The Dangers of Acting on Misinformation

The information we receive from places we trust shapes our perception of the world around us. When those sources provide false information, our perception of the events happening around up can be profoundly affected. By trusting the wrong sources, we may open our lives up to disruption, health and mental issues, and violence. We may end up breaking the law out of either ignorance, or misjudging our situation.

I’m going to cover three recent situations where people have been misled by their information sources into actions that have placed their lives into chaos and ruin. These people are ordinary, average Americans, who before their exposure and acceptance of misinformation, had ordinary, perhaps dull lives. They sincerely believed that they were acting as one should in the situation they found themselves in. Unfortunately, they placed themselves into situations that could be extremely dangerous for them or someone else by believing false information as true.

1) Covid-19 Drug Misinformation

In March of 2020, shortly after shutdowns for Covid-19 started, many people, including former president Trump, started touting the benefits of taking a drug called chloroquine. Chloroquine is used in the treatment of malaria and has shown no benefits in treating Covid-19.

A couple in Phoenix, not publicly identified by local broadcast news, found a chemical called chloroquine phosphate at their home and decided to take it to prevent Covid-19. Immediately they became ill and were rushed to the hospital. The husband was not able to be resuscitated and died, but the wife survived because she had thrown up much of the drug. Chloroquine phosphate is used to treat aquarium fish and is not intended to be taken internally.

“Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure,” she said, adding her advice for people would be, “Don’t take anything. Don’t believe anything. Don’t believe anything that the president says and his people … call your doctor.”

Woman who became severely ill from ingesting an aquarium chemical.

What Went Wrong

The couple who took the drug mistakenly thought the aquarium treatment was the same drug recommended by President Trump. They did not understand that even though it was the same chemical compound, it was not in the same form as the malaria drug. Before taking medication, you should always consult with a medical practitioner before taking it. This couple assumed the president was knowledgeable about the drug. And someone in the public arena should never give medical advice that they are not qualified to give.

2) A Citizen’s Arrest Gone Wrong

Three weeks before the 2020 election, former Houston police captain Mark Anthony Aguirre was arrested for running a man off the road and pointing a gun to his head. Aguirre said that he was working for a private citizen’s group, Liberty Center for God and Country, that was investigating election fraud and he had been paid $200,000 to do so. He approached the Houston police with an idea for a traffic stop to help his investigation. They rejected the idea and Aguirre decided to do the stop on his own.

Aguirre rammed the victim’s truck with his SUV and held him up at gunpoint. Aguirre was convinced there were hundreds of thousands of ballots in the truck. When the police showed up, all they found was air-conditioning repair equipment. Aguirre, was arrested by the Houston police and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

What Went Wrong

“He crossed the line from dirty politics to commission of a violent crime, and we are lucky no one was killed. His alleged investigation was backward from the start – first alleging a crime had occurred and then trying to prove it happened.”

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg

Aguirre did not do his due diligence as an investigator hired by the Liberty Center. He simply assumed that there was massive voter fraud and for some undisclosed reason the air-conditioner repairman was the culprit. He was so focused on trying to prove voter or election fraud, he didn’t stop to find out if voter or election fraud actually happened at all.

He also didn’t get any evidence that the victim was guilty of any crime at all before holding him up at gunpoint. Why didn’t he notify the police if he thought a serious crime had happened? Or at least the election board.

3) The Capitol Riot

On January 6, 2021 a mob of angry Trump supporters marched down to the Capitol in a protest that ended up in a riot/possible insurrection. They had attended the Trump rally earlier that morning where former President Trump and his supporters continued to spread misinformation about Trump not losing the election due to voter fraud. In the weeks before the Trump Campaign had promoted many conspiracy theories about the election being stolen if Trump didn’t win. I wrote about this earlier in my crowdsourcing intel article and provided many links to the Capitol Riot.

In the months prior to the election, former president Trump and his allies spent both money and time to push lawsuits trying to claim there was massive voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. They were never able to provide any actual evidence before a court for those claims.

The assault that unfolded as Congress convened a joint session to certify the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 election was the direct result of a months-long effort rooted in disinformation; promoted by President Donald Trump; coordinated by some of his most fervent, conspiratorial supporters; and incorporating a wide range of supporting groups.

Atlantic Council’s DFRLab

After months of hearing and reading misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media and right leaning media, former president Trump’s supporters were angry and believed that he had won the election. The conservative media they consumed all reinforced each other with the same stories, sometimes having little to do with reality. These voters were getting little to no fact checking in their news and online media. The following videos show what former president Trump was saying, with reliable news sources calling out the untruths. Unfortunately, media on the right simply just passed the claims on to their audience.

What Went Wrong

After months of reading, listening, and watching conservative media, the Trump supporters were convinced that Americans had voted for Donald Trump as president in the 2020 election. It was a close election to be sure, but both the popular vote and the electoral vote went to Joe Biden in 2020. Trump supporters did not see this in the media they consumed. They saw an alternate reality where Donald Trump was cheated out of an election because somehow there was election fraud.

When pressed for examples of election fraud, these voters could not find enough election irregularities to change the results of the election. The election proceeded as many elections in the past have done. Sure, there were isolated cases of election and voter fraud, but these were not enough to affect the vote. Trump supporters became angry and became easy targets for far-right political groups, donors, hate groups and politicians to manipulate them into violence at the DC rally on January 6th.

Now many of these people, some of who were simply caught up in the mob, will face significant charges of breaking and entering and vandalism. Others will face more serious charges of insurrection, rioting, assault and other charges. Some of the people had been planning these actions for months, spurred on by the constant talk in their social media about “evil Democrats, socialists taking away their rights, losing their freedoms, etc.”, had decided to take violent action. They were motivated by both fear and hatred.

What Can We Learn From This?

One lesson that we can learn from these examples is to carefully check your news sources. Look at reputable, unbiased news sources like APNews, Reuters, PBS, BBC, and ProPublica. Use media that is subject to accuracy in news regulations like broadcast news and newspapers as a check on anything you read online. Read and view multiple sources of information for several viewpoints. All of the above cases happened because people did not thoroughly check the accuracy of their news sources.

When you read a story, does it seem reasonable with facts that you are already familiar with? The more sensational a story is, the more it needs to be fact checked. Don’t believe something simply because someone famous is repeating it, they could be either deliberately or inadvertently spreading misinformation.

Read a variety of news from centrist sites like AP and Reuters, and sources like CNN, local and national broadcast news. Read both left and right leaning sources, but not extremist sources. They should all be in agreement of the basic facts of the story you are reading about. If you read a story that only seems to be found on one side of the political spectrum, or only on a few sites, be cautious. Does the article or video provoke pity, fear, or anger? Be doubly cautious. Does the article go against scientific consensus? Be triply cautious.

Update

Here is a 60 Minutes interview with Jacob Chansley, aka The QAnon Shaman. He tries desperately to portray the riot as peaceful, even if it wasn’t peaceful, he was. [Video was pulled from Youtube]

Additional Resources

Coronavirus: Arizona man dies, wife ill after taking drug touted by Trump – CBS News

Fearing coronavirus, Arizona man dies after taking a form of chloroquine used in aquariums – CNN

Oklahoma trying to return its $2m stockpile of hydroxychloroquine (readfrontier.org)

Misinformation about infectious diseases can be debunked (medicalxpress.com)

COVID-19 misinformation: scientists create a ‘psychological vaccine’ to protect against fake news (medicalxpress.com)

Fighting fake medical news | AAMC

Former Houston police captain charged with pointing gun at air-conditioner repairman, believing he was a voter fraud ‘mastermind’ – CNN

Former HPD Capt. Mark Anthony Aguirre charged with holding repairman at gunpoint in fake voter-fraud conspiracy – ABC13 Houston

Capitol riot, fake news, and the psychology of conspiracy theories (usatoday.com)

Experts: Capitol riot product of years of hateful rhetoric (apnews.com)

Conspiracy theories about Capitol riot are still popping up on social media (msn.com)

#StopTheSteal: Timeline of Social Media and Extremist Activities Leading to 1/6 Insurrection (justsecurity.org)

A timeline of what Donald Trump said before the Capitol riot – Poynter

An Epic Timeline of QAnon Delusions, From Election Day to Inauguration Day – Paste (pastemagazine.com) – Dump of posts from Parler, Gab, and Telegram showing extreme content.

Opinion | Three Weeks Inside a Pro-Trump QAnon Chat Room – The New York Times (archive.org)

Why Your Christian Friends and Family Members Are So Easily Fooled by Conspiracy Theories – Instrument of Mercy

How Qanon’s lies are hijacking the national conversation – CNN

https://www.rawstory.com/qanon-believer-tells-all/

Published by Anna Nyms

I live in Huntsville, AL with my loving husband, awesome daughter and goofy husky. My interests include computer security, computer programming, writing scifi, and spinning wool into yarn.

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