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How Conspiracy And Disinformation Are Affecting U.S. Politics


This is shaping up to be an especially turbulent week in politics. There are the critical Senate runoff elections in Georgia, a joint session of Congress to officially count Electoral College votes and supporters of President Trump heading to Washington again to reject the election results. In all those events, conspiracy and disinformation are playing a key role. NPR's Hannah Allam joins us now to talk more about it.

Hannah, since we were talking about the embrace of conspiracy theories, we can't ignore what we've heard in the last 24 hours - The Washington Post releasing this recorded phone call of President Trump trying to persuade Georgia officials to reject their election results. And he used conspiracy theories and debunked information to make his case. What did you hear?

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: That's right, Audie. I mean, whether it's purely political calculation or whether he actually believes this stuff, yes, that's where we are. I mean, we all knew Trump was clinging to the election conspiracy, promoting disinformation around it. But it's still quite something to hear it, to hear the president of the United States attempt to cajole and intimidate by invoking conspiracy, to hear him source his information to the Internet.

A Georgia election official who came out today and refuted the president's claims point by point has done this so many times by now, he called it anti-disinformation Monday. So, you know, this ploy is doomed, but the effect is the continued erosion of trust in democratic institutions by giving credence to these bogus theories. And, you know, analysts say that mainstreaming is a defining legacy of the Trump years and that it'll pose a challenge for the incoming Biden administration as well.

CORNISH: You talk about mainstreaming. A new NPR/Ipsos poll shows that a majority of Americans - more than 80% - are concerned about the spread of false information. So what does that mean?

ALLAM: Well, it means there's agreement that disinformation is a national concern. But if you look a little closer, it breaks down kind of predictably along partisan lines with each side blaming the other for the spread. But we should be clear here that this is not a both-sides issue. This is a Republican embrace of the counterfactual. And, you know, for sure there are conspiracy theories and bad faith campaigns on the left but nothing like the volume we're seeing on the right. And it's part of this bigger right-wing conspiratorial worldview. You know, the socialists are coming. The pandemic is exaggerated. We're on the brink of tyranny.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is a Democrat who's been on the receiving end of conspiracy-driven attacks. And on a call with reporters today, Hobbs says it's hard to rein in that kind of disinformation as long as it's politically useful.


KATIE HOBBS: I am looking forward to having the conversation about how we rebuild the trust in our democratic institutions, including our election systems, with people of good intent, with people who want to do that. And I just think that this certain segment of the population isn't interested in doing that because it doesn't fulfill their objectives.

CORNISH: What are the national security implications of this?

ALLAM: Well, we've already seen a string of recent violent attacks and plots that spring from conspiracies, whether they're rooted in QAnon, lockdown measures, propaganda about antifa. In that NPR/Ipsos poll, by the way, I mean, one of the few bipartisan concerns, over 70% on both sides, was the fear of increasing political violence. We've seen previous Stop the Steal rallies in support of Trump turn violent at night. We're bracing that - bracing for that again this week. Washington, D.C., has asked the National Guard for backup at the rally Wednesday. And, you know, we've seen the rhetoric really ratcheted up, with some Republican elected officials and commentators openly using language, calling for rising up, alluding to a revolution or civil war, basically invoking these baseless theories to call for a potentially violent rejection of the democratic process.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hannah Allam.

Thank you for your time.

ALLAM: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.