Protest, activism, and false information

Jennifer Earl, Rina James, Elliot Ramo, and Sam Scovill

False information about and within social movements has a long history, from early conceptions of collective behavior as susceptible to irrational beliefs (Garner 1997) to government suppression of social movements through the spreading of false information (Cunningham 2004) to unintentional but nonetheless inaccurate reporting about social movements (Gitlin 1980). In recent years, though, the quality, quantity, range of producers and spreaders, and reach of false information has greatly expanded, aided by the pervasiveness of digital and social media (Anderson 2019), making the relationship between false information and social movements a pressing academic and practical concern.

In this chapter, we focus on disinformation, which we define as false information created and spread with knowledge of its inaccuracies, and misinformation, false information spread without knowledge of its inaccuracies (see Spies 2019 on definitional debates). Both are false information, which we use when finer distinctions are not useful. We also discuss propaganda, which involves government and/or corporate uses of true, false, and misleading information for political goals (Benkler et al. 2018).

Our fundamental argument is that false information and propaganda play different theoretical roles in social movements based on the producer and/or diffuser. We briefly review the history of scholarship on false information in social movements and then build on these insights to specify five different theoretical lenses — each connected to specific producers — for understanding false information in social movements.

False information in the history of social movement studies

Collective behavior research from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the scholastic progenitor to social movements research, offers the earliest view of false information, viewing crowds (including protests) as irrational and susceptible to rumour (Garner 1997). As populist-turned-authoritarian movements swept across Europe in the 1930s to the 1950s, students of collective behavior shifted towards analysing political movements, arguing that individual traits made some susceptible to the demagoguery and propaganda of authoritarian rulers (Adorno et al. 1950). In both views, false information drove collective action.

In the 1960s, contemporary social movement scholarship challenged negative understandings of protest and distinguished it from collective behavior (Garner 1997). Attention shifted towards governments’ usage of false information to suppress social movements (e.g. government agents misrepresenting social movements to the press and spreading false information through informants to generate internal conflict; see Marx 1974; Cunningham 2004), casting false information as a protest inhibitor.

The rise of populist and/or alt-right movements in the US and in Europe has swung the pendulum back to the catalysing view (Bennet and Livingston 2018). Both views are important, and we add three more theoretical relationships, discussing all five in the next section.

Five theoretical lenses for false information and social movements

Despite the ominous moniker of disinformation, it has multiple theoretical roles in social movements. We identify five relationships between false information and social movements: (1) false information as movement catalyst, (2) disinformation and propaganda as repressive tools, (3) false information as a weaponisation of free speech, (4) false information as a commodity, and (5) misinformation resulting from journalistic norms applied to protest. Each of these approaches varies in the amount of existing scholarship and is organised around different producers of false information.

False information as a movement catalyst

Resource mobilisation theory claims that social movements emerge when grievances are connected with resources, but grievances still must be perceived and interpreted (Earl 2009), allowing false information to serve as a catalyst. As a result, misinformation has contributed to the rise of movements internationally, including the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, in which false rumours served as a catalyst for protest (Hassanpour 2014), and the worldwide anti-vaccination movement. For modern vaccination objectors, who are carrying forward safety concerns that began in the mid-1800s (Olpinski 2012), two pieces of misinformation are particularly impactful: a 1982 documentary claiming the diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus vaccine caused brain damage, seizures, and developmental delays (Olpinski 2012) and a 1995 journal article linking autism to the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (Kata 2010). Both claims were the result of poor science, but this misinformation contributed to enduring vaccine scepticism.

Disinformation can also catalyse movements. In 2014, a false claim about a CDC whistleblower reinforced fears over a vaccine-autism link and was emphasised, along with other high-profile disinformation, in recent anti-vaccination converts’ online discourse (Mitra et al. 2016). White supremacists spread false information covertly to grow their movement; ‘cloaked websites’ (i.e. websites that obscure their political agenda) spread racist viewpoints while deliberately misleading their audiences about the source and validity of their claims (Keener 2018).

Based on the anti-vaccination movement, some have suggested that disinformation spreads easily to those with a predisposition for conspiracy thinking (e.g. Mitra et al. 2016). But false information may spread easily simply because it resonates with pre-existing views: people are more willing to believe content that confirms their existing beliefs and disbelieve and/or see as biased information that contradicts pre-existing views (Earl and Garrett 2017). For instance, false information from right-wing sources like Breitbart, which is heavily implicated in the rise of the alt-right (Bennet and Livingston 2018), is believable due to readers’ pre-existing rightwing leanings.

Some argue the alignment of pre-existing beliefs with false information especially benefits all populist movements, not just the alt-right, but many populist movements do not depend on false information. Populist movements vary broadly across time, and some emerge precisely because they surface accurate information obscured by elites (e.g. progressives who benefited from muckraking). Moreover, as Bennet and Livingston (2018) argue, the alt-right claims a populist mantel but is actually racist and xenophobic. However, it is very likely that pre-existing views make false information more believable in movements attacking expertise (e.g. climate denial and anti-vaccination movements).

No matter the movement, belief in false information may spiral. For instance, Lewis and Marwick (2017) postulate a vicious cycle in which acceptance of one alt-right talking point begets acceptance of another, with people becoming increasingly vulnerable to false information as acceptance increases, and trust in mainstream media is undermined. Thus, anti-vaccination or alt-right engagement may be the result of a vicious cycle of increasing false information, aided by biased consumption, rather than a broad acceptance of conspiracy theories.

The evolution of believing the increasingly unbelievable is important because it helps explain the rise of radical and potentially dangerous extremes in movements that thrive on false information. The rise of alt-right terrorism is a prime example, with many citing ‘Pizzagate’, an alt-right conspiracy theory that spread widely on social media and fake news websites including Infowars (e.g. Keener 2018), as a critical example. ‘Pizzagate’ proponents claimed Democratic Party members were involved in a pedophile sex-trafficking ring run from a pizza parlor. Based on these claims, an armed man entered the restaurant, attempting to rescue the (nonexistent) victims. Keener (2018) summarises this self-reinforcing cycle: ‘Propelled by far-right populist rhetoric and the legitimation of alternative forms of “news”, it became thinkable that this conspiracy. . . could be possible’ (147).

This escalation may be further aided by fractures in movements in which moderates who are unprepared to believe increasingly unbelievable false information are separated from extremists who are. Zwerman et al. (2000) showed that when moderate and more extreme activists become socially and/or organisationally separated from one another, moderates cannot restrain a spiral towards extreme beliefs. Left in an echo chamber with only other extremists, extremists push further away from the mainstream and towards violence, even when false information is not involved.

In sum, false information can catalyse movement emergence and feed spirals towards extremism. But accurate information may drive initial support for other movements. The truth of both statements suggests that scholars need to understand the conditions under which accurate information, contested information (i.e. accurate information that may lead to many alternative conclusions), and false information prove consequential to the rise of movements and whether false information is unique in its ability to drive self-perpetuating shifts towards the extreme.

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