Ahead of the the US Presidential elections, Americans are sharing a barrage of false and misleading content in the form of images, videos, memes that has led researchers to comment on homegrown disinformation that could pose a risk to the said polls.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's 2019 report had established that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US election with one of the operatives being a Russian entity that carried out “a social media campaign that favoured presidential candidate Donald J Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
Speaking to news agency AFP, Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics and expert on data science and social media at New York University, said, "What the Russians did in 2016 was show a toolkit, where you could use deceptive actors online working in coordination with each other as a political tool.”
“There’s been a fixation on foreign interference, but the people who really have an incentive to influence the outcome of an election are people who live in that country- Americans,” Tucker added.
Facebook Removes 200 Accounts Originated in the US
In a Facebook report published in October about coordinated inauthentic behaviour, the platform mentioned that it removed 200 Facebook accounts, 55 Pages and 76 Instagram accounts in the first week of the month. The accounts were removed as they violated Facebook’s policy against coordinated inauthentic behaviour.
The report further mentioned that the accounts originated in the US and focussed “primarily on domestic US audiences and also on Kenya and Botswana.”
The report also stated that the ones operating these accounts used stock profile photos and posed as right-leaning individuals across the US.
Meanwhile, some of these accounts that were in existence from before, had earlier in 2018, posed as left-leaning individuals.
Social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter have been taking measures to tackle misinformation but the policies aren’t applied in the same way when the source of fake news is from US, a New York Times report stated.
“When it comes to domestic and homegrown misinformation, social media companies still do err on the side of free speech,” Davey Alba, technology reporter at The New York Times said.
Political Discourse ‘Poisoned’
In a reference to the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory, the one that claimed that Democratic elites ran a child sex trafficking out of a pizza store in Washington, Professor Russell Muirhead, co-author of ‘A Lot Of People Are Saying,’ told AFP that the political discourse has been “poisoned.”
“This story, with no basis whatsoever, purports to show Hillary Clinton as a concentration of pure evil..How do you make politics with such a person? You can’t, so you have to make war. That story told Trump supporters that in a political context you are engaged in a war with someone who should be locked up,” Muirhead added.
This year, too, saw a pro-Trump conspiracy theory called QAnon, that claims that the world is being run by paedophiles and Trump aims to punish them. The theorists of this conspiracy are of the opinion that Democrats and Hollywood actors are a part of child sex trafficking ring.
"QAnon is now painting Joe Biden not as a legitimate opponent but as part of this team of globalists who are intent on destroying America, not to be argued with but to be eliminated," Muirhead said.
On 15 October, Trump had appeared for a town hall at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami where when he was asked to denounce QAnon, Trump once again refused.
Trump responded, “I know nothing about QAnon."
Immediate Disinformation Risk: Trump’s Claim on Mail-in Ballots
The AFP report further mentioned that as per Joshua Tucker, Trump’s repetitive claim of mail-in ballots will lead to “fraud,” poses immediate disinformation risk to this year’s vote.
Out of the 13.4 million mentions of mail-in ballots on social media between January and September, media insights company Zignal Labs found that nearly one quarter were most likely misinformation.
The NYT report also mentioned that different conspiracy communities are working in tandem. The organisation looked at the month of August and different conspiracy communities such as election misinformation groups, ant- mask groups, QAnon groups, were crossposting the same content on Facebook.
“A lot of people who believe that the coronavirus is a hoax will also believe that the elections process is not to be trusted,” said Davey Alba.
Meanwhile, Claire Wardle, US director, First Draft told NYT that the theme here is that several Americans will feel that they “cannot trust institutions.”
Elaborating on its impact, Nick Corasaniti, politics reporter at NYT said, “What that does is that it will create a big uncertainty, and allow any bad actors to spread, more disinformation in an already charged electorate. It will also give people the opportunity to say they’ve rigged an election, when it’s so much harder to actually rig an election.”
In an earlier story, The Quint’s WebQoof team found that there is no evidence which corroborates the allegation that states which send mail-in ballots to voters automatically have issues with accuracy.
Mail-in voting, in simple terms, means authorities send ballots to a voter based on their request which is then sent back to the authorities post voting. This system of voting has been around since the US Civil War, when the Union and Confederate soldiers were allowed to cast ballots from their battlefield units and have them be counted back home.
(With inputs from AFP, The New York Times)
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