The president, not social media, is largely responsible for disinformation about mail-in voting

The president, not social media, is largely responsible for disinformation about mail-in voting

2020-10-14 14:20:00
{widget1}

The fake news is coming from inside the White House, and it could influence who lives there next.

Earlier this month, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society released a working paper studying mail-in voting disinformation campaigns. Using a quantitative and qualitative study of millions of tweets and tens of thousands of Facebook posts and news stories about mail-in voter fraud — the persistent but debunked idea that people are illegally using mail-in ballots to meaningfully sway elections — the study found that President Trump was largely responsible for spreading that disinformation.

In particular, the study found that the president himself, on Twitter as well as through press conferences and interviews, was the main source of falsehoods about mail-in voter fraud. In turn, right-wing media organizations and media organizations in general abetted the spread of that misinformation by uncritically parroting it without full context.

The intention is to get people to believe mail-in voting is faulty precisely as 80 million people are set to vote by mail this year, due to the coronavirus. Uncertainty about the mail-in voting process has the potential to subdue voter turnout and undermine faith in the outcome of the upcoming election.

This is hardly the only misinformation campaign being led by Trump this year. A recent Cornell study found the president to be the largest driver of coronavirus misinformation as well. In conjunction with lies about mail-in voting, these two campaigns not only jeopardize the health of millions of Americans but also stand to sway the election results.

We spoke with the lead author of the mail-in voting study, Yochai Benkler, about how this disinformation campaign works, why it’s so insidious, and what can be done about it. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Rani Molla

What’s your main takeaway from mail-in voting disinformation?

Yochai Benkler

This looks like a political- and media elite-driven disinformation campaign by the Republican Party, led by Donald Trump, directly from the media elites to mass media — and then social media sort of chimes in and secondarily amplifies it and circulates around. But the primary driver is Trump, his campaign, the RNC, and other sorts of Republican leadership. And the primary vector is straight through mass media: Fox media and talk radio on the right, and the rest of the media ecosystem.

Rani Molla

So this sort of contradicts the narrative that misinformation wells up from the dark corners of the internet, from 8chan, QAnon, and things like that. This is from the top down, from the president.

Yochai Benkler

Absolutely. And I want to clarify, though, that I don’t think that because we found that’s true in this critically important area nothing matters about QAnon or nothing matters about the internet. That’s an easy way to misunderstand what we’re saying. What we found is that in this area — and the truth is it’s also true in many things related to Covid and masks and a variety of others — that is simply not happening.

Rani Molla

You said that the media also perpetuates disinformation, and I get that with Fox News and things like that, but are you also saying that, just by covering it, the media is doing so, too?

Yochai Benkler

It depends on how significant the intervention is, and it depends even more on how you’ll cover it. So, not every time the president says something it’s news just because he said it. It doesn’t have to be. If yesterday, there was a big story about the highest job losses ever and today, the president comes out and says something outrageous about cutting funding to states, you shouldn’t fall into the trap of saying, “Oh, there’s a new agenda item, let’s put that in the headline,” and forget about yesterday’s. And sometimes he uses it that way: “There’s bad news on the economy. There’s bad news on Covid. Let me say something outrageous.” And immediately you change the agenda.

Rani Molla

So how should and shouldn’t presidential misinformation be covered?

Yochai Benkler

So if you’re reporting: “On Thursday, the president said that mail-in voter fraud is a major issue, Democrats objected. Republicans said the Democrats are trying to steal the election, etc.” You’re creating a problem.

If you say, “On Thursday, once again, the president falsely stated that mail-in voting is full of fraud. Consensus of all of the studies that have been made independently is that mail-in voting is safe and an important way to vote during a pandemic.” That’s different. Which of the two you do is really what shapes what the people who don’t yet have a view will think about it.

Yes, you have to cover him because he’s the president. No, not every tweet is news. Yes, everything needs 15 to 30 minutes more of thought on how you frame it. You need an editorial equivalent of a four-second lag to figure out what you’re not carrying and why you’re not carrying it. Why is he trying to change the subject if he’s trying to change the subject?

Rani Molla

What is the point of misinformation around mail-in voting?

Yochai Benkler

The voter fraud frame has been used by Republicans to set barriers on a background theory that they gain electorally from depressing turnout, particularly depressing turnout in urban and minority populations.

Rani Molla

And disinformation about mail-in voting dovetails with the misinformation around the coronavirus pandemic.

Yochai Benkler

The president and Republican Party have been trying, have been persuading their followers that Covid-19 is not a big issue. There’s a real gap in personal concern about the disease between Republicans and Democrats, which presumably will translate at some level into who does and doesn’t show up at the polls because they’re afraid to get sick. And so if you’re able to eliminate mail-in voting completely, let’s say for the moment, you have a built-in advantage from the fact that you’ve already propagandized to your followers that Covid-19 is not a big deal, right?

Rani Molla

Why did you focus on mail-in voting disinformation in this study, rather than all the other disinformation out there?

Yochai Benkler

I want to distinguish here between narrow things like QAnon — Democrats running a global pedophilia ring, which even if they have tens of thousands, even if they have hundreds of thousands, even if there are 2 million people who believe it, that’s not going to move a 330 million person democracy one way or the other — and questions of, “Who’s to blame for the economic collapse? Is it directly tied to responsibility for dealing with Covid or not? How poorly are we doing? Are we doing poorly? Or how bad is the disease? And how poorly was it managed?” These are the big things that are weighing at the 100 million voter level when you look at surveys of what people care about.

Rani Molla

From a historical standpoint, have politicians and their attendant news organizations always spread disinformation at this level, or is this especially bad because we have President Trump who’s so forthright about disinformation? Like, is this worse than it used to be? Or is this just par for the course?

Yochai Benkler

Ask people in the Middle East about whether weapons of mass destruction were worse or better as a disinformation campaign at a national level. We tend to have such a strong sense of the crisis of the moment. Think of the 1960s, where the president, the leading presidential candidate, and the two major civil rights leaders were assassinated in the span of six years. Yeah, things are bad. But democracy in America has always been attacked in many ways internally.

Rani Molla

Good point. Let’s try a different tack. The refrain that I keep hearing is that social media makes everything worse since you’re able to spread this disinformation at scale. Do disinformation campaigns last longer, or are they more powerful because of social media?

Yochai Benkler

You think that North Korea is strong on social media? You think that Pravda was social media? The Committee on Public Information in World War I was the origin. This is pre-radio, we’re talking about newspapers and the penny press and posters. As soon as the public, as the masses are invented at the beginning of the 20th century, we see the emergence of propaganda as a discipline. There’s an elite that wants power. And it’s using and developing the techniques, the most cutting-edge techniques it can, to control the population.

Rani Molla

So social media is just the technology of the day with which they’re doing the same thing?

Yochai Benkler

As it turns out, even that’s an overstatement. Because Fox News, if you look at all of the Pew surveys from the last seven or eight months, the group of Republicans who are most on message are the people who say that they only get news from Fox News and talk radio. Anybody who gets news from anything else, which includes online sources, is less single-mindedly loyal to the perspective of the party. So if all you consume is Pravda, that is to say Fox News and talk radio, you believe in the party line. If you get a little bit of samizdat on the side, you’re not quite so sure.

Rani Molla

Recently Facebook banned QAnon and Holocaust denial, and took down a Trump post that incorrectly said the flu is more deadly than Covid. Twitter is noting when the president tweets misinformation and is generally trying to dissuade people from sharing falsehoods. What’s your take on efforts by social media companies to curtail disinformation on their platforms?

Yochai Benkler

On these big campaigns — the economy, Covid, and voter fraud — I think it’s okay for them to do it. They can try, particularly when the people they’re constraining are known elites. I think that’s a place where using powerful corporate power to contain powerful political elites is not too bad.

I doubt that it will be hugely influential if tomorrow you shut down Trump’s Twitter handle. He would not meaningfully lose access to the people he wants to lead because as it is, even on this campaign, he uses his daily press briefings and picks up the phone to Maria Bartiromo or Sean Hannity on the radio and he makes his comment, so he’ll go find a different venue.

Rani Molla

What’s the downside in trying?

Yochai Benkler

I am worried about a handful of very powerful corporations getting legitimacy to navigate public discourse. We are facing such a challenge that we’re at risk of making bad precedent. Just like traditional journalists want to appear neutral, there’s enormous pressure on Facebook and Twitter not to appear biased against the right. So you have completely asymmetric levels of propaganda, which means if you actually had neutral application of the policies, you’d get massively more enforcement against right-wing than left-wing stories, just because that’s the origin of most of the propaganda at the moment. But if you’re trying to actually look even-handed, then suddenly, you’re going to make up some antifa groups that are not antifa groups at all, but happen to have a lefty orientation, you’re going to shut them down. You’re going to look even-handed under conditions that are not actually symmetric and even.

I have a long-term concern about imagining that we can solve really foundational tensions in our democracy by giving more power to a tiny number of extremely powerful companies to shape how we talk about our relations in the society.


Help keep Vox free for all

Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.


{widget2}

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *