Down the Rabbit Hole

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 2

Alex Jones’s conspiracy-driven InfoWars whipped up this crowd at an April 18, 2020, rally in Austin. Demonstrators railed against pandemic stay-at-home orders, vaccination regimens and other perceived forms of “government tyranny” in front of the Texas Capitol. According to our guest on this episode, social media entices users down the rabbit hole of disinformation lurking on the internet.

Photograph by Vic Hinterlang via

In a largely unregulated social media ecosystem, a curious mom looking for info about vaccine mandates in public schools can end up feasting on the internet’s most insidious — and outlandish — conspiracy theories. Stanford researcher Renée DiResta joins Will and Siva to grapple with the tangled web of QAnon, antivaxxers and more. If the Jan. 6 riot in Washington is any indication, what starts in chatrooms doesn’t stay in chatrooms. And the real-world consequences of the virtual Wild West can be disastrous.

DiResta’s research shows that Facebook groups and Twitter bots dedicated to conspiracy theories like QAnon use taglines like “save the children” and claims to political speech to get around attempts to police their dangerous ideas — whether by the government or social media companies themselves. So how can we combat disinformation? First, we have to understand the rabbit hole: how it forms, how it spreads and what entices users to take the plunge.

About our guest

Renée DiResta is a research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, where she studies abuse of information technologies and helps policymakers respond to the spread of malign narratives across social networks. DiResta was a 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar, a 2019 Truman National Security Project fellow, and now writes frequently for The Atlantic and other magazines about disinformation, misinformation, propaganda and the tech industry. Follow DiResta on Twitter @noUpside.

This episode was recorded in January and posted on Feb. 9, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Read all of DiResta’s monthly columns for The Atlantic. They cover everything from conspiracy theories and extreme right-wing media to antivax campaigns and coronavirus disinformation.

She also writes frequently on similar topics for Wired.

Recently DiResta also sat for an interview with PBS’s Frontline, to talk about “the Facebook dilemma,” and helped CBS News analyze the precursors to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

She is also a co-author, with Brady Forrest and Ryan Vinyard, of The Hardware Startup: Building Your Product, Business & Brand (O’Reilly, 2015).

From around the web

As always, we find our episodes eerily timely. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican of Georgia, from her committee assignments, in part over conspiratorial social media posts. It’s all part of a major headache for the GOP, and one that won’t go away anytime soon. And earlier this month, protestors briefly shut down a covid vaccination center at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

So what the heck is QAnon? The Wall Street Journal has a primer for you: find out how Q came into being and what his followers believe.

Last month Politico interviewed Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. In Donovan’s account, disinformation isn’t only dangerous — it’s become a lucrative business.

Investigators have identified many known hate groups involved in the January siege in Washington. This timeline from The New York Times describes how such organization and other supporters of President Trump used social media to plan their movements.

The rabbit hole is a complicated place where myriad suspicions intersect. Mara Hvistendahl argues for The Intercept that the Capitol insurrectionists can be linked directly with anti-lockdown protesters who have resisted efforts by states and localities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

What does QAnon have to do with rescuing kids from pedophiles? This September 2020 report explains how followers of the conspiracy theory used the moniker “Save the Children” to outsmart the social media platforms trying to moderate their baseless claims.

The usual social and political fault lines just don’t map all that well onto many disinformation movements. As we discuss on the show, QAnon gained traction with anti-vaccination campaigns — which in turn have drawn zealots from the left and the right, the rich and the poor. Q has even caught on with wellness influencers.

Learn how to deprogram your crazy uncle. For starters, according to anti-cult activist and mind-control expert Steve Hassan, avoid telling him he’s brainwashed. That just won’t work. Read more of Hassan’s advice, in Forbes.

In case you missed it: In Season One, we spoke with Nina Jankowicz and Phil Howard on two separate episodes about disinformation and social media. While Jankowicz says we need more regulation online, Howard argues — counterintuitively — for “more social media, not less.”


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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