How To Detect Disinformation And Fake Election News
This election season has been filled with disinformation—unverified stories of voter fraud, rumors of uncounted and tossed out mail-in ballots, claims of third parties hacking voter results, and other false information. And with possible delayed election results due to the overwhelming number of absentee ballots, driven in part by COVID, there could be even more of this disinformation spread before the final polls are announced. Disinformation expert Deen Freelon discusses how these unverified and fake news stories take hold. Freelon also provides techniques on how to decipher fact from fiction in your overfilled news feeds.
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Deen Freelon is an associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and a principal researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
IRA FLATOW: This election season has been filled with disinformation, unverified stories of voter fraud, other false claims, and with possible delayed election results. There could be even more of this disinformation coming. This can make it difficult to decipher fact from fiction. So how has this information been used during the election? How does it spread? How might you spot it? What is the main aim of it? That’s what my next guest is here to talk about.
Deen Freelon, associate professor and principal researcher at the Center for Information Technology and Public Life. That’s at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. Welcome to Science Friday.
DEEN FREELON: Well, thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Does this information have a definition, as opposed to just lying about something?
DEEN FREELON: Sure. Yeah, I like to distinguish between disinformation, which is false and/or damaging information spread intentionally, with the intention to damage some opponent party, versus misinformation, which is false or damaging information spread unintentionally where the person spreading it believes it to be true.
IRA FLATOW: Give me a “for example.”
DEEN FREELON: OK, so I study the disinformation that is spread by state-sponsored agents, including Russia. And so they spread all sorts of narratives that are intended to damage both sides of the political aisle. These include things– a lot of it is just sort of opinionated stuff. Some of it is factually false. And of course, we have very good information and evidence that this actually is spread on a state-sponsored basis. And so they know what they’re doing.
Versus some of the COVID-19 stuff, that some of your audience may be aware of. Some of these folks who spread this actually believe that masks aren’t effective, or COVID-19 was cooked up by China in a lab. So they actually believe this is true, which has some different implications for how you would correct that kind of thing.
IRA FLATOW: So that that’s my point. So they’re not aiming to convince you. They just want to confuse everybody.
DEEN FREELON: Yeah, so I think convincing is one aspect. One other important aspect of information is that it’s often targeted at people that are very far to one side of the political aisle. So it works based on a confirmation bias, really, confirming a lot of the things that you believe about the other side. Nine times out of 10, that’s going to be negative. And so it’s not trying to switch people from one side to the other. In many cases– most cases probably– it’s just trying to further inflame the sort of negative things that folks already believe about folks that they disagree with.
IRA FLATOW: Now I’ve seen disinformation starting with one story. It gains traction. It gets passed around. Is that a typical case?
DEEN FREELON: Yeah, I think it can spread through social networks. I think this is one of the major places where we see it. It can also come from the top down, from politicians and other places. So yes, and I think that even something that starts out as disinformation– something that’s spread by an agent that has a knowledge of the falsehoods that they’re spreading– can also be spread on a misinformational basis by people who pick it up, and that are not aware of its origins and its intentions.
And so the same piece of information can have a disinformation relationship to people that sort of seed it, or initially put it into the network, but can also have a misinformational relationship to people who spread it, unaware of its original provenance.
IRA FLATOW: So part of the disinformation campaign might involve having you be part of it by spreading it with misinformation.
DEEN FREELON: In fact, that’s actually one of the best ways to do it, because people who really believe what they’re spreading are going to be all that more enthusiastic about what it is. And also, because they will be known to the folks that follow them on social media. They are a much better vector for this content than unknown parties who may be part of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.
IRA FLATOW: Disinformation has always been present in elections. How is it different during this one?
DEEN FREELON: Well, I think historically, politicians have always been seen to bend the truth, to say things that you can sort of take issue with some of the factual aspects of it. But I think within the past four years– certainly since 2016– we’ve really seen an uptick in wholesale falsehoods. Falsehoods– claims about which nothing really is true, made up out of whole cloth, you might say. And so, it really seems to me to be a matter of degree, the extent to which we’ve moved from this kind of spin-doctoring, bending the truth, to just outright making things up, that really have absolutely no basis in truth at all.
IRA FLATOW: It sounds like 1984 that you’re describing– that the bigger the lie, the more believable it becomes.
DEEN FREELON: Yeah. Repetition– psychological studies have shown that repeating something over and over again– so Orwell really had his finger on the pulse there, as far as the psychological empirical results go. Repeating something over and over again, even if it is false, makes it feel true to the people that are perceiving it. And I think that many folks in the political arena in the United States, as well as when we’re talking about foreign state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, are taking advantage of that. If you can repeat it enough times, people start to believe it’s true– especially when it flatters or reinforces their pre-existing political beliefs.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
OK, how can I put on some armor? Can I protect myself, or be better at recognizing disinformation?
DEEN FREELON: Yeah, again, I hate to sound like a broken record, but it really does start with confirmation bias. The disinformation that any individual will typically be most susceptible to will be that which they already believe. And so what that means is that when somebody is trying very, very hard to convince you of something that’s too good to be true, and that would really advantage your side, that, in my mind, raises the possibility that may be disinformation. So it bears further investigation.
You want to go out and look for corroborating evidence. You want to make sure that reputable information and news sources have confirmed this to be true, that there haven’t been major doubts raised about the veracity of the information. So you really want to go out there, figure out what’s going on. And the more it’s trying to verify or reinforce those pre-existing political beliefs, the higher chance that it is, in fact, disinformation.
IRA FLATOW: Beware of strangers bearing gifts.
DEEN FREELON: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: Hey, there is a possibility we will not know the election results for a while. How do you expect disinformation to be used during that waiting period?
DEEN FREELON: I think that disinformation will be used in ways that it is typically used now. For example, to denigrate the other side, to accuse the other side of malfeasance, of doing bad things, of fraud. And these are the kinds of claims that really are going to need solid evidence behind them– or they should have solid evidence behind them– before they are accepted.
So I think listeners should really be on the lookout for any kind of stories or claims that are trying to denigrate the other side, trying to blame them for whatever is going on. I mean clearly, if something is blaming your side, you’re going to reject it out of hand anyway. So just really understanding that commitment to the truth requires that it apply equally to your side as well as the other. So if you do see these kinds of claims that are accusing the other side of doing something really bad, you want to make sure that that is actually true. And you can do that by seeking proper corroborating evidence from reputable news and information outlets.
There have already been lots of allegations of voter mail-in fraud, that kind of thing. So I would expect that to continue. People claiming that there are people from a deep state or whatever, that are sort of conspiring against Trump. Or there’s already been disinformation circulating about possible election-related violence– and so claims of violence. Of course, it actually may happen. So when those claims go out, it’ll be really, really important to make sure that they are verifiable, and that it’s not just people trying to stir up dirt on the other side.
IRA FLATOW: Well, as someone who studies this, and is a scholar in this do you have any greater concerns about larger impacts of disinformation?
DEEN FREELON: Absolutely. So I think one of the major impacts of disinformation is what I call the second-order impacts. And so these are effects of disinformation that don’t depend on actual contact with disinformation content. And so basically, what I’m talking about is the idea that disinformation is out there raises, to some extent, your paranoia level about any kind of content that comes from a source that you don’t necessarily know about. In the back of your mind, you’re always thinking, is that disinformation? Could it be?
So sewing that kind of doubt is something that the mere existence of disinformation being out there kind of engenders. And it also becomes a rhetorical weapon by which people can say, oh, well, something I don’t like, therefore, that’s disinformation. And so without any evidence, you can point the finger and say, well, that’s probably part of a disinformation campaign, just to kind of denigrate it there. And so those two factors constitute what I would call a second-order effect that doesn’t really require any sort of actual interaction with disinformation content.
IRA FLATOW: Well, this has been quite interesting. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.
DEEN FREELON: Sure thing, no problem.
IRA FLATOW: Deen Freelon, associate professor and principal researcher at the Center for Information Technology and Public Life. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.