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Miller, a political psychologist at the University of Delaware, began
her discussion of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump
supporters with two simple questions and their only superficially simple
“Why did so many people come to Washington on Jan. 6?” asked Miller,
associate professor of political science. “And why do so many people
believe the election was stolen?” The simple answer: Because
then-President Trump told them to come and to have the results of the
election, which he falsely and repeatedly claimed to have won,
“But,” Miller said, “there’s more to it.”
Speaking during the first of a two-part panel discussion of the events of Jan. 6, sponsored by the Department of Political Science and International Relations,
Miller explained some of the research about why people believe
conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the presidential election was
rigged to make Joe Biden seem to be the winner. Supporters of other
conspiracy theories, including those promoted by the group QAnon, also
joined in the attack on the Capitol.
In general, Miller said, when people feel out of control of their
lives and events, they naturally look for explanations to understand
what is happening in the world. That search for answers can lead them to
see connections where none exist, but the belief that they have found
an explanation allows them to feel in control as they spread the word
and take action.
In the current situation, people’s uncertainty has been heightened by
the COVID pandemic, and the isolation resulting from it has prompted
more spread of conspiracy theories through social media, Miller said.
Another panelist, Danna Young, associate professor of communication,
focused on social identity theory—the ways we define ourselves and the
groups with which we identify—as she discussed why the false belief
about the presidential election is held by so many people. America has
become increasingly polarized, not just politically but also
emotionally, she said: “We tend to hate the other side more than ever.”
At the same time, Young noted that people associate more often with
others who share their views and characteristics, and the growth of
partisan media outlets means that they often hear only opinions that
reflect their own perspective. These “echo chambers” make their strongly
held beliefs that much more entrenched, she said.
The panel also discussed some of the constitutional issues raised by
the Jan. 6 riot. Those are complex, said Wayne Batchis, associate
professor of political science. He reminded the audience that the First
Amendment applies to the government in free-speech cases, not to private
entities like social media companies, who are able to bar certain
topics and users.
And, he said, although the First Amendment is clear about freedom of
speech, court cases have established a line between that freedom and
violent behavior, “and the line is not an easy one to draw.” A criminal
charge of inciting a riot is very difficult to prove, with court rulings
setting a high bar, Batchis said. However, he pointed out that
impeachment is a different matter.
The panelists concluded by taking questions from the online audience,
including one from a middle school teacher who wondered how to talk
about Jan. 6 to the next generation.
“I recommend a ‘What if I am wrong?’ [approach],” Young said,
advocating for students to learn not just how to argue a point of view
but also how to consider why others believe differently and to think
about what evidence would be needed to change their own or someone
else’s mind on an issue.
The panel discussion, which was held on Jan. 28, was moderated by David Redlawsk, James R. Soles Professor of Political Science and chair of the department.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
A second panel discussion exploring the international views and
implications of the events of Jan. 6 will again feature experts from the
The online event will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 1,
and include the opportunity for audience members to ask questions. The
session is free, but registration is required at this website.
Panelists, all from the Department of Political Science and
International Relations, will be Prof. Muqtedar Khan and Associate
Profs. Julio Carrión, Dan Green, Daniel Kinderman and Claire Rasmussen.
The discussion will be moderated by Prof. Stuart Kaufman.
Article by Ann Manser; photo by Adobe Stock
Published Jan. 29, 2021