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Election disinformation

A new study suggests the major media play the biggest role in disseminating misinformation

Posted 10/14/20

A group of Harvard-based researchers has provided an important counterpoint to the ongoing concern over how misinformation surrounding the security of mail-in voting has become so widespread in …

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Election disinformation

A new study suggests the major media play the biggest role in disseminating misinformation

Posted

A group of Harvard-based researchers has provided an important counterpoint to the ongoing concern over how misinformation surrounding the security of mail-in voting has become so widespread in recent months.
While many commentators have pointed to social media platforms, like Facebook, or foreign social media trolls or bots, as the primary purveyors of false claims about the security of mail-in voting, the Harvard researchers found that mainstream, or “elite” media, were, unintentionally, the single biggest purveyors of the Trump campaign’s propaganda efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election. Social media played only a secondary and supportive role.
With the latest polls now showing Democratic Vice President Joe Biden potentially headed for a landslide victory just over three weeks from today, the Trump campaign is increasingly desperate to mobilize its supporters for demonstrations and potential violence in response to an electoral defeat by portraying the election as fraudulent. That’s why it’s up to those media sources who are, intentionally (in the case of Fox News) or unintentionally, bolstering Trump’s message to recognize how they’ve become unwitting distributors of a false narrative.
The Harvard researchers found that the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have taken advantage of three primary factors to mount what polls suggest has been an effective disinformation campaign.
First, the president has taken advantage of the media’s longstanding focus on the president as inherently newsworthy (for example, if the president says it, it’s news), its predilection for sensational headlines, and its inherent tendency to resist taking a side on an issue, thus appearing to be neutral.
Because President Trump’s claims about election fraud met the first two criteria, the Trump campaign has found elite news organizations, like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN, to be remarkably effective at disseminating his words. In fact, the researchers found that these three leading news organizations have been more effective than Trump’s own Twitter account in some cases at spreading his message.
While the major media routinely cite elections experts who debunk the president’s claims, the Harvard study found that the mere citing of opposing views left many readers or viewers more confused than informed.
The researchers concluded that the major media’s perennial quest for “objectivity” limited their ability to essentially call-out the Trump team’s messaging for what it is: a disinformation campaign.
President Trump is waging a coordinated propaganda effort against the American people and the major, mainstream media are helping him do it by not explicitly informing their readers and viewers of what is actually true. This has been a weakness of American journalism for decades, as we have noted here before. The reluctance of major media, for example, to challenge the false claims about Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks, helped the former Bush administration make the case for a costly war.
For too long, mainstream media have treated virtually every issue as a kind of he-said, she-said encounter, in which the reporter’s job is merely to accurately parrot what the two sides in any debate have to say. Where the truth might actually lie is, too often, not even up for discussion.
This approach to journalism provides an advantage to the side that is most willing to discard the truth and spread the most appalling or destructive falsehoods. In the current political context, there is no force in the country more prone to dishonesty than Trump and his political allies. Trump benefits not only because he is president— so whatever false claim he makes is automatically amplified— but the more outrageous his claim, the more attention it actually receives. So, when he claims that American elections are rigged, it’s huge news despite the fact that overwhelming evidence suggests exactly the opposite.
That’s where this latest study is useful. The major media can’t blame foreign operatives for the misinformation currently pulsing through the U.S. political campaigns. The major media, more than any single source, are spreading that message. And they’ll continue to do so until these organizations are willing to drill down and focus not on what the politicians say, but on what is actually true. Granted, that’s harder work. But the future of our democracy may depend on it.

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