Recognizing Misinformation Amid The 2020 Election
What you need to know about voter misinformation leading up to the election.
There is evidence that misinformation surrounding this year’s election is more rampant now than it was in 2016.
Facebook users are liking, sharing, and commenting on posts from dubious sources about three times as frequently as they were last election cycle, according to a recent study by the German Marshall Fund Digital, a think tank.
Multiple reports indicate those posts can confuse, polarize, and even disenfranchise voters. And security analysts worry the likelihood that votes will take longer to count this year, particularly in states like Pennsylvania, leaves more time for misinformation to spread.
Here are 3 things to know about misinformation (and disinformation) during the 2020 election:
Misinformation and disinformation are two different things, but they overlap.
Media researcher Claire Wardle of First Draft News, an independent nonprofit that works to fortify journalistic institutions and the public against misinformation, defines misinformation as false information spread by someone who believes it is true.
Disinformation, she writes, is “intentionally false and designed to cause harm.” People who create and spread disinformation may do so for money, political power, or to cause chaos.
Once disinformation is unleashed on social media, however, users who believe and share it may unknowingly spread false information. Friends and family members who trust those users are more likely to trust the information.
Wardle, who co-founded First Draft, describes a third category, “mal-information” — something that is true but disseminated to cause harm, rather than to serve the public interest.
First Draft’s materials package all these terms into a spectrum of “information disorder,” which includes lies, conspiracies, and rumors as well as “hyperpartisan content” and doctored images, photos, or audio.
Some forms of misinformation are straightforward…others not so much.
Wardle divides misinformation into seven types that range from satire, whose creators aren’t trying to fool anyone but sometimes do, to content that is completely invented and intended to cause harm.
Much of the misinformation out there includes some things that are true and some things that are false, which makes it more difficult to recognize. Here are some of the ways misinformation has spread this year and in past election cycles, and some tips for discerning it:
Posts that misrepresent voting information: Among the ads, posts and fake accounts Russia used to influence the 2016 election, according to evidence tech companies submitted to Congress, was a post that told people to “avoid the line” and tweet their vote. Other graphics mimicked Hillary Clinton’s campaign and encouraged people to vote by text. Another report on the Russian Internet Research Agency’s disinformation campaign discovered a major focus was encouraging Black voters to boycott the election. Similar tactics targeted Mexican American and LGBT voters to a lesser degree. And the agency targeted conservatives with messages intended to stir outrage, division, and support for President Trump, according to the report.
Another hoax (this one not attributed to Russian interference) showed a fake photo of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arresting people at the polls, but the nonprofit news organization Propublica found the ICE agent and the person being arrested were photoshopped into an image from a previous election. The account that posted the doctored photo was also fake, and had been featured in previous news stories. Reporters found the original images by a simple Google search, but the idea was pervasive enough that the same rumor (still completely false) surfaced again in 2018.
Tip: If you have any questions about how to vote, call your county election office or visit its website. You can also go to the Pennsylvania Department of State’s voting website, www.votespa.com or, if it’s election day, the state hotline, 1-877-868-3772. A coalition of civil rights and lawyers groups also takes calls from voters who encounter questions or problems via several hotlines for English, Spanish, Arabic, and Asian languages. You can also check WITF’s election page for voting information.
Posts that promote false claims of election cheating: This year, the most prominent examples of voting misinformation surround mail-in ballots, and Pennsylvania is a hotspot.
Propublica and First Draft analyzed Facebook posts earlier this year, finding that the platform “is rife with false or misleading claims about voting, particularly regarding voting by mail.” These posts saw some of the highest engagement among voting-related content and included “conspiracy theories about stolen elections or outright misrepresentations about voting by mail by Trump and prominent conservative outlets.” The report described claims from the political right and left that opponents would steal the election.
Cybersecurity researchers and tech companies worry, above all, that disinformation surrounding mail-in voting and voter fraud could jeopardize the election, especially if it takes longer than usual for votes to be counted. NPR spoke to experts who believe “bad actors” within the U.S. may be a greater threat than Russia, which has been discovered interfering this election cycle. A group of Harvard researchers says Trump’s use of mass media, primarily television networks, is a more influential source of disinformation than what happens on social media.
Tip: Remember that it will likely take longer than usual to count the votes, and it will be more important than ever to fact-check any claims of fraud or corruption. PolitiFact and Snopes are well-known fact-checkers; below you’ll find a longer list of fact-checking websites and tools for evaluating online sources.
Mislabeled and doctored media: Deepfakes, or false video or audio clips that use artificial intelligence, haven’t been as much of a problem this year as some experts feared.
As NPR reported, misinformation has been spreading via less advanced, less expensive means. That includes everything from photos, videos, quotes, and articles taken out of context or misrepresented on social media to edited content (like the ICE agent dropped into a photo of a polling place) or made-up captions.
Tip: Remember that articles, memes, photos, and videos shared on social media might be severed from their original context. Go back to the source and then see if you can verify the information somewhere else. You can find out where a photo came from by doing a reverse-image search; fact-checkers are also useful in verifying viral posts. As for deepfakes, you can learn about efforts to detect them here.
Fake accounts: Disinformation campaigns rely on bots, or fake accounts, to exacerbate divisions in society.
A recent example: a group working to combat disinformation in Latino communities discovered that bots were amplifying the controversy around Goya Foods this summer, after the CEO praised Trump during a White House visit and critics of the president promoted a boycott. Twitter recently suspended a group of fake accounts purporting to be Black Trump supporters; the accounts picked up tens of thousands of followers in less than a week and collectively more than 265,000 retweets “or other amplifying ‘mentions.’”
Tip: Keep in mind the source and motivation behind information, especially when it confirms your beliefs or generates an emotional response.Multiple studies have described how misinformation plays on our preconceptions and our psychology. We tend to believe claims we see (or hear) repeatedly, for example, and frequently assume things are true if they haven’t been corrected. We are more likely to believe something that aligns with our beliefs and more likely to share information that elicits joy, rage, awe, or disgust.
Agenda-driven “news” sites: Groups with political or economic agendas sometimes set up sites where they publish misleading information to support their interests, using the guise of a local news outlet and mixing in reporting from other sources to gain readers’ trust. These sites have proliferated in 2020. Here is a list of digital outlets to treat with skepticism.
Tip: Other helpful resources include a list by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, of suspicious “news” sites and ways to recognize them. Journalists behind a tool called News Guard evaluate sites based on standards of credibility and transparency. And a company called Ad Fontes Media created a “media bias chart” which can give you an idea of what that company believes is the political bent and reliability of a variety of sources.
Conspiracy theories: Between the pandemic and the proliferation of QAnon, conspiracy theories abound this year and may have an impact on some voters’ decisions on Nov. 3rd.
Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis sparked conspiracy theories and rumors, many of them coming from the political left.
According to the Pew Research Center, about half the adults in the U.S. have heard of QAnon, which falsely claims that Trump is fighting a sex-trafficking network made up of members of the Democratic elite and an expanding lineup of famous people. The conspiracy has fueled threats and violence, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has labeled it a domestic terrorism threat. In recent months, QAnon supporters have spread misinformation in online groups dedicated to fighting human trafficking and potentially influenced voters. Facebook just announced it would take down Instagram accounts, pages, and groups promoting the conspiracy theory. Twitter removed 7,000 accounts this past summer, but researchers say 93,000 still exist on the platform.
Tip: Many of the previous tips could apply here. Conspiracy theories can provide a sense of belonging, according to Cambridge University researcher Thomas Roulet, and tap into values like independence and even truth-seeking, but they can also be dangerous, eroding public discourse, distracting from real, pressing issues, and making it harder for people to get information they need. Having conversations with friends and family and leaning on fact-based information is a start.
It’s not just Facebook and Twitter.
New York University researchers predicted late last year that Instagram would be the “vehicle of choice” for using memes to spread disinformation and that WhatsApp would play a significant role.
WhatsApp has become a major source of news for people around the world, a Reuters report found this year, and young people especially are relying on Instagram and Snapchat for information. A study of Russian disinformation in 2016 found that it was more successful on Instagram than Facebook. Conspiracy theories have also flourished on YouTube and TikTok, which is confronting a problem of widespread hate speech.
WhatsApp presents special challenges because information can spread via private chats, where misinformation is harder to identify and track. The impact of misinformation on the service and others like it has caused alarm around the world. As Politico noted in a story about misinformation circulating in Latino communities in Florida, WhatsApp is popular among immigrants and their families because it allows people to communicate from around the world. Organizations like Univisión and the Turkish fact-checker Teyit have rolled out stickers that users can send to family members to politely alert them to misinformation.
Tech companies have become more aggressive in their approaches to misinformation. Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, has partnerships with third-party fact checkers and donated to an international fact-checking organization to combat misinformation across its two subsidiaries. That organization just launched a new program called FactChat, a chat bot that had three times more Spanish-speaking users than English-speaking users in the first week following its launch. WhatsApp also cut the number of times a user can forward a message on WhatsApp from 20 to five.
YouTube and parent company Google are also rolling out anti-misinformation policies amid the election, as are Twitter and Facebook. This article from Vox includes tips for how to use the two platforms’ settings to get more reliable information on your feeds.
How you can help combat mis/disinformation
The good news is you don’t have to be a professional fact-checker to help combat it. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are finding that small groups of “regular people” can be as effective as fact-checkers at deciphering false content online. Crowdsourcing, they say, could be a useful way to help share the burden.
On an individual level, you can help by pausing before you share content that incites an emotional reaction, “anger, disgust, or fear” as well as hope or excitement, especially if the information supports your views. It’s also important to let friends and family members know, if you can, when they share something false or misleading.
Here are some resources to help:
Fact-checking websites & pages
Tools and training for recognizing false or misleading sources:
Sources for voting information: