Misinformation loves a vacuum, and the uncertainty around the outcome of the US presidential race has created a mighty one. As election officials work to count ballots, Donald Trump and his allies have launched a campaign to cast doubt on the electoral process. False declarations of victory and false allegations of fraud are being pumped into the information void, where their salacious narratives compete with the more prosaic reality that counting takes time.
We spoke with experts on disinformation about why people believe the false narratives Trump is pushing, what those people might do in response, and why Trump’s latest conspiracy theory might not catch on the way he hopes.
The big lie
For months, Trump has seeded doubt about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, laying the groundwork for the vague conspiracy theories about fraudulent ballots that he tweeted wildly about throughout the day Wednesday.
Trump’s claims are perfectly suited to people who share what Whitney Phillips, a professor of communications at Syracuse University, calls “deep memetic frames” or “deeply, viscerally held stories about the world that shape what you think to be true and what you think should be done in response”. One such frame is characterized by deep distrust of institutions and “a general sense that there are people who are out to get people who look like us” – such as the so-called “Deep State”.
This mindset has been prevalent in recent months amid the rise of QAnon and Covid-skeptic communities, Phillips said. “In some ways, the sensationalist child-eating, blood-drinking QAnon stuff distracts from the really corrosive part of the narrative, which is the idea that liberals, scientists and Jews are all coming to get you, so you better go get your guns.”
Phillips views Trump’s failure to debunk or denounce conspiracy theories as preparations for selling this latest conspiracy theory. “In the past few months, Trump started using the deep state by name; he started specifically engaging with and embracing QAnon,” she said. “That underlying frame – ‘don’t trust “them”’ – was the groundwork for his efforts to contest the election.”
Notably, this disinformation effort remains a top-down approach. “We’re not talking about misinformation from the grassroots or foreign actors, said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, at a Wednesday morning election debrief. “It’s known influencers.”
Online to offline
Among people who believe Trump’s false claims about election theft, there is likely to be a strong impetus to take action. “Anytime people feel that their rights are being taken from them, especially by the government, we do see widespread social unrest,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Already, protesters have targeted the TFC Center in Detroit, demanding access to the office where ballots are being counted. And worryingly, the American right does not have the same tradition of street protest that the political left does.
“If you don’t have a robust repertoire of tactics as you’re heading into a street protest, then it becomes very appealing to use violence as the messenger,” Donovan said. “It does tend to enliven the spirit of paramilitary organizations and people who are supporters of the second amendment, who believe that a Democratic president would be coming for their guns. We’re going to see a lot of those issues coalesce in the next few days.”
The role of the platforms
Under intense pressure from the traditional news media, researchers and civil society, the social media platforms that long allowed Trump tremendous leeway to break their polices have taken a more aggressive stance toward his false claims about the election. In the run-up to the election, Twitter and Facebook began applying misinformation labels to some of Trump’s false statements, and Facebook even expanded its policy on premature declaration of victory on Wednesday – an uncommonly quick response from a company that tends to dig in its heels when facing criticism from the press.
The labels are by no means a panacea. “For people behind a certain frame, a label on a tweet is just more evidence that there’s censorship,” said Phillips. Stamos also noted that the lack of lasting punishments (like suspensions or bans) for repeat offenders has created a reverse incentive for certain influencers. “They seem to enjoy being punished,” he said. “It’s part of their brand now.”
Losing the megaphone
While Trump is certainly pushing the false idea of a stolen election, and while some of his supporters are deeply susceptible to believing that narrative, it’s still unclear if the narrative will take hold more broadly.
“In order to do disinformation well, you have to have a few key elements,” said Donovan. “One is an online cavalry ready to troll. The second is either key figures or key evidence that allow you to make your claim. The third thing is the claim has to be very straightforward and people have to have something to circulate.”
While various videos and photos have emerged as supposed “proof” of fraud, they have all been debunked by fact-checkers and none appear ready for prime time – the fourth element of a successful disinformation campaign. “To really break out, you need the megaphone of conservative media,” Donovan said.
On election night, Fox News declined to validate Trump’s conspiracy theory and instead hewed generally to evidence-based projections. “The Maga coalition that brought Trump’s presidency into being has been fractured,” Donovan added. “The tale of the tape is going to be if Fox News calls it for Biden ahead of other outlets or in line with other major news outlets. If they are not on board with Trump’s challenges ideologically and in terms of evidence, then Trump is going to have a really big uphill battle in terms of controlling the narrative of who won.”