Last week, we discussed the predicted onslaught of misinformation and disinformation about the 2020 Election with Damian Radcliffe. He’s a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. He and KLCC’s Brian Bull revisited the issue, post-Election Day. Bull started by asking Radcliffe just how rampant the propaganda attack was from his perspective.
Bull : Now that the election is over, how rampant was the misinformation/disinformation campaign from your perspective?
Radcliffe: Well, I think it’s too early to tell the extent of this to be honest. I mean what we do know, is that misinformation and disinformation throughout the campaign from both external and internal actors, and arguing this it’s still continuing, so it’s easy to forget right now that only a few weeks ago we were talking about Hunter Biden’s laptop and emails purportedly on that. We also had the voter intimidation from Iran, with emails purportedly coming from the Proud Boys, so there’s a whole number of different case studies and examples I suspect researchers will be diving into for a long, long time.
Interestingly there was research published by the Pew Research Center in DC over the summer that said that the majority of Americans actually expected that there would be misinformation and disinformation around the Election Day and the campaign. And it’s pretty clear not going away. So from my perspective that’s why media literacy skills, pushing back on conspiracy theories, and continuing to shine a light on the importance of tech platforms and the work that they’re doing…those are all really vital things that we need to be doing moving forward.
Bull : While much concern hovered over foreign "bad actors" and domestic partisans, it appears a lot of misleading information and heated rhetoric is coming straight from the White House. What are we seeing from President Trump that's proving divisive and false?
Radcliffe: Well, the picture’s certainly confusing. On the one hand we have demands for recounts in some states, stop the vote in others, and keep voting elsewhere. So it’s no wonder some people don’t’ quite know what to make of what’s happening right now. And again, this isn’t necessarily new to the election cycle. When we think about the coronavirus research over the summer from Cornell University, found the President Trump had been responsible for 38% of coronavirus misinformation based on the sample of 38 million articles that they analyzed. So one really important question here is whether the way the media reports and frames these stories is the best way to approach it. Do they just simply amplify falsehoods? Does shining a spotlight on an issue actually just make it worse?
And certainly when we’ve looked at the last couple days and some of the election coverage, it’s been really interesting to see a bit of a shift in terms of some of the ways how the media’s covered this. So we’ve seen major networks being more willing to cut away from the president speaking, and also to be more forthright in the corrections that they’ve offered, and indeed the language in those corrections. 4-5 years down the line, it’s as if they’re finally starting to get a handle on how push back against misleading information.
Bull : What are some social media companies and journalistic organizations doing to offset propaganda and bad information?
Radcliffe: Well there’s a lot of different things that media companies and journalistic organizations are doing. Perhaps the most prominent of this has been labeling. So we’ve seen this on Twitter, for example, where tweets from the president and others have been flagged as “misleading. They have a very public civic integrity policy and any tweets that fall foul of that will be flagged accordingly. And Twitter’s also permanently suspended an account associated with Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist after he suggested in a video posted on YouTube that Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and FBI director (Christopher)Wray should be beheaded. So he’s actually been banned permanently from that platform. So we’re seeing some labeling, we’re seeing banning, but each platform has its own rules, and there’s plenty of less mainstream platforms that are not in the public eye in the same way that are gaining attention and are used by different constituencies.
So for example on Thursday there was a Facebook group organizing around the hashtag, “Stop the Steal”, which gained more than 300 members overnight. Facebook removed that group on Thursday afternoon, but all that resulted in was members of that group setting up new Facebook groups, both public and private, or indeed moving to other platforms like MeWe and Parler to keep organizing. So it’s very, very, hard to keep up, let’s put it that way.
Bull: One thing I wanted to share that I experienced myself this previous week, is that I was trying to share something…I believe it was from Nate Silver of 538. I read the headline and thought, “This looks informative”, so I moved to retweet it, and suddenly Twitter popped up this little message said, “Would you like to read the article before retweeting?” And I thought that was actually very smart and very productive.
Radcliffe: Yeah, I saw you share that. And that’s a great example of one of the things that tech platforms are doing. Just making it harder to share. WhatsApp has done that. If you wanted to forward on a WhatsApp message, they’ve limited the number of people you can send it on to. And that’s been a really effective way of reducing SPAM and also trying to ensure that people think responsibly before they share on different social networks.
Bull : Do you think we’re ever likely to see a time when some form of absolute truth exists, or are we splintering from bubbles into completely different realities, here?
Radcliffe: That’s a huge question, and I think it’s one that’s keeping many people awake at night. Certainly one challenge right now, is how do we bring the country together? Particularly at the end of a fractious and disputed election process. And what this election has clearly shown, is that on many topics in the country, and indeed our media, see things differently. Some of my friends overseas have referred to us as being the Disunited States of America. And I think there’s certainly an element of truth in that. And one of the reasons for that is because in a digital world it’s really easy to find material which reinforces your existing point of view. And that was less of a challenge in an analog era, where mass reach by a Walter Cronkite or a Dan Rather meant a more shared media experience, and perhaps a more shared view of the world, rather than the more splintered, disparate experience that we have today. So even when we do have absolute truths – for example, on issues like climate change - we know that there are large groups of people who take a different view.
So in my view, because of this, I believe it’s incumbent on all of us to broaden our media diet. And we have to try and understand the perspective and ideas of people who think differently from us. We don’t have to agree with them, but if we try and understand these different points of view, and if we treat them with respect, then maybe, just maybe, we might be able to tentatively move forward.
Bull: Damian Radcliffe, U of O journalism professor, thank you for your time.
Radcliffe: Thank you for having me.
Copyright 2020, KLCC.