In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, a tweet featuring popular Indian American actor Aziz Ansari urged voters to cast their vote from home. The photoshopped image showed Ansari, star of Master of None and Parks & Recreation, holding a sign that said “Save Time. Avoid the Line. Vote from Home.”
It’s illegal to vote from home or online in an US election, but that of course, did not deter Russian hackers behind the ad who used Twitter and Facebook to spread misinformation about the 2016 election.
Did some people tweet in their vote? Twitter did not say. Not even when a Congressional committee eventually began an investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, as fake news surged unchecked on social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook included.
Four years later we are in another contentious election cycle. And the fake news machinery rolls on, brazenly manipulating a divided electorate with tales that range from the silly to more serious.
In a post that went viral, President Trump recently retweeted a link entitled “Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network To Slow Spread Of Negative Biden News”, from the news site Babylon Bee, that openly admits to running “Fake News you can trust” – the tagline on its Twitter page. Sometime the truth isn’t obvious even when it stares you in the face!
Absurd news stories from the conservative Babylon Bee and its left-leaning counterpart The Onion, often get significant clicks and shares with their satirical takes on current events. But they sit outside the fringes of ‘countermedia’ outlets which produce stories that are much more insidious and dangerous to democracy.
What’s different with the current crop of fake news protagonists, is they’re not just distant, foreign ‘troll factories’ igniting discontent among voters in the US. A University of Colorado study of Facebook and Twitter users in America reports that people at ideological extremes in this country are likely to make misleading stories go mainstream via social media.
Fake news instigators are unleashing a wave of misleading ads and false news to sow unrest among voters. But’s what’s more concerning is that bad actors are weaponizing social media, with much more dangerous consequences.
Axios reported that at least 11 Congressional nominees have expressed support for QAnon, a conspiracy theory cult which has propagated bizarre stories through its Redditt and other social media accounts, like the one about the coronavirus being created by the ‘deep state’, and the notorious ‘Pizzagate,’ which ended with an armed vigilante storming a neighborhood pizzeria.
This election season, purveyors of fake news are adopting devious tactics to spread misinformation and disinformation to interfere with the election, intimidate voters and suppress the vote.
Speakers at an October 16 Ethnic Media Services briefing shared their perspectives on the intent behind messaging that’s being fabricated to confuse and disenfranchise voters.
“It doesn’t have to be false to be a problem,’ said Cameron Hickey, Program Director of Algorithmic Transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC). In fact, fear mongering in conspiracy theories is designed to make recipients scared, angry or self-righteous and provoke changes in behavior, like the aforementioned gunman in the ‘Pizzagate’ incident.
With regard to the upcoming election, said Hickey, the most ‘concerning’ thing is talk of an impending ‘civil war’ that is appearing in messaging from both sides of the political spectrum. Warnings to voters about being prepared for armed conflict in the event of election results that don’t result in their favor, are “seeding the ground for potential violence,” warned Hickey.
Information about mail-in and absentee ballots, or when and where and how people can vote are embedded in messaging that may be (intentionally or unintentionally) misleading. A classic example of this said Hickey, is the one which says, “Republicans can vote on Tuesdays and Democrats vote on Wednesdays.”
Jacqueline Mason, senior investigative researcher at First Draft, shared a picture of Kamala Harris, the Democratic VP nominee, that went viral on social media. The photoshopped image showed Harris against images of black men she had allegedly imprisoned beyond their release dates, though upon closer inspection, the background appears to be composed of repeated images of the same six men.
What does this discordance say about our culture with its reliance on digital echo chambers and crumbling trust in mainstream media and government?
“We are no longer having conversations about the issues or the identities of the politicians running for office but exaggerating narrow bands of their perspective and amplifying them in ways that distort reality,” said Hickey.
Not only is it becoming harder to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t, in the false narratives being pedaled on social media, but it appears that civil discourse, along with a responsibility to the truth, is also slipping away from our collective grasp.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents