It’s been over a year since America’s democracy faced a major test. On Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. And interrupted Congress’s certification of the 2020 election results. The attack came after then-President Trump and his allies repeatedly made baseless accusations of voter fraud. And claimed President-elect Biden’s win was fraudulent.
Allegations of voter fraud and a “rigged” election are part of a misinformation and disinformation campaign that continues to echo across the country to this day. Note: The term — and the reality of — "fake news" isn't new. In fact, it's been used to divide populations for centuries. But it's gotten more prevalent...and more dangerous. In February, US officials warned that false info about this year’s midterms could spark more violence. And that political candidates and election workers may be targets.
And it's not just a US problem. Around the world, stories about coronavirus vaccines and the Russia-Ukraine war have been twisted to help build opposing narratives. From claims that a horse dewormer can help treat COVID-19, to the US funding biological weapons labs in Ukraine, to injured Ukrainians being crisis actors. All false claims, BTW. Yet, there are plenty of people believing these stories.
In this edition of Breaking Down the Buzz, we'll dive into:
1. The difference between misinformation and disinformation
2. How they're shaping the 2022 midterms and other big topics
3. The efforts that lawmakers (and you) can take to combat the growing threat
What’s Getting Shady In Your News Feed
Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation. Raise your hand if you’ve been using these terms interchangeably. (Bonus points if you know the last one.) Here’s the difference between disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation:
These terms typically boil down to intention. Example: If someone shares false info — regardless of whether they meant to mislead someone — they’re spreading misinformation. But if someone’s purposefully sharing info they know is false, then they're in the business of disinformation. And it’s typically for the purpose of making money, gaining influence, or sowing division.
You might be wondering where fake news fits in. That’s usually put in its own category because fake news can be for satirical purposes (see: The Onion). Regardless of intent, a study published in 2018 found that fake news travels faster and reaches more people on Twitter than real news. Truth hurts. But fake news stories can cause even more harm, as seen in…
Information Warfare Around the World
The spread of misinformation and disinformation can be traced to anything from bots (fake accounts that are programmed to spread content). To trolls (people who post to provoke others). To cyborgs (think of it as a partnership between an actual human and bot). And they’re all tactics that've been used for various reasons. Sometimes innocently. And other times, for more nefarious reasons. Including pushing false election stories in countries like France. Cracking down on dissent in Saudi Arabia and on protests in Hong Kong. If you’re looking for even more recent examples, look at…
The Russia-Ukraine war: Social media sites like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook have cracked down on fake images and videos about the war. Users have been led to believe that video games and outdated footage from previous conflicts are depictions of what’s happening in Ukraine. Other videos and images have been impossible to verify as authentic. Now, TikTok, YouTube, and Meta have banned Russian state media outlets in Europe. Meanwhile in Russia, state media and propaganda are convincing some people that there is no war going on. And that Ukrainians are to blame for civilian deaths or that they’re crisis actors.
COVID-19: US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has called misinformation about the virus a “serious threat to public health.” There’ve been conspiracy theories about COVID’s origins. Misinformation about unproven treatments (remember: ivermectin). And claims that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility (which there’s no evidence of). Misinformation and disinformation have also helped fuel vaccine hesitancy…and even deaths. And can partially explain why only 65% of the US population is fully vaccinated — despite there being several safe and effective vaccines.
A 2020 report found organized disinformation campaigns in 81 countries. And that they’re being produced on an “industrial scale by major governments, public relations firms, and political parties.” As many know, the battle lines in the information wars have been very prevalent in American election cycles. Which brings us to…
US Election Misinformation And Disinformation
Here’s a quick recap of the campaigns that rocked the vote in 2016 and 2020…and not in a good way:
Russian interference. Fact: The Kremlin influenced the 2016 presidential election to help President Trump win. Russia targeted all 50 states ahead of the presidential election. And did it in part by spreading false info via political ads on Google and Facebook, and posts on Twitter. Big Tech developed new policies to avoid a repeat of foreign meddling. But then 2020 came along, saying ‘wait, I can do that better, what if it’s like’...
The “Big Lie.” AkaTrump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen. See: His allegations that voting machines changed or deleted votes. And that mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud. It was enough to get thousands of people — including QAnon members and far-right extremists — to get on board. On Jan. 6, 2021, the Capitol saw its first major attack since 1814 as Trump supporters broke into the building. The insurrection left at least 140 people injured. And multiple people died. Meanwhile, America is still dealing with the attack’s aftermath over a year later, which brings us to…
The 2022 Midterms: The Next Chapter in the Information Wars
On March 1, Texas kicked off its primaries leading up to the November midterms. Reminder: All 435 House seats and about a third of the 100 Senate seats are up for grabs. And Republicans and Democrats are in a tug of war for control of both chambers. So, the stakes are pretty high.
As more states get their voting booths ready, state and federal election officials are putting security under the microscope. It comes as one analysis found that more than 40% of Americans still don’t believe Biden legitimately won the presidency. And as candidates running for Congress and local offices are following Trump’s playbook for their 2022 campaigns.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D), who’s received countless death threats, has been outspoken about election misinformation and disinformation. And has made headlines for her efforts to improve election security.
“I think there’s massive misinformation at every level of election administration at this point,” Griswold said. “If 2021 was any indication, one of our biggest challenges in 2022 will be fighting election disinformation.”
She wants to make threats against election officials a crime. And wants security to be provided to targeted officials. Especially for women in elected positions who’ve faced everything from verbal threats to attempted kidnapping plots.
“We need to do it for all the women who will be running after us so that they can feel secure in the decision to run for public office,” Griswold said.
Meanwhile, fact-checking experts are also gearing up for what the 2022 midterm elections may have in store. Angie Drobnic Holan, editor-in-chief of PolitiFact, told journalists that it’s still unclear what kind of misinformation will come out ahead of the midterms.
It raises the question…
Who’s Running the Election Rumor Mill?
Federal authorities haven’t called out specific groups…yet. But this is what officials have seen and are looking out for:
Potential insider threats. Griswold’s office has opened investigations into clerks and recorders in three counties over potential election security breaches. These could compromise security information and lead to tampering. Similar investigations have taken place in Ohio and Michigan. The cases put a spotlight on the possibility that the very people in charge of overseeing votes may pose a threat to elections.
Elected officials. State secretaries told Politico they’re worried about how legislators and other state officials may be fueling disinformation. Adding that some could be using their platforms to entertain false election claims. Lawmakers in state legislatures across the country have also used allegations of voter fraud to enact restrictive voting laws. See: the 34 measures that passed in 19 states last year. And the trend’s not slowing down. This year, there are more than 250 bills in the works (some are ones that didn’t cross the finish line in 2021).
Candidates. Some Trump supporters are running for positions that would allow them to oversee state elections. And that’s got Democratic lawmakers concerned. The former president has given three candidates for secretary of state — which oversee their state’s elections — his endorsement.
Foreign interference. Department of Homeland Security officials have nyet removed Russia from their ‘watch list.’ The Kremlin’s got quite the track record of election interference (see above). US sanctions issued against Russia for its attack on Ukraine have also raised concerns about potential retaliatory cyberattacks.
Domestic extremism. DHS officials have warned “lone offenders or small cells of individuals” remain a top threat in the US. Think: Groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. And said their goal is to “sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions.”
Who’s Being Targeted By These Rumors?
The simple answer: The American public. But some reports have shed light on how communities of color were being specifically targeted with lies in previous elections. Here’s how they’ve impacted…
The Latino community: Ahead of the 2020 election, allegations in the form of Spanish political memes, videos, and images spread on WhatsApp and social media. Including misinformation and disinformation saying that Biden was a socialist, a communist or that his admin would put the US under the control of “Jews and Blacks.” Other messages pitted Latinos against Black Americans. Over 70% of Spanish-language political misinformation from 2020 remains online to this day, according to one analysis. And experts warn new messages are picking up ahead of November.
The Black community: Memes and social media messages tried to discourage Black voters from heading to the polls in 2020. And could be a tactic this election cycle. The posts fueled cynicism, essentially asking ‘‘what’s the point of voting if nothing changes?’ It’s a similar tactic that played out ahead of the 2016 election, when Russia targeted Black Americans to keep them from casting ballots. That year, Black Americans’ voter turnout dropped below records set in 2008 and 2012.
How Social Media Contributes to Misinformation And Disinformation
Since the 2016 election interference, social media platforms have gotten plenty of notifications to rein things in for the sake of election integrity. And Big Tech hasn’t completely muted the chat. Meta has focused on deleting fake accounts and networks. And moderating its content by removing posts and adding warning labels. Twitter banned political ads and cracked down on content that violates its rules. YouTube also added an information panel warning “results may not be final” for the 2020 election.
Years later, social media is still playing a huge role in how we consume news. In 2021, nearly 50% of US adults got their news on social media. Facebook ranked as people’s go-to feed. The next fave: YouTube. But spoiler, both have remained cesspools of misinfo and disinfo. And previous efforts by social media companies to fix this issue didn’t go far enough.
Graham Brookie is the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab’s (DFRLab) senior director. The lab’s been monitoring mis- and disinformation in US elections since 2016. Brookie believes that part of the challenge to curbing lies online is that each platform has taken a different approach to a widespread, consistent issue.
“If you see misinformation about the results of the 2020 elections, it doesn't just exist on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. It exists across that ecosystem with a bunch of different influencers and audience engagement. So, we have to have a more comprehensive approach to this,” he said.
Ahead of the midterms, Brookie said the DFRLab expects to see a lot of the same pre-existing narratives that flooded 2020 (like the “big lie”). But said these messages won’t be limited to the traditional social media players like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
“We've seen an enormous amount of growth in users on alt-right platforms [like MeWe] as well as the attention given to alt-right platforms, especially in the wake of January 6th,” he said.
Those alt-right platforms span across a larger info ecosystem that includes WhatsApp, forums, and the dark web, according to Brookie. Meaning, the goal post to curb misinformation and disinformation keeps moving.
For now, it’s also unclear what policies Meta, Twitter, or Google will take on to help guard election integrity ahead of the 2022 midterms. And so far, lawmakers’ calls for holding tech companies more accountable (think: making them liable for content posted on their platforms) have been largely unsuccessful. All the while, people continue to spread the “big lie,” which raises the question ‘why?’
The Psychology Behind ‘Take the Info And Run With It’
In 2020, allegations of voter fraud and a stolen election gained support across the country. Even though Trump's own gov officials said there was no evidence of widespread fraud. How could people ignore the evidence? We reached out to an expert to get some answers.
“People are simply more likely to believe things that support their political beliefs than things that challenge their political beliefs,” Peter Ditto, a UC Irvine psychology professor, said. “We tend to be just more charitable to our own side. We're very groupie when we think.”
The groupie mentality is driven in part by grievance — aka the feeling you’ve been wronged. And Ditto said people’s moral and emotional energy can force them to take action in ways that played out on Jan. 6.
“[That energy] kind of lowers the moral threshold and all kinds of things that aren't acceptable become acceptable,” Ditto said. “That's kind of where we are now. Anything goes once everything gets charged up with that sort of moral fervor.”
Ditto said putting things like warning labels on fake news can help steer people away from misinformation and disinformation. But that it’s really going to take a lot more to get someone to believe the real truth vs their truth.
“What social psychological research would suggest is something like a common enemy or superordinate goal — something that the two sides can only accomplish together,” Ditto said. “You've seen a little bit of that with the Russian incursion into Ukraine…[there’s] a little bit more bipartisanship.”
How To Combat Misinformation and Disinformation
The battle to combat the info wars is very much in your hands, literally. It can be easy to slip down a rabbit hole on your FYP or news feed. So, here are some tips so that you don’t end up on the wrong side of social media:
When it comes to elections, officials across the country have also been on the frontlines of the info wars. In the battleground state of Wisconsin, there are new calls to decertify Biden’s win in Wisconsin. *Looks at the calendar.* It’s 2022.
Meagan Wolfe is the Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator. She said officials are already seeing efforts to spread mis- and disinformation. The commission’s armor: fact-checking, research, and data. But she admits that their work won’t reach everyone, no matter how hard they try.
“I think there's going to be a group of people that no matter how much research we do, no matter how much data we present, no matter how many times it's recounted, investigated or audited, they're still not going to believe,” she said.
Misinformation and disinformation have created polarizing narratives that have threatened democracies. It’s a reminder that where you get your info is important. And can shape decisions about your health, finances, and just about every aspect of life.
Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.