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Disinformation and the 2020 Election

iSchool Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley looks at how the spread of false, misleading information online affects election outcomes.

Jennifer Stromer-Galley portrait

In February, House lawmakers learned that Russia intends to interfere with the 2020 U.S. presidential election. If it follows its 2016 playbook, the Kremlin likely will draw on a vast architecture of disinformation to sway voters.

“Social media platforms realize that they play a critical role in the spread of disinformation,” says Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor in the School of Information Studies. “Facebook, for example, believes it stands for ‘free expression’ and should not have to fact-check its political ads. This lack of transparency is troubling.”

We recently caught up with Stromer-Galley, who also is affiliated with the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies and the Department of Political Science, to discuss the impact of disinformation on presidential elections. “I’ve been studying social media since before it was called ‘social media,’” says the renowned teacher-scholar, who is launching a Knight Foundation-funded study of the 2020 presidential campaigns online. “Most campaigns have spin and disinformation. It’s up to us, as consumers of news, to separate fact from fiction.”

Pundits predict that the 2020 election will be a war of disinformation. Do you agree?

Certainly. Since the 2012 election, we’ve seen political leaders worldwide use social media for nefarious purposes—to sow seeds of doubt and confusion. This year’s election likely will be no different.

Is the spread of disinformation anything new?

It’s interesting to contrast today’s information environment with that of the 1940s and 1950s, when the Cold War was ramping up. Back then, journalists were gatekeepers of the news media. They followed an edict in which every fact had to be verified by two sources. It helped eliminate the misuse of factual information by political leaders.

Cable television in the 1980s ushered in the 24-hour news cycle. Infotainment and ideological news flourished, followed by the rise of the internet, blogs and social media. The result is a cacophony of information without any journalistic filter.

How does Russia fit into all this?

By 2016, Russia was using Facebook and other social media platforms to hijack elections in democratically driven countries—not only in the United States and Western Europe, but also in emerging democracies such as India and Brazil. China and other foreign actors followed suit, using social media to advance their political agendas.

We know that by 2012 Facebook reached nearly every American, directly or indirectly. It hasn’t been too difficult to create faux groups online to spread false, misleading information. There’s evidence from 2016 of Russian actors setting up Facebook pages to invite Floridians to attend rallies and other political events.

Why are such micro-targeting tactics potentially harmful?

Micro-targeting is useful for finding supporters, but it also relies on tailored messaging that can unethically influence political debate.

Any political group can advertise cheaply on Facebook. But as multiple lawsuits have shown, Facebook insists that it doesn’t have to comply with state law by publicly providing certain data, such as when ads run, who supports them and what method of payment is used. I’d love to know what the campaigns’ precinct-level, Facebook ad buys were for 2016, but that information isn’t available.

Is there really a war on the media?

The United States is in the midst of an institutional crisis. Many Americans don’t trust Congress or the Supreme Court, for that matter. We need the “fourth estate” [i.e., the free press] more than ever because many people don’t have the time or ability to investigate our public officials or the agencies driving our policies and laws.

People have been questioning the role of the press for decades. The drumbeat continues, thanks, in part, to conservative ideologues who insist there is a liberal media bias.

Is the claim of liberal media bias legitimate?

Surprisingly, the view among most academics is that the news media does not demonstrate liberal bias. Content analysis studies support this.

If there’s a bias, it’s toward what powerful people say, especially lawmakers and CEOs. The liberal bias myth is perpetuated by reporters who, in an attempt to show their readers that they’re not biased, cover conservative lawmakers saying that the media has a liberal bias.

How does the financial structure of news facilitate disinformation?

Print ads used to be a major revenue stream for newspapers, until Craigslist came along. TV news, on the other hand, is a conglomerate-owned money maker, in which owners expect a 12-percent return on investment.

State and local news is all but dead because media owners don’t want to pay reporters. It’s cheaper for them to get stories from wire services, such as The Associated Press. Our obsession with national and world news enables foreign actors to manipulate public opinion because no one is paying attention to what’s happening locally.

Don’t you find this ironic, since it’s probably easier to spread disinformation at the state level?

I do. Targeting voters in 50 states is less work than micro-targeting those in dozens or hundreds of municipalities.

We get duped by false and misleading information because we’re lazy. Social media facilitates a buffet-style approach to news consumption, where we click and scroll, click and scroll, and scan, scan, scan. Instead of snacking on news, we should be intentional about what we consume.

For those of us who don’t fact-check our news, what do you recommend?

If you consume news, do so broadly. Make sure it comes from multiple reliable sources and that it’s clean, healthy and nutritious. News that comes from the gutter is like junk food—it’s a hard habit to break.

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .


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