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Propaganda poisons the American public three years post January 6

January 6 insurrection
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Just three years ago, most of the country watched with dismay and horror as a violent MAGA mob beat back authorities and stormed the country’s citadel of democracy.

Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

New York (CNN) — The U.S. will mark the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection on Saturday, a milestone that will confer upon the reality-dwelling citizenry a grim reminder of the potency of propaganda and how quickly it can warp perception when introduced into the public square.

Just three years ago, most of the country watched with dismay and horror as a violent MAGA mob beat back authorities and stormed the country’s citadel of democracy. The Donald Trump-incited crush of disillusioned rioters, fueled by a stream of fantastical lies, believed that the 2020 election had been stolen by sinister forces working to undermine the democratic election.

Of course, not only was their belief flatly incorrect, but evidence later emerged indicating that it was Trump who, in fact, had tried to subvert democracy.

Facts, however, have little bearing on the sentiment inside the Republican Party, which has been fed a steady diet of lies and half-truths by Fox News and the rest of the sprawling right-wing media machine. To wit, the false notion that Joe Biden nefariously stole the 2020 election is now widely shared inside the GOP. A CNN poll conducted over the summer found that nearly 70% of Republicans believe Biden’s win was not legitimate, a number that has continued to tick up.

In other words, the Big Lie that led to the 2020 insurrection is now the dominant thinking among Republicans.

At the same time, right-wing media forces have worked overtime to wash Trump’s hands clean of the role he played in inciting the mob to storm the U.S. Capitol. MAGA extremists such as Tucker Carlson have repeatedly promoted the false and reprehensible fantasy that the attack the country witnessed live on national television was a so-called “false flag” event perpetrated by the “deep state.”

And while that rightfully comes across as absurd to the share of the public that relies on credible news organizations for an understanding of current events, it has become commonplace in the Republican Party. A poll released on Thursday by The Washington Post and University of Maryland found that a staggering 39% of Americans who identified Fox News as their primary news source believed the FBI organized and encouraged the January 6 attack. The same poll found that 44% of Trump voters believed that falsehood.

It goes without saying that those are astonishing numbers, given the attack on the U.S. Capitol only occurred three years ago. What will those numbers look like on the 10-year anniversary of the violent assault?

Such data provides further evidence of how formidable an opponent propaganda is for the news media and those who care about living in an honest society and passing down an accurate historical record to future generations.

The sad truth is that while these lies have fomented, the mainstream press has probably failed to match the energy necessary to effectively counter the poison, which promises to be at the center of this year’s presidential election. That’s not to say the news media has not done essential work fact-checking the lies that have circulated. But it is a case not dissimilar to how anti-vaccine activists overwhelm authoritative sources by flooding the zone with misinformation, a tactic that has proved successful in infecting countless minds with junk science.

The New York Times’ Alan Feuer and Molly Cook Escobar published a story Wednesday about the sprawling DOJ investigation into the insurrection that began with a simple fact: “Every week, a few more people are arrested.” How much of the public is aware of that alarming truth? As the duo later noted, “While some of the cases have attracted nationwide attention, particularly those involving far-right groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia, most of the prosecutions have flown beneath the radar, unfolding in quiet hearings often attended only by the defendants and their families.”

Perhaps, that’s part of the problem. Perhaps this moment requires the press to do even more to shine a light on the ugly events that transpired at the very heart of U.S. democracy three years ago. The stakes, after all, could not be higher. And given the polls indicating how twisted reality has become for significant swaths of the American populace, it is hard to say it’s not warranted.

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Oliver Darcy