in fact, exist in the first place?” Gillespie said.
that Ipsos poll It found after the January 6 attack that only 27% of Republicans believed Joe Biden legitimately won the presidential election, and a third of respondents mistakenly believed that voter fraud helped him win. More than three-quarters of them said they fear political violence in the next four years.
Misinformation about the Capitol riots also spread. A fifth of respondents believe that Unfounded claim That the people who broke into the building were in fact undercover members of the Antifa, and Republicans would likely identify the rioters as left-wing or Antifa terrorists.
Distrust and confusion
In Shasta County, Superintendent Leonard Muti said that although there was no violence there, the political process had been disrupted. The board has a lot of work to do at every meeting – managing things like public health, law enforcement, and roads.
“The extremists are not the majority at this stage, so work can still be done, but it is much more difficult,” Muti said.
Board meetings used to take two or three hours, but now, it’s sometimes around six or even seven hours – a lot of this public comment, full of personal attacks.
“There is no constructive criticism,” said Muti. “It’s just trying to disrupt the meeting and disrupt the boycott. I think you’ve already seen an example nationally for a few years, where they’re in trouble.”
Muti feared that reasonable residents would not feel safe attending public meetings – or running for public office.
Money, power and the ‘war of culture’
Distrust of institutions and political polarization is a dangerous combination, according to Adam Enders, Political scientist At the University of Louisville. While flawed conspiracy theories have always been around, he said they have been adopted and promoted by a growing number of influential leaders in recent years – from former President Trump to chaplains to prominent business owners.
“And they have political reasons to do so, whether it is the consumer base or their followers, or winning this culture war or anything like that,” he said.
This could create fertile ground for authoritarian leaders to manipulate the public and stoke political violence, Enders said.
“Because the more people lack confidence in institutions, the more willing they are to violate standards and ignore institutions when it is good for them,” he said. “That’s when we see institutions start to collapse, norms collapse – and that’s an environment that we can’t really predict.”
The Shasta County Board of Directors recently Vote to blame Two members to participate in opening boardrooms to an angry public on January 5th. These members did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment.
Leonard Muti said he hopes the country – and the country – will someday return to a place where reasonable people can come together to solve problems through their government – but he’s not sure what that will take.