Tell someone that talk show host Ellen Degeneres is under house arrest for child trafficking, an actual false rumor that spread across social media in March 2020, and most people would chalk it up to nonsense and move on. Not Sara Aniano. The 31-year-old graphic designer, who works at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey, heard this debunked conspiracy theory from a friend and thought it was so crazy that she simply had to learn more.
"I was really, really fascinated with understanding the golden question, which is, why do people believe in conspiracy theories?" Aniano says.
No, Degeneres wasn't under house arrest, but that didn't stop believers in QAnon -- the far-right fringe movement that believes former President Donald Trump was fighting a secret war against a cabal of pedophile Satanists in Hollywood and the Democratic Party -- from spreading the fake story.
That such a wild story was able to gain traction piqued the interest of Aniano, who in addition to working as a graphic designer for the university, was also in grad school studying communications between schools and local communities. It moved her enough that she eventually changed her focus to studying conspiracy theories.
Misinformation came into the spotlight over the past two years amid the 2020 presidential election and COVID-19 pandemic. It contributed to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and convinced some people to skip safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. Misinformation has also created a growing distrust in government institutions and academia, part of the reason for a widening divide in America. Experts say it could get worse this year with the upcoming midterm elections.
Aniano, however, represents an unlikely group that has emerged as a source of truth during these strange times. Graduate students from all over the country, working toward their master's degree or Ph.D. in communications, media or related fields, are serving as monitors of misinformation, watching livestreams and combing through countless online posts. To them, what's at stake may simply be a degree, but the results of their work have a broader impact. Their research helps media outlets shine a light on the darker corners of social media, while policymakers use it to understand its impact, including how it motivated events such as the Jan. 6 riot.
Some are motivated by familial reasons, while others are simply fascinated by how conspiracy theories are able to spread. But in an environment where social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have failed to put a check on misinformation, it's clear that the work these grad students perform is more important than ever.
"I have this kind of feeling," says Aniano, "that if I don't do this then, A, who will and, B, who will suffer because somebody was not looking in the right place at the right time?"
Aniano's research at Monmouth University switched to learning more about QAnon after she heard the debunked Degeneres story and changed again the following year to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. She already was collecting data showing how Instagram radicalized people.
Before Aniano changed her focus, she used social media to promote her music. She'd upload her band performances on YouTube while using Instagram as a typical millennial.
Her QAnon research, however, has put a target on her back, with prominent members of the movement targeting her for revealing what they say on lesser-known platforms like Telegram. Aniano pared down her social media footprint because of this harassment and only uses Twitter under her name while using burner accounts on other platforms in order to observe safely.
"My research was to do two things: Highlight mainstream social media's role in things like Jan. 6 and also to look at it from a more human perspective," Aniano says.
For the second, she tries to look between the lines at rhetorical strategies used by extremists on the far right. One example is "dog whistles," which are coded messages meant to share information and show support to a movement without directly saying so. QAnon believers make use of dog whistles regularly on social media in order to avoid being banned.
Aniano spends much of her time on Telegram where she reads through the messages of various QAnon-adjacent groups that include COVID-19 anti-vaxxers, as well as the recent trucker convoy. She'll screenshot messages pertaining to her work while also watching livestreams from individuals of the group who are either out protesting or meeting with each other to discuss their movements. Then she'll review posts on Instagram and search out specific hashtags that could be related to QAnon and similar conspiracy theories. She's found that these subjects, while on the surface level seemingly different, do have connections and that those who believe in them constantly share misinformation.
Aniano's work has already been cited by major news outlets such as USA Today, NBC and The Washington Post. Her daily coverage of the truck convoy provided updates on the behavior of the protests in both Canada and the US up until they began packing things up last week.
For Sarah Nguyễn, misinformation struck close to home. She began noticing a change when she moved in with her family during the pandemic. Her mother had never voted in an election but showed an interest in the 2020 race. She says her family rarely talked about politics, so she wanted to learn more about what spurred this enthusiasm.
"I started helping her talk through what are your news sources, why do you believe in what you believe in, and then I learned that we have this completely different idea of like what is communism, what is socialism, how does the presidential election actually work," Nguyễn says. It was this disconnect that made her want to learn more about her parents' news habits.
Their change inspired Nguyễn, a second-year doctoral student at the University of Washington and part of the school's Center for an Informed Public, to dig into misinformation, with a specific focus on Vietnamese-language content.
Social media companies may have put their foot down on misinformation, but they tend to focus on English language posts. When these same false claims are made in another language, they can avoid content moderation and stay up longer.
As she began digging into Vietnamese misinformation for her studies, Nguyễn not only noticed the lack of content moderation but also a kind of groupthink occurring in the Vietnamese community. She found a considerable amount of anti-communism sentiment from immigrants who've been in the US since the Vietnam War. Nguyễn believes this led to a growing distrust of movements such as Black Lives Matter, which were deemed communist.
"People in the Vietnamese community are almost doing a Red Scare and hunting down people who are pro-communist and calling them out," she says. By formulating their own group, they in turn can point at others who aren't part of their community as being communists, Nguyễn says.
This divide led to Vietnamese communities swaying toward the Republican party and supporting former president Donald Trump, even though most are concerned with helping their family and community, according to Nguyễn.
Nguyễn's work in studying misinformation in Vietnamese communities appeared last month in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, which publishes peer-reviewed research on misinformation from different perspectives. She and other researchers exploring the same issue, but in different Asian languages, advocate for more research to examine the misinformation and disinformation across these different communities.
Taylor Agajanian is a second-year grad student also at the University of Washington working on her master's degree in library and information science. She's been researching COVID misinformation with a focus on TikTok, where conspiracy theory and debunking accounts have gained prominence.
Like Nguyễn, her interest in misinformation stems from her family. She grew up in a home that was Orthodox Christian, a common religion for Armenians, but some of the members of her family were evangelical. Seeing this religious fervor in her own family made her look into similar religious habits, which she found in cults. Before transferring to the University of Washington, she studied film and media at California State University, Long Beach, and had also taken a course on the anthropology of religion, magic and witchcraft at a local community college.
"It's funny because I do feel like even though horror films are fiction most of the time, they do cover a lot of conspiracy theories, cults," she says. "There's a kind of connection."
Agajanian finds video as a medium is especially effective in making conspiracy theories stick. In her research into COVID misinformation, she saw the same false information repeated every day, but with slight tweaks.
This constant barrage of misinformation creates a "stickiness" that makes it harder for those listening to know what the facts really are. Misinformation influencers have gotten savvy, incorporating the same techniques as people trying to debunking their videos.
"If a doctor could wear scrubs in a video, that creates credibility," she says. "They [TikTok influencers] can go on TikTok in their scrubs and create a veneer of credibility or authenticity, and then actually spread misinformation with some sort of authority. That is definitely going to cause people to believe them because they're a nurse, right? They couldn't possibly be wrong."
Agajanian also saw TikTokers gaming the system by changing up their language in order to evade content moderation. Even a simple usage such as referring to vaccines as "v@x" would help keep their videos from being removed.
Seeing these videos constantly took a mental toll on Agajanian. The insidious nature of misinformation and disinformation online is designed to make the reader question facts and their own reality.
"It [misinformation] is designed to get in your head in a certain way," she says. "We're all to a degree susceptible to missing this information."
Looking at so many false claims requires taking a step back and realizing that what she's seeing is not true, similar to how people pinch themselves to see if they're dreaming.
All three grad students said their research causes anger and frustration after seeing the same false claims made over and over again with so many people eating it up on social media. Both Agajanian and Nguyễn do their work at the Center for an Informed Public, where advisers make sure there's a support system for students to decompress after taking in so much misinformation.
Aniano, on the other hand, doesn't have a similar support system at Monmouth University. However, she does have fellow researchers to speak with on Twitter and Discord. There's also the swarm of harassment she receives due to her use of Twitter to share some of her research. It's because of this that she makes a point to go out and have some fun so she doesn't think about what she sees online all the time.
The moments of respite are welcoming, but that time for rest is fleeting. With midterm elections only months away, misinformation isn't going to slow down but rather get worse.
"I think we're going to see an acceleration and expansion of the conspiracy theories," says Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public. "They're going to go bigger, they are going to play even more loosely with the truth."
Misinformation peddlers have latched on to a false conspiracy about bioweapons in Ukraine, and some are celebrating false and out-of-context charges Republican senators repeated during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. The midterm election is the next prime target.
"The bigger thing that people in that [misinformation] universe are trying to do with 2022 is to win the narrative battle so that they are sitting in a much better place going into 2024," Caulfield says, referring to the next presidential election year. "If they are able to convince large swaths of the public that the 2022 elections are illegitimate, then they are more likely to get the sorts of legislative changes that they want."
Once Aniano, Nguyễn and Agajanian receive their respective degrees, their work doesn't get filed away in some random cabinet. Nguyễn and Agajanian's research for the Center for an Informed Public has been used in projects partnering up with other universities such as Stanford and Harvard. Policymakers, regulators, tech industry professionals and other organizations pay careful attention to the findings made by researchers at the center to discover problems they may need to address.
Aniano says she'll also submit written testimony to the House Committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot about Instagram's impact on the attack.
For Aniano, Nguyễn and Agajanian, their work has ignited a fire in them. All three expressed their desires to continue their research. They all said they've found their calling.
Nguyễn's research has been a way to open up a dialogue with her parents around politics, which is still viewed as taboo in parts of the Vietnamese community. She hopes her continued work can help other families talk more openly about the subject without the taboo.
Agajanian feels she's where she needs to be. She uses her expertise to gently tell her friends and family about the misinformation they're sharing on social media when she sees it.
As for Aniano, she says identifying and stopping misinformation is her life's work – even if it takes a toll.
"I'll talk about this stuff with my boyfriend, and he'll be like, 'Hey, this is bumming me out, can we change the subject?' And I'll be like, 'Oh, yes, I've been talking about Nazis for 30 minutes straight. I should probably change the topic,'" she says.
Correction, 10:41 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story misstated where Taylor Agajanian took an anthropology class. She took the course at a local community college.