Voters sift through false and distorted information to make intelligent choices on voting

A supporter removes a shoe at the Mike Pence rally on Sept. 22, 2020 to reveal "Fake News" Trump socks. Photo by Toni Caushi/BU News Service

By Keminni Amanor
BU News Service

Like many other voters in the U.S., Tetteh Quaye Nortey will be casting his ballot by mail for the first time this year. Contrary to the political rhetoric of the day, he said he trusts the system to make his vote count in deciding who will lead the country for the next four years.

The IT manager in upstate New York decided the mail-in options was safest for the sake of his wife and children. They have four daughters: a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and 5-month-old twins.

“We’re just being ultra-cautious. I mean, since you know, having twins, right, we consider our family as being a high-risk category,” Nortey said. “We’re trying to social distance as much as we can.”

With an abundance of false and distorted information around mail-in voting, Nortey sometimes feels exercising his civic duty remotely is almost as daunting. To sift through the myriad of information, he turns to his trusted news sources. In his case, public radio.

Yet, a new study has identified these same sources propagating distorted information on mail-in voting much more than social media by disseminating false or misleading information from the president.

The study considered 55,000 stories, five million tweets and 75,000 Facebook posts published between March 1 and Aug. 31 to conclude that mass media spread mail-in ballot disinformation to a greater extent than Russian trolls on social media.

In 2016, Russian troll farms took advantage of the lax nature of social media to circulate misleading and biased information to American voters.

Fast forward to 2020, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University found that President Donald Trump is using cable, network, local television and local newspapers to spread his unfounded allegations of mail-in voter fraud.

“He uses the power of the office he holds and the horrified fascination with his norms breaking expressions to force mainstream media to report on his agenda and reinforce the association of mail-in voting with fraud in the minds of distracted readers,” the study said.

Researchers found, over the observation period of the study, Trump used multiple approaches to disseminate and reinforce his disinformation campaign.

First, as the president, when he shares his opinions, the media considers it newsworthy. He took advantage of this when mainstream media picked up on his tweets for news stories or discussions.

Second, the study said Trump used the media’s own ethos of not taking a side to stay unbiased against it to set the agenda around mail-in voting.

During the period observed, the study found that Trump effectively used a “combination of his Twitter account, his press briefings, and his interviews on Fox News to drive the conversation around mail-voter fraud.”

For first time mail-in voters like Nortey, who rely on trusted sources to verify information about their ballot, that means exposure to a lot of disinformation about a process he said should not be “mysterious.”

According to the study, the president was not a lone actor.

“The Republican National Committee and staff from the Trump campaign appeared repeatedly and consistently on message at the same moment,” the study said. This created “an institutionalized rather than individual disinformation campaign” backed by right-wing media.

The division surrounding whether mail-in ballots will skew the elections in favor of Democrats, as Trump falsely suggests, has found its way into many courts. In Pennsylvania’s battleground state, the debate over whether to count late mail-in ballots ended up in the Supreme Court.

The high court ruled in October that mail-in ballots that arrive can arrive up to three days late.

Pennsylvania Republicans had wanted the court to strike out ballots received by election day as invalid – a position that would support the study’s classification of an institutional effort to reinforce a false narrative.

The solution, researchers posited, will have to be different from those adopted after the 2016 elections. In fact, the authors recommended that social media monitoring plays a secondary and supportive role if voters like Nortey were to be spared a rigorous disinformation campaign.

It charged editors of national and local media – especially television stations – trusted by the “the least politically pre-committed and often least politically attentive citizens not to fall for the strategy that the president has used” since the beginning of the year.

The cure, according to the authors, is not more fact-checking on Facebook but “more aggressive policing” of the disinformation war waged by Trump and for mass media to educate its audiences appropriately.

Journalists will also have to be wary of false information peddlers who would pretend to be story sources, according to Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“We see a kind of strategy at work, and so for journalists, you have to be sure that when you see these stories, and you’re writing about them, we recommend that you know, the truth sandwich model: Just fact, fallacy, facts,” she told a recent Society of Professional Journalists webinar.

“So you tell the fact of the story, you make sure your headline tells the fact of the story,” she said. “And then you tell the misinformation, and perhaps even reveal the motivations for the disinformation or misinformation, and then you restate the facts.”

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