Never before in the history of elections in this country has disinformation been so deliberate and pervasive. In the current age of social media, media manipulation has become so commonplace that for many, it has become difficult to separate truth from false information. 

These tactics of spreading disinformation—meant to confuse and influence voters, drive down voter engagement and enthusiasm—could very well change the course of the 2020 election and those that follow.

“Viral misinformation is contagious, and it is dangerous just like an actual virus. This content spreads because people are sharing it with each other,” said Cameron Hickey, Program Director of Algorithmic Transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). “And it creates significant problems that put our health and well-being at risk as well as the future of our democracy.”

Hickey studies elections and defines misinformation as information that is wrong, but is perhaps shared unintentionally. Hickey defines disinformation as problematic information that is shared intentionally, such as rumors, junk news, conspiracies and even hate speech. 

“It doesn’t matter exactly what form it is in, but if it misleads it’s a problem,” Hickey said. “So it is important to recognize that there is not one hard line between information that is absolutely false and what is not or is a little ambiguous.”

Disinformation targets communities in specific and sophisticated ways, making it critical for the average voter to learn how to spot disinformation and news stories that seek to manipulate voters, spread confusion and even discourage voter turn-out. 

So, how do we tell the difference between real news and disinformation and prevent it from spreading it further? Hickey shared some tips on how to spot false and fabricated information, which is essentially the baseline:

  • Content that uses fear and manipulation to make you feel scared, angry or self-righteous and get you to change your behavior. This is potentially risky content that might have underlying misinformation embedded in it in some way or another. In other words, fear mongering.
  • Conspiracy theories that have existed for the last 50 years are still present today, Particularly those that deal with “boogeymen” like the “Deep State” or prominent public figures.  
  • Anything missing context, such as a statement on social media, a meme, image or a video that is lacking some important piece of information that enables you to understand it correctly and without that piece of context it may be misunderstood and may in fact be damaging. 
  • Pseudoscience has existed for a long time, climate change denial and unproven cures for CVID 19 are perfect examples of this sort of disinformation.
  • Anything that employs hate outright or uses terms or themes that divide based on identity are rooted in misinformation and perpetuate other kinds of problems.
  • Faulty logic can be trickier to identify, it can overlap with problems around context. 
  • False equivalence and making a comparison between two things that aren’t really comparable. 
  • A tactic frequently employed, especially in memes and videos on social media, is to share old content that may be legitimate or accurate when it was originally published, but isn’t relevant anymore when it gets shared again. 
  • A theme seen a lot of recently, which has always been in political discourse, is constantly referring to political candidates, their messages or their positions in exaggerated or extreme ways such as referring to Republicans as “Nazis” and Democrats as “Communists.”

Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher at Equis Labs, sees a troubling use of social media for the offline goal of suppressing the vote and depressing enthusiasm among key progressive constituencies, including the Latino community. 

Illustration: Alexis Terrazas

“We often see bad actors trying to inflame previous intentions within and between communities and create divisions among communities of color,” Licona said.

Hickey echoed something similar. 

“We’re no longer having conversations about the issues or the identities of the politicians running for office. Instead we are exaggerating narrow bands of their perspective and amplifying them in ways that are distorting reality,” Hickey said. 

Hickey also weighed in on voting accessibility. 

“We’re having a lot of trouble getting a handle on voting access and it is likely to accelerate,” he said. “This is not the first election where we’re seeing this, but we are also seeing messages about voting itself. ‘When can you or can’t you register for mail-in, absentee ballots, etc.’ There is more disinformation around ballot risks almost every day with images circulating on social media of a ‘pile of ballots somewhere.’ There are also more complex questions about voter fraud and the concept of ‘ballot harvesting’ that has essentially become a code word for what is at times potentially legitimate activity and other times not.”

“Many people are seeing pictures of mailboxes looking like they were being picked up and thrown away or filling junkyards,” said Jacquelyn Mason, Senior Investigative Researcher at First Draft. “All of this sort of information starts to proliferate around the same time and it is anxiety-inducing very confusing to the voter.”

But disinformation doesn’t have to be false to become a problem. For example, with respect to the election, conspiracy theories like voter fraud connected to mail in ballots, QAnon and a looming Civil War all work to erode public trust. And claims that there will likely be violence, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, can act as a “seed in the ground” for real potential violence. 

Finally, there are broad and unfounded allegations about stealing or rigging the election. “We see a lot of that message and it’s become part of a steady drip of problematic content that people are experiencing on a daily basis,” Hickey said. “It is undermining our faith in democracy, our institutions and laying the groundwork for chaos come November.” 

This information was presented by speakers participating in a video conference hosted by Ethnic Media Services Friday, Oct. 16, as part of a series of press briefings on voter issues in the 2020 elections.