Capitol riot, fake news, and the psychology of conspiracy theories

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Before a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol last week, the president gave a speech to his aggrieved supporters rife with lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

“The media is the biggest problem we have as far as I’m concerned, single biggest problem, the fake news,” Trump told his supporters. “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide.”

Trump didn’t win the election. Election officials and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security said the presidential election in November was fair, and on Thursday Congress certified Joe Biden as president elect. But Trump’s speech and the chaos and violence it incited show the dangerous cultural, political and human consequences of false information. Experts say while certain factors may make someone more likely to believe false information, any of us are vulnerable.

“We are all susceptible,” said Dolores Albarracin, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies attitudes, communication and behavior. “Because we cannot physically verify many of our beliefs – is the earth round? – we need to trust sources and documentation. If we trust trustworthy sources, we are generally safe, although all sources are fallible. If we trust untrustworthy ones, we are in danger.”

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