The dangers of misinformation can be hard to see. After all, no one likes to think they’re the kind of person to fall for an online lie. But the evidence of the last few years tells a different tale. Since Trump’s election in 2016, millions of people have clicked on links to false or misleading “news” stories, allowing these narratives to change their minds, their behavior, and in some cases, their lives.
This week, The Washington Post published a story exploring how misinformation, even in the hands of good people, can hurt those around them.
Earlier this year, a vast QAnon conspiracy took root online, spreading through Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook like wildfire. The theory (later proved to be 100 percent false) was that Wayfair, an online furniture store, was somehow involved in trafficking missing children. People connected imaginary dots between Wayfair products priced in the thousands of dollars by mistake and local reports of missing children that had never been updated when the kids were found safely.
The lie ensnared “concerned mothers, TikToking teenagers, racial justice advocates and people all along the political spectrum,” writes Washington Post reporter Jessica Contrera.
“They didn’t realize they were amplifying a QAnon propaganda artist … And they didn’t know how dangerous child sex trafficking myths were about to become. That actual victims would be blocked from getting help. That women fearing traffickers would be driven to violence. And that the real children whose pictures were used in this ploy would have their lives upended.”
Contrera goes on to tell a poignant story about Samara Duplessis, a 13-year-old who started having panic attacks and became too scared to leave her house once her face and name went viral. The misinformation campaign affected Samara’s family as well. Her mother, Tammy, was trying to recover from the most terrifying 48 hours of her life—the two days Samara was missing—when a flood of messages about her daughter being in danger put her right back in that moment.
Contrera doesn’t stop there, however. She examines how the Wayfair conspiracy derailed real sex trafficking investigations by Homeland Security and prevented agencies overwhelmed by phone calls about Wayfair from helping real victims. One Florida survivor of sex trafficking vanished after waiting for several weeks to find a safe place to stay.
The Washington Post‘s stories of people who were personally hurt by the QAnon conspiracy—including one radicalized woman who was killed during the January 6 assault on the Capitol—lend emotional weight to the story. But what keeps readers thinking is the message, repeated over and over again, that most of the people who were spreading this misinformation were just like you and me.
Many of the people who posted Samara’s picture “wrote that they didn’t know if what they were reading about Wayfair was true, but they figured that sharing it couldn’t hurt,” the story states.
Zari McFadden, a social justice activist from North Carolina, was one of the people responsible for retweeting the QAnon conspiracy.
“Zari usually tweeted about activism and TV shows to her few hundred followers,” Contrera writes. “When she saw the picture of Samara Duplessis, she thought about how the stories of Black girls like her and Samara so often went ignored. Here, she thought, was a chance to do something about it.”
Zari later realized the theory was false and deleted her tweets, but it was too late to undo the damage.
Likewise, the legions of people frantically calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline didn’t realize they were parroting QAnon propaganda. They simply wanted to help children they believed were in danger. The story quotes hotline director Megan Cutter, who says, “The majority of people who were swept up in this misinformation really believed that this was a human trafficking ring, and that no one cared.”
Unlike so many other stories about QAnon, The Washington Post piece is not simply an indictment of the people who spread misinformation, or even an attack on the radicalized followers of QAnon. Instead, it reveals a systemic problem with social media and its allowance of misinformation. False tweets, videos, and stories can be convincing, and they’re getting more and more sophisticated. Ultimately, we need to find a way to fight the problem at its source rather than shunning the people who get drawn into the misinformation web.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.