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Where Is US Election Misinformation Coming From? Hint: It's Not Russia10:52
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This Nov. 1, 2017 file photo shows printouts of some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, photographed in Washington. (Jon Elswick/AP)
This Nov. 1, 2017 file photo shows printouts of some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, photographed in Washington. (Jon Elswick/AP)

A new report finds that President Trump and the Republican Party are driving online misinformation this election, not shady actors on Facebook or Russian trolls.

When it comes to false claims about mail-in voting, Trump’s Twitter account functions as a press release, says Yochai Benkler, who led the team of researchers at Harvard University's Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society. Trump’s tweets make their way into headlines, which are amplified by the Republican National Committee, his campaign staff and the White House communication team, Benkler says.

Both right-wing outlets and mainstream media have helped Trump spread false messages, Benkler says. Journalists don’t want to take sides or appear biased, he says, so Trump’s “outrageous” claims are put in headlines with a fact-check saying they’re false a few paragraphs down in the story. In August, the researchers started seeing more use of the truth sandwich.

“Early on, this basic desire to grab a headline really helped him get his message outside of those inside the propaganda feedback loop and into the more mainstream,” Benkler says.

A Cornell University study that analyzed 38 million articles about the pandemic found mentions of Trump made up nearly 38% of what they call “the misinformation conversation.” This makes the president the largest driver of falsehoods about the pandemic around the world.

And here in the United States, Benkler’s team finds Trump and other Republicans are the biggest drivers of falsehoods about voting.

Many media outlets have adopted a “dual-track” where they report Trump’s claims to look balanced and then go back to fact check, Benkler says. But what’s initially reported matters most, he says.

“Nobody reads the fact check except for people who already want to find out that the president is lying,” he says. “You really do need to do the fact-checking before the headline is written. And the headline and the lead need to teach the audience what you're about to hear is false. Then you can really contain it.”

The New York Post story on Hunter Biden serves as an example of how news outlets can contain misinformation, he says.

In the audio segment, we also talk with Camille Knox, an editor at the fact-checking website Snopes, about some of the election myths they're debunking.


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on November 2, 2020.

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