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MIT Technology Review

Mainstream media is the biggest amplifier of White House disinformation

Mail-in voting is being unfairly undermined—and researchers say it's the US media, not social platforms or foreign powers, doing the most damage.

press setup at white housepress setup at white houseAP Photo/Alex Brandon

The president is running a disinformation campaign, and too many people won’t call it what it is.

“The simplest disinformation is explicitly false or misleading information disseminated for political ends,” says Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who led a team that recently dissected the way disinformation is amplified. 

Take President Trump’s claim that voting by mail invites widespread fraud.

“There’s no question that the assertion that mail-in voting leads to massive voter fraud is false,” Benkler says. “That consensus has emerged over years of study, so that by the time this disinformation campaign starts in April, it’s known to any person who wants to know. As the president says, they think mail-in voting will help Democrats. Why is it anything other than a disinformation campaign when someone tells you they have a specific electoral goal and, in pursuit of that goal, they’re engaging in a sustained and repeated campaign of disseminating information that is false and misleading?”

Benkler’s team just published its study, which examines the president’s disinformation campaign against mail-in votes and details the methods—and people—he’s using to accomplish his goals. The findings found that some of the biggest names in American mass media and the political elite are primarily responsible, and that social media plays only a secondary role. The findings run contrary to the popular idea that it’s foreign troll factories doing the worst disinformation dirty work.

The study examined 55,000 media stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 Facebook posts. The conclusion, echoing their research from 2015 to 2018, is that Donald Trump and Fox News are the key players in this crucial disinformation campaign, not Russian trolls. The researchers mapped the campaign out, showing a clear and recurring culprit: Trump, whether on TV or Twitter or by close proxy.

Berkman Klein Center researchers developed a map of online media outlets, with larger circles representing the number of links from other media sources to stories about mail-in voter fraud. 

There’s been a lot of alarm over Russian interference and clickbait factories on social media, says Benkler, but “in 2016 and today, what we see is that mass media is much more important.”

The American press amplifies this dramatically because outlets cannot resist giving attention to the White House. Calling his actions a disinformation campaign would be profoundly difficult for some journalists who are desperate to project balance as if it is equal to fairness. 

But this has real consequences. Mail-in voting expands access to an election in the middle of a national health crisis, and lies are being used as justification to undercut or eliminate this access—a tactic clearly at play in Texas and other states.

There is a way forward, however. The research argues that the “primary cure” is for these media outlets to more aggressively police the president’s disinformation. 

While many Americans are set in their beliefs on election fraud, there is still a substantial group of persuadables, says Benkler. They are unsure of the truth about election fraud, they watch network news, and they read local papers that aggregate journalism from outlets like the Associated Press.

That means “the only meaningful players are the news editors and the journalists at those outlets most often used for political news by the least attentive, least politically engaged people in society,” Benkler says.

That includes tackling the question of the president’s misinformation clearly and directly, and avoiding false balance. Even the New York Times, whose readers are well informed on the reality of voter fraud, sometimes publishes credulous and noncritical journalism on this. One recent story about Texas shutting down ballot drop-off sites, for example, was headlined “Citing security, Texas governor limits counties to one spot each for in-person ballot drop-offs,” giving credence to the idea. Not until the seventh paragraph does the story mention, as a brief aside, that there is absolutely no evidence that mail-in voting causes fraud.

None of this lets social networks off the hook for disinformation, by the way: it’s a real problem that exists on Facebook, YouTube, and beyond. Trump’s Twitter account is central to this disinformation campaign. He reliably wields its authority and influence as a tool to summon coverage and shape the agenda of American media almost at will.

But whether he tweets or goes on TV, the study says, it’s media coverage of the tweets that amplifies the message—often uncritically—far beyond what the account accomplishes alone.