Political

Postal voting fake news in the US: the wrong algorithms get the blame

A study of fake news around postal voting in the US (mail-in voting in American parlance) has found that social media is not the main culprit:

Polling conducted in September 2020 suggests that nearly half of Republicans agree with the president that election fraud is a major concern associated with expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic. Few Democrats share that belief. Despite the consensus among independent academic and journalistic investigations that voter fraud is rare and extremely unlikely to determine a national election, tens of millions of Americans believe the opposite. This is a study of the disinformation campaign that led to widespread acceptance of this apparently false belief and to its partisan distribution pattern. Contrary to the focus of most contemporary work on disinformation, our findings suggest that this highly effective disinformation campaign, with potentially profound effects for both participation in and the legitimacy of the 2020 election, was an elite-driven, mass-media led process. Social media played only a secondary and supportive role…

Our findings here suggest that Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign by using three core standard practices of professional journalism. These three are: elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance , neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side. He uses the first two in combination to summon coverage at will, and has used them continuously to set the agenda surrounding mail-in voting through a combination of tweets, press conferences, and television interviews on Fox News. He relies on the latter professional practice to keep audiences that are not politically pre-committed and have relatively low political knowledge confused, because it limits the degree to which professional journalists in mass media organizations are willing or able to directly call the voter fraud frame disinformation.

In other words, if you want to blame an algorithm, don’t blame those used by social media networks. Instead, blame the electoral algorithm known as the Electoral College which made Donald Trump President despite Hillary Clinton winning more votes.

For more on those flaws in media outlook, especially the focus on balance even in the face of falsehood and the love of outrageous claims, see my book, Bad News: what the headlines don’t tell us.

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Hat-tip for spotting the research: Platformer.

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