Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev: How to put out democracy’s dumpster fire
The process of producing viral misinformation hits followed a familiar pattern throughout the 2020 campaign: Prominent pro–Donald Trump influencers or hyper-partisan conservative outlets would pick up a real-world event—in many cases an isolated incident that bubbled into the national conversation via social media—and shoehorn it into a far broader narrative. Many of the narratives involved hints of conspiracy. So it was with the wayward Wisconsin ballots: Soon after WLUK published its story, Hoft dashed off an article that added four lines of original content atop the station’s reporting:
Democrats are stealing the 2020 election.
Two trays of US mail were discovered in a ditch near Greenville, a rural area north of Appleton, Wisconsin.
According to local officials the mail included mail-in ballots.
The USPS unions support Joe Biden.
Soon after the story’s publication to The Gateway Pundit’s website and social-media pages, Charlie Kirk, a radio talk-show host and Twitter-verified conservative activist with 1.7 million followers, reposted it, as did Breitbart News. By noon the following day, more than 40,000 individual Twitter accounts had retweeted the story, reaching millions of viewers. That afternoon, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany cited the Greenville ballots as evidence that mail-in voting was fraudulent—an overarching theme that was one of 2020’s misinformation super-stories.
Within days of its discovery, the discarded mail had been weaponized into an attack on the integrity of the U.S. voting system. The story was challenging for fact-checkers. Mail had been discovered in a ditch in rural Wisconsin. Local officials had claimed that the mail included ballots. The Postal Service’s union had endorsed Biden. But the overall impression that Hoft’s story created—that USPS workers were part of a Democratic plot to steal the election—was decidedly false. A few days after the story went viral, Wisconsin elections officials clarified that the discarded mail “did not include any Wisconsin ballots.” (Subsequent local news coverage, from February, noted that seven Minnesota ballots had been turned over to that state.) In fact, the Democrats had not tried to steal the election, but by that point, the facts didn’t matter. The outrage machine had moved on, drawing its audience’s attention to other manufactured grievances.
Renée DiResta: Right-wing social media finalizes its divorce from reality
Research teams participating in the Election Integrity Partnership saw this process play out repeatedly, via many of the same accounts. One team, at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, looked at which accounts were involved in specific viral misinformation “incidents”—for example, claims that Arizona voters had been improperly given Sharpies to mark their ballot, that Republican poll watchers were illegally excluded from Philadelphia vote-counting sites, that dead people had voted in Michigan. The researchers noted that 21 prominent influencers, including the actor James Woods, Donald Trump Jr., a couple of QAnon leaders, and former President Trump himself, had each amplified misinformation about at least 10 incidents. The University of Washington team also examined the domains of articles that were shared in voting-related viral misinformation incidents. The Gateway Pundit topped the list. It and Breitbart News are among the hyper-partisan media outlets that bundle small kernels of truth—such as the Greenville mail discovery—within concentric applications of falsehood.