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In Final Days Of Campaign 2020, FBI Warns Of Last Minute Propaganda Blitz

Bermix Studio

The FBI and other intelligence agencies are warning of aggressive misinformation or disinformation campaigns ahead of Election Day. False accounts of stolen or missing ballots, voting fraud, or changed dates are just a few possible scenarios perpetrated through social media or the internet. 

KLCC’s Brian Bull spoke with University of Oregon journalism professor Damian Radcliffe about the alert.  Bull asked Radcliffe if this anticipated level of propaganda and sabotage is unprecedented in an election year.

Radcliffe:  Well, I think it’s fair to say we saw a lot of misinformation and disinformation in the 2016 elections here in the U.S., and we’ve seen it all around the world. Subsequently in Brazil, Nigeria, France, the U.K. and many other countries. This is often, the reality of the communication landscape that we live in now. Information travels incredibly fast, and misinformation travels just as quickly, and though exactly the same pipelines and that’s what makes it so difficult for people to spot and identify.

BULL: What makes this such a difficult problem, from a truth vs. fiction standpoint?

Radcliffe:   One of the challenges of consuming news, particularly through digital platforms, is this sort of “flattening of news” effect that we’ve seen over the last few years, so what that means is…it is very hard to discern between fact or fiction.  Because everything on Facebook, social media, Instagram looks the same.  It can be hard to differentiate between a legitimate news source and something that is perhaps highly biased or indeed potentially being used to sway opinion one way or another by domestic or foreign actors. And so as a result of that, there’s a very real risk of confirmation bias, of us kind of living in an echo chamber, because particularly if you look at how social networks operate, the algorithm typically serves us news and information that…is based on a lot of our previous consumption habits, things that we have commented on, observed, read, watched, listened to, and so forth.

Credit Camilo Jimenez / Unsplash

So these platforms identify what they think is the news and information that you want to receive and have access to and give you more of the same. And of course, that’s dangerous.  Because not only can it just reaffirm our existing view of the world, sometimes through accurate information, sometimes through inaccurate information and stories, but it also closes our mind to other points of view and perspectives. 

And it’s really important for us as active citizens engaging with these kinds of issues to understand that not everybody thinks as we do, and that we need to understand why people might think differently.  And try to expose ourselves to those views to both understand the complexity and myriad of perspectives that are out there.  And also to potentially challenge our own perspectives and points of view and that’s very hard to do if you’re not introduced to those ideas through your social feeds.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
U of O journalism professor Damian Radcliffe.

BULL:  So what can people do in the final days before the election, to safeguard themselves from false or misleading information on the internet and social media?

Radcliffe:   I think there are three really important things that we need to do. The first, you need to check your sources. So if you see, read, listen, or hear something which might seem a bit off or a bit strange, try to find other sources, perhaps ones that would be outside of the normal spectrum of material that you would consume, that might reaffirm that. Or indeed offer a different perspective or point of view.

Secondly, look at official sources, so government sources, government bodies and agencies, as kind of trusted places to go to.  

And the third thing is, be aware that if you see something that again, just seems a bit strange and you have suspicions about it…report it to these different platforms. They all have mechanisms in place for fact-checking and for identifying misinformation.  But a lot of that material is very sophisticated in terms of how it is produced, and it can slip through the cracks. So unless there’s a sufficiently large number of people who are pointing out some of these issues, they may not get on the radar of these platforms.  And so we have a responsibility as digital citizens and consumers, to try and ensure that something we’ve seen that’s not quite right doesn’t reach other people as well.

Bull: Damian Radcliffe, thank you very much for your time and insights.

Radcliffe:  Thanks for having me.

Note:  The FBI says people should check with elections officials for accurate and timely information, especially if someone is making an inflammatory claim online.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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