How and when Americans stopped believing in ‘facts’

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Andrew Buncombe
·9 min read
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Aaron Mostofsky - dressed in fur - was among those arrested after Capitol riot (AFP via Getty Images)
Aaron Mostofsky - dressed in fur - was among those arrested after Capitol riot (AFP via Getty Images)

It is nothing short of remarkable.

Amid all strange, disturbing and frequently violent scenes that emerged from the storming of the US Capitol, one appeared to stand out for something else.

It was an interview conducted with an alleged rioter inside the building, dressed partly in fur, who appeared to have picked up a police shield and put on a bullet-proof vest bearing the words POLICE.

What are you doing here, the man was asked in the interview, published by the New York Post.

“We were cheated. I don’t think 75 million people voted for Trump - I think it was close to 85 million,” says the man, his tone calm, his delivery measured.

“I think certain states that have been red for a long time turned blue…were stolen, like New York.”

As to his presence at the Capitol that day, an “insurrection” in which five people lost their lives, including a police officer, he said: “[I did it] to express my opinion as a free American that this election was stolen.”

It soon emerged that “Aaron from Brooklyn”, was 34-year-old Aaron Mostofsky, the son of Kings County Supreme Court Judge Shlomo Mostofsky. He was subsequently charged with four offences, including theft of government property, and faces up to ten years in prison if convicted.

Yet, the most startling thing about the episode involving Mostofsky - stranger even than his Game of Thrones costume, stranger than his relationship to a New York judge, was the utter sincerity with which he appeared to speak. Watch the video and it is hard not to come to the conclusion he truly believed the election had been stolen from Donald Trump.

Perhaps that ought not to surprise anyone. In the days since January 6, when hundreds of supporters of the president stormed the Capitol in what many considered attempted sedition, and over which Trump was impeached for a speech deemed to incite events, polls have highlighted the vast numbers of Americans who believe the election was rigged.

Despite a total of 60 lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign failing to gain any traction, despite multiple recounts in several battlegrounds confirming Biden as the victor, and despite the government’s own election safety officials saying it was one of the most secure ever held, tens of millions of Americans still do not believe the outcome. This is true even despite the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media, even large parts of the Fox News network, reporting repeatedly that Biden had won and there was no evidence of voter fraud.

Over the weekend, as Biden prepared to be sworn in and Trump prepared to leave the office he has occupied for four years, a CNN poll found as many as 75 per cent of Republicans believe the election was unfair. Around 6 per cent said they were unsure, suggesting only 19 per cent believed Biden was fairly elected. That compared to 99 per cent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents.

Those who study disinformation and the media, believe the United States is facing a crisis, and one that this month was seen to have deadly consequences. They talk of the need to “deradicalise” individuals trapped in information bubbles, as one might seek to deradicalise an extremist.

“There are people who are in a completely separate information ecosystem. And that ecosystem involves people that they're in Facebook groups with, but it also includes their elected officials. And it also includes the news media they consume,” says Claire Wardle, New York editor of First Draft, a non-profit that works with both journalists and local communities to counter disinformation.

“So rather than us thinking about misinformation or conspiracies as specific rumors, we have to understand there are people who are in this completely separate information ecosystem, and therefore there is an alternative reality.”

She adds: “So when they were storming through the Capitol, they really did believe they were patriots because everybody they were surrounded with was saying the same thing."

Wardle says she has been watching the spread of disinformation for many years and was still startled when so many took Trump’s words to heart, enough in number to storm the legislative chamber to try and stop the certification of Biden’s electoral win.

She says the situation is “much more serious than any of us believed”.

“I thought we were about five years out from this situation. But we've already got there,” she says. “I didn't realise the scale of people who still absolutely, firmly believe the election was stolen.”

It was not always so.

Barely a generation ago, Americans got their news and information from a very limited number of sources, all of it largely accurate, and much of it remarkably similar in content and tone.

Thomas Patterson, Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University, said during the 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s, Americans listened to one of three national television networks - ABC, NBC or CBS. The only noticeable difference between them to the average viewer was the presenter, or anchor, in whom the networks invested large efforts to try and secure viewer loyalty.

(The anchors were invariably white and male. Max Robinson became the first black prime time anchor in 1978 when he co-hosted ABC’s ‘World News Tonight’. Barbara Walters became the first female anchor at the same network in 1976.)

“Studies have shown there wasn't a dimes worth of difference in their content,” says Patterson, author of Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism.

“There were not any ‘competing narratives’. The stories were very similar, the framing very similar. They relied heavily on the news wires, and the New York Times, when deciding what the story of the day was.”

He adds: “Nearly everyone was feeding at the same trough. Now, what they did with the news, how selective they were, and what they read into the news, or what they brought to the news, that varied from person to person. But at least there was a common starting point. And of course, we don't have that anymore.”

Patterson points to several key developments in the breaking of the “same trough”, things that at the time were considered by some as a means to usher in a more democratic, accessible media.

The first was the birth and growth of 24-hour news channels, starting in 1980 with CNN. Yet Patterson says more disruptive than cable news - founder Ted Turner’s instructions at CNN were for its staff to emulate the networks - was the scrapping in 1987 of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC’s) “fairness doctrine”, which since 1949 had required broadcasters to dedicate equal time to both sides of an issue, or to each party.

Aaron Mostofsky after appearing from a court hearing in BrooklynAFP via Getty Images
Aaron Mostofsky after appearing from a court hearing in BrooklynAFP via Getty Images

The scrapping of that, in the second term of Ronald Reagan, who assessed, says Patterson, that while most journalists may be Democrat, station owners were likely Republican, allowed the massive growth in conservative talk radio. Radio broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh very quickly established huge audiences, and this medium become hugely influential and hugely profitable.

He says the internet allowed the establishment of more and more channels or websites, which like Fox News, established in 1996 and rapidly becoming an industry leader, felt able to play fast and loose with facts. On the left, MSNBC, with stars such as Rachel Maddow, is similarly unconstrained by a need to give equal time to both parties.

“We now have a media system where there are so many different outlets and so many different places that cater to particular ways of looking at the world. And people rely on sources they legitimately believe are news that are telling them that this election was stolen,” says Talia Stroud, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, where she heads the Centre for Media Engagement.

She adds: “And they could even look at elite figures, like our president, who tells them that this election was stolen.”

She says people are taught to be “media literate” and to try and fact check events and incidents, but when there is so much false information it can be very hard. Stroud says she was “not at all” surprised so many people believed the election was stolen.

The solution she says, will require a concerted effort, but major online social publishers - Facebook and Twitter - will need to take a much greater role. She says that is controversial to many people, “but if, as a society we want to have more information that circulates that reliable and factual…which polling suggests is something people want…then I think the short term role is for the platforms to take more action.”

Wardle believes fixing the system will take 30 years and need change on various fronts - it needs elected leaders to tell facts, it requires people to talk empathetically but firmly with family members who spread conspiracy theories, and it requires communities to develop news sources that are trusted. She said a series of developments - the scrapping of the fairness doctrine, the growth of cable new and the internet, and the economic crash which caused people to lose trust in institutions were all factors.

Trump was able to play on these vulnerabilities, aided by the willingness of himself and officials such as Kellyanne Conway to promote “alternative facts”.

“People have been radicalised, and when it comes to radicalisation, when you deradicalise people, it takes a lot longer,” she says. “And unfortunately, we've got a long way to go with people who have been convinced by information they were seeing from their peers, from their elected leaders, in the websites they visit, from the podcasts they listen to.”

Aaron Mostofsky, who was arrested by the FBI at his brother’s home in Brooklyn, was released on bail for $100,000 and is scheduled to appear virtually to DC federal court January 25.

Social media has been filled with accusations Mostofsky is in truth an “antifa” plant, despite the authorities saying there is no evidence antifa played any role in what happened that Wednesday.

Prosecutors said Mostofsky was part of “a mob attack and a rampage on the US Capitol”.

His lawyer, Jeffrey Schwartz, told The Independent he “had no comment at the time”.

Earlier this month, he told a court his client was “not part of the mob”.

Schwartz told the hearing: “I believe the evidence will show that he was not part of the mob and he was not rampaging, he got caught up in it, but he understands the gravity of what he’s being charged with.”

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