During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was speaking in Ohio when a man rushed onto the stage, prompting Secret Service agents to intervene. Fortunately, no one was injured and the incident turned out to be harmless.
But the then-candidate insisted at the time that the man in question had ties to ISIS, pointing to online evidence that turned out to be false. As longtime readers may recall, NBC News’ Chuck Todd asked the Republican about his willingness to back up outlandish claims with false evidence.
“What do I know? Trump replied. “All I know is what’s on the internet.”
It was a powerful pre-election example of one of Trump’s most significant flaws: he has no meaningful critical thinking skills and he lacks the ability to assess the reliability of the random nonsense he find online. Before, during and after his presidency, the Republican has shown he’s not much different from that weirdo guy you know via Facebook who keeps sharing mad-eyed, all-caps tirades about a new conspiracy he’s discovered in the fever swamps.
Six years later, however, it is much of the GOP that is increasingly defined by Trump’s refrain “all I know is what’s on the internet.” Take this Politico report, for example.
Even as Republican leaders condemn the brutal assault on President Nancy Pelosi’s husband, other GOP figures are spreading a very different message on social media — downplaying, mocking and trading misinformation about the attack.
Among the offenders was Republican Rep. Clay Higgins — who will likely chair a House Homeland Security Committee panel in the next Congress if voters hand the House over to the GOP — who briefly promoted a bogus anti- LGBTQ surrounding the attack on Pelosi.
Of course, in reality, the Justice Department’s criminal complaint against the alleged assailant has thoroughly shredded all the far-right theories surrounding the case, but there is no evidence that Republicans are expressing regret. All they know is what’s on the internet.
This Semafor report stood out for similar reasons
That was the talk of Republican candidates over Halloween weekend: a rumor that their cheating children might be getting candy-colored fentanyl from strangers. “The cartels, they dress this fentanyl up like candy,” GOP U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters told the crowd at a Halloween-themed family gathering Friday night. “I know we’re all going to be vigilant and protect our children here this Halloween.”
In reality, there was no credible evidence to back up these fears – drug dealers tend to sell their products, not give drugs to children for no reason – but these rumors quickly spread online, and all these republicans know what’s on the internet.
Meanwhile, prominent GOP candidates such as New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc continue to claim that schools provide children with litter boxes if they identify as cats. It’s a crazy myth, rooted in anti-trans bigotry, but Republicans keep repeating it anyway. All they know is what’s on the internet.
Ask Republicans why they keep believing ridiculous election conspiracy theories, and they’re likely to point to nonsense they’ve found online. Ask them about their opposition to Covid vaccines, and you’ll likely get a similar answer. Ask those caught in the QAnon delusion how they slipped into madness, and many will say the same.
The point is not that all news online is fake. I post comments online for a living, so I’m the last person to encourage people to instinctively ignore news on the internet.
Rather, the fact is that major political parties and politicians seeking the public’s trust must be able to distinguish between credible information from legitimate media outlets and sheer madness that reinforces preconceptions.
In other words, Republicans must choose the right information over the wrong. It’s a skill that seems too lacking in the party right now.