It all started with a tweet–claiming that more than 1,000 mail-in ballots were discovered in a dumpster in Sonoma County, California. Within hours, popular far-right news sites ran a story suggesting thousands of uncounted ballots had been dumped by poll workers.
The photo in question (above) actually shows empty envelopes from the 2018 primaries that were put out for recycling. Ballots for the 2020 election had not even been mailed out yet. Within one day, more than 25,000 Twitter users shared these false ballot-dumping stories, including Donald Trump Jr., who has 6.4 million followers.
During his 2020 re-election campaign, President Trump claimed that if he lost the election, it would be because the election was rigged by democrats and voter fraud by mail-in ballots. His claims have been flagged as false on Twitter.
Understanding how misinformation and intentional disinformation spreads has been a popular topic among social scientists. Kate Starbird, a crisis informatics researcher, says “This narrative that you’re not going to be able to trust the election results is really problematic”. If Americans cannot trust their elections, how can their democracy work well?
Misinformation, deception, and spin on stories have been around as long as reporting has. The 1835 issue of the New York Sun newspaper in six parts — had a lithograph that depicted the “discovery of life on the moon”.
In 2016, false, radical headlines became the modern-day version of the phrase “fake news”. During the last election between President Trump and Hillary Clinton, young people in Macedonia were getting rich from writing false stories and other clickbait headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”. Meanwhile, Russian operatives played a major role in spreading disinformation on social media in an attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election.
In 2017, President-elect Trump popularized the term fake news on Twitter. It is no longer a term to describe falsehood stories, though. A quick Google search of fake news populates almost 600 million news stories. Since the phrase has become ubiquitous, its meaning has changed. Things like conspiracy theories, mistakes, and reporting that people don’t agree with have all been gathered under the umbrella of fake news.
The ease of creating fake news today with digital tools only propels the number of falsehoods out there. In November, a video was shared on Twitter in which Biden was made to appear like he forgot what state he was in while campaigning. In the video, Biden addresses a crowd saying, “Hello Minnesota!”. However, a talented video editor changed the signs that originally read “Text MN to 30330” to say “Text FL to 30330” to make it appear as if Biden did not know where he was. The video was viewed over 1 million times before Twitter labeled it “manipulated media” and was eventually deleted by the user.
People who create fake news articles don’t actually care about American politics. They care about generating clicks and engagement. These people make quick money from the fake news stories we share with Facebook advertising.
Americans’ Media Diet
Misinformation can take many forms and doesn’t only live on obscure websites. A family member could share false information as a status update on social media. Discussions in a private online group could be incorrect. Fake news can appear in mainstream media and even in tweets from the President.
A good media diet is increasingly hard to obtain in the U.S. and people no longer have access to a breadth of viewpoints in their media consumption. With the surge of partisan media outlets, viewers can select to consume only one side of a story.
Social media algorithms feed readers stories and ads that viewers “like” already. Isreal Wasimel-Manor, an expert on American politics in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa, says “Inside this echo chamber you are only exposed to your own opinions and that is very unhealthy for democracy”. With an increase of fake accounts, bots, and other forces, our reality is being skewed by Facebook algorithms.
Many folks can feel overwhelmed while scrolling through their social feeds so people like to share information that makes them feel good. According to Caire Wardle, a research director at First Draft, confirmation bias happens when people see information that makes them feel connected with others who think similarly. Without fact-checking, they share and quickly pass on false and problematic content. If information supports the side we agree with, we’re more likely to believe it and less likely to think critically about it.
Repetition also makes us more likely to believe something is true. According to Princeton political science professor Andy Guess, “One of the real dangers of social media is that there could be one news report or one claim that gets retweeted a bunch and trickles down to people’s feeds, in ways that obscure that this all came from a single source”. When you see a story that has been shared multiple times or has “gone viral”, you’re more likely to believe it to be true.
Sharing and Consumption
Since the 2016 election, many have argued that social media played an integral role in exposing people to untrustworthy news. These claims have been supported by many recent studies. Fake news is 70% more likely to be shared or retweeted compared to hard news because novel information is more likely to be shared. It is also worth noting that those aged 65 or older are 7 times more likely to share fake news on social media.
During the 2016 election campaign, almost 6% of all news that was consumed on Twitter was fake. Though only 1% of users were exposed to most of the fake news, and 0.1% were responsible for sharing. This means that fake stories gain a lot of traction, but they represent a small fraction of the total news coverage.
In the final three months of the 2016 election, the top-performing fake news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post. However, a Dartmouth study noted that less than half of Americans visited an untrustworthy website in the weeks before the 2016 election, and those websites made up a small percentage of people’s online news diets.
According to a 2017 study by researchers from NYU and Stanford, more than 40% of visits to 65 fake news sites are derived from social media, compared to around 10% of visits to 690 top US news sites.
There was widespread interest in the claim that fake news helped win the election for Trump in 2016. However, most of the fake news circulating in 2016 was conservative-leaning, or pro-Trump. There was also evidence of Trump supporters consuming news from untrustworthy conservative websites. This was heavily concentrated among a subset of Americans with conservative information diets.
Most of the fake news in 2020’s election cycle originated with right-wing groups, attempting to create doubt about the integrity of the election. People saw an average of 5 1/2 fake news articles during a month-and-a-half-long study, and 5.00 of those articles were pro-Trump.
Not all election disinformation is coming from sketchy websites. Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, examined if the claims of election fraud with mail-in ballots have become a central threat to the legitimacy of the election. His team analyzed more than 55,000 online stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 Facebook posts between March and August. What they found was that most spikes in media coverage on the topic were driven by Trump himself — either through his own hyperactive Twitter account, press briefings, or appearances on television.
Whose Responsible to Slow the Spread?
Ahead of this election, the largest social networks, Facebook and Twitter, announced that they would ensure that fake news would not spread as quickly this time around. Though it seems that mainstream only media feels the need to debunk only after falsehoods gain traction. Flagging false information is hardly a cure-all when it comes to preventing the spread of misinformation.
Facebook has generated automatic labeling of posts about voting information, pointing readers to vetted sources. But ultimately, doesn’t lead to the content being taken down.
Twitter has flagged fake news with a disclaimer, including a link to a detailed company policy and slowing the spread of misinformation. When users click on the retweet button, they are prompted to think twice before retweeting the message, with language again linking to the misinformation policies.
According to the Pew Research Center, 20% of U.S. adults say the public should have the responsibility to reduce fake news. But half of Americans say they have shared fake news themselves and didn’t know it was made up in the first place.
In the same survey, 57% of adults say political leaders create a lot of made-up news and 53% say the same thing about activist groups. Americans aren’t placing blame on journalists for creating made-up news and information, but put most responsibility (53%) on them to fix it.
Do Americans Trust in Democracy?
The President has declared the U.S. the greatest country in the world. According to a global poll, a median of 83% have no confidence in President Trump to do the right thing regarding world affairs, while just 16% express confidence in the American leader.
In another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans view fake news as a bigger problem than terrorism, illegal immigration, racism, and sexism. About seven-in-ten U.S. adults say made-up news and information greatly impacts Americans’ confidence in government institutions, and half (54%) say it is having a major impact on our confidence in each other. Two-thirds (67%) say that made-up news designed to mislead causes a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues.
Americans feel that political divides in the country are the greatest obstacle to addressing the problem of made-up news and information. Almost two-thirds (64%) see those divides as a very big challenge. Between 41% and 44% acknowledge the ability to make money from made-up news and the public’s low awareness about current events as very big hurdles to a solution.
How to Spot Fake News
Here’s what you can do to limit your own exposure of misinformation:
Unfollow known sources of misinformation. Avoid suspicious-looking websites, which might be imitating the websites of real news providers. That also means clicking through an article, reading it, and looking for evidence before actually sharing it.
On social media, following reputable sources of news is probably your best bet. You might consider following fact-checking organizations directly, ensuring they are in your feed. If you see a story going viral, pay attention to the headline. The news story could be trending but have a false narrative.
Look out for multiple claims of fake news on sources that generally support your views. Remember that you are more likely to believe a story is true if it already aligns with your beliefs.
Fake news is everywhere and is easily created. Social and mainstream media is doing a better job keeping up with and filtering fake news but does not take down content. When people look to social media, journalists, and the government, they can’t figure out what’s true and what’s not. Fake news inserts doubt into our political conversations and process of democracy. Though, it is important to note that fake news doesn’t crowd out hard news. Fake news stories gain more traction due to their extremities, but they do not heavily influence an election because there’s so little of it compared to real, hard news. Regardless, individuals need to do their own research before reading and sharing information. Please remember to fact-check!