We are Brendan Nyhan, of Dartmouth College, and Claire Wardle, of First Draft News, and we have been studying disinformation for years while helping the media and the public understand how widespread it is — and how to fight it. This election season has been rife with disinformation around voting by mail and the democratic process -- threatening the integrity of the election and our system of government. Along with the non-partisan National Task Force on Election Crises, we’re keen to help voters understand this threat, and inoculate them against its poisonous effects in the weeks and months to come as we elect and inaugurate a president. The Task Force is issuing resources for understanding the election process, and we urge you to utilize these resources.

*Update: Thank you all for your great questions. Stay vigilant on behalf of a free and fair election this November. *


Comments: 4345 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

Nixplosion1908 karma

Can you recommend a media outlet for news/updates on election activity that, in your opinion, is not biased or at least backed by a special interest?

Further, what's some of the most common disinformation/narrative being promulgated that you wish to see cleared up?

ElectionTaskForce4651 karma

CW: I’m always asked what is the most trusted source of information. The truth is that no-one should be relying on one or two outlets. Reading a variety of sources is a bit like taking regular exercise, it helps you develop skills to understand how complex news stories really are, and how no outlet will capture all the nuance. Watching MSNBC and then Fox cover the same story is an education in itself. I would recommend relying on sources such as PBS, the news agencies (Reuters, AP), international outlets like the BBC, but also try and read around whenever you have a chance. Doing so, makes you a more critical consumer of information, which is what we all need to be these days.

ElectionTaskForce289 karma

BN: Right now, the two most worrisome types of misinformation are arguably COVID-19 misinformation, which threatens to worsen a pandemic that has killed more than 215,000 Americans, and misinformation about the legitimacy of the U.S. presidential election, which threatens to undermine our democratic process.

Capawe21807 karma

What is the biggest lie told by the Biden Campaign? The Trump campaign?

ElectionTaskForce1978 karma

BN: Joe Biden is a politician. Like all politicians, he sometimes says false things. On October 10, for instance, he said Republicans trying to confirm Amy Comey Barrett to the Supreme Court was “not constitutional.” That is clearly wrong. (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/oct/13/joe-biden/fact-check-bidens-misleading-claim-senate-gops-sup/)

Donald Trump has made more than 20,000 false statements according to the Washington Post Fact Checker (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?utm_term=.27babcd5e58c&itid=lk_inline_manual_2&itid=lk_inline_manual_2). It’s hard to know when or if he is intentionally lying in making these statements, as the question suggests, but his pattern of false attacks on the legitimacy of the election are extraordinarily worrisome.

It’s important to be clear about this distinction. Just naming one “lie” from both sides implicitly equates the two sides, which is itself a kind of bias when the reality is asymmetric.

Prettyinareallife771 karma

How do you and your colleagues account for your own confirmation bias?

ElectionTaskForce886 karma

CW: This is something we’re constantly thinking about, both when we’re hiring new staff, but also every day as part of our work. Do we have people coming from different lived experiences? Do we have people who have different political positions? When we’re looking for misinformation, are we using keywords that will capture content that is being posted by all sides? (For example the left talks about ‘anti-vaxx’ whereas the right talks about medical freedom’.) As humans we’re all susceptible to being seduced by information that reinforces our world view, which is why our team is trained to constantly push back against colleagues and to question our work.

jackson71684 karma

What is your position on Lying by omission?

It's something I see daily in the news and also Reddit.

ElectionTaskForce669 karma

CW: This is a key point. People focus on how certain stories are being framed, but we do also need to think about what stories are being ignored. It’s very tempting to think conspiratorially. We often hear people scream - ‘why is the media censoring this story’. But there are a number of reasons why stories don’t get covered. Lack of resources, no journalists who are experiencing the story themselves so they don’t think it’s relevant (this often happens when newsrooms don’t have a range of journalists from different backgrounds), or even the idea that it won’t get clicks (which is what too many newsrooms unfortunately need these days). So yes, there can be bias through lack of coverage, but we also need to think of ways to ensure that news outlets provide comprehensive coverage of different issues, and where possible not assume malintent when there’s no coverage. There’s probably other factors at play.

Fiboxy314 karma

What are the best ways to show the people around us how disinformation has mislead them? If we want to fight the problem of disinformation what should we teach to our friends and family?

ElectionTaskForce393 karma

CW: The key is talking to friends and family about the ways in which disinformation is causing harm. This type of content has real impact - whether it’s people thinking COVID is a hoax, or that masks don't work, or that gargling salt water prevents COVID. Or it makes people think that the electoral system can’t be trusted. We need to talk to each other, by really listening. Why are people believing simplistic explanations? Why are they sharing without checking? We need to be empathetic rather than judgmental with each other. We need to teach each other to recognize when we have emotional reactions, we need to slow down and pause before sharing immediately. But mostly we need people to realize that this stuff is having a real impact.

RespectMyAuthoriteh51 karma

whether it’s people thinking... that masks work,...

Is that not true, though?

ElectionTaskForce102 karma

typo, and fixed!

becausehippo7 karma

So you're saying masks don't work?

This type of content has real impact - whether it’s people thinking COVID is a hoax, or that masks work, or that gargling salt water prevents COVID.

ElectionTaskForce25 karma

typo - we fixed it!

hurtsdonut_6 karma

Wait are you saying masks work is disinformation?

ElectionTaskForce7 karma

typo! the "don't" has been added

YazmindaHenn4 karma

This type of content has real impact - whether it’s people thinking COVID is a hoax, or that masks work, or that gargling salt water prevents COVID.

I'm guessing the "or masks work" is meant to say "that masks don't work"? Because the way it is worded makes it seem like you believe that they do not work? I hope that's just an oops moment.

ElectionTaskForce8 karma

yes. thank you!

the_great_patsby230 karma

Why is it okay for social media platforms to censor information? Who watches the watchmen?

Update: Thank you to all you "Legal Eagles," I wasn't asking why and how social media platforms legally excuse their use of censorship, rather is this an acceptable societal practice? Many of the human races atrocities were once legally sanctioned, that does not make them any less reprehensible.

ElectionTaskForce61 karma

BN: I agree there’s a transparency problem in content moderation by social media companies. It’s a difficult issue. People are concerned about the harms associated with content on the platforms but efforts to restrict those types of content put a lot of power over political speech into the hands of giant corporations. I think we should be uncomfortable with this kind of arrangement. Facebook can shape the distribution of information at a national and global scale in a way we haven’t seen before. At the same time, certain kinds of information really are harmful. More transparency about what decisions are being taken and why would be helpful, as would putting more responsibility in the hands of third parties like Facebook’s journalistic fact-checking partners.

ashplowe155 karma

We all talk about Fox news propaganda, but what types of disinformation is being targeted specifically towards liberals/progressives and what are the most common sources?

ElectionTaskForce124 karma

BN: The misinformation ecosystem is currently asymmetric, but there are certainly producers of false or misleading information targeting the left. Back in the early ‘00s, my colleagues and I at Spinsanity frequently wrote (http://www.spinsanity.org/columns/20021119.html; http://www.spinsanity.org/columns/20040702.html) about Michael Moore’s documentaries. In 2016, foreign producers of false news often tried to promote it to supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but said it often performed less well than pro-Trump false news. Most recently, we’ve seen hyper-partisan sites like Occupy Democrats do well on Facebook. MSNBC hosts like Lawrence O’Donnell and Rachel Maddow often verge into conspiracy theorizing too.


Is there a way to break through people's confirmation bias and present information that they are genuinely unwilling to accept, even if that information is objectively true?

ElectionTaskForce107 karma

BN: Yes! People shouldn’t give up on changing people’s minds. Though fact-checks and other kinds of information can sometimes be rejected (as my research has shown), the consensus in the field is that people’s beliefs do tend to become more accurate when they are exposed to factual information. Here’s one example https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/06/upshot/fact-checking-can-change-views-we-rate-that-as-mostly-true.html from 2016 when it seemed like no one changed their mind.

How to change people’s minds so that they are most willing to accept new facts is less clear. There are no magic messages. With that said, it’s important to find credible sources of information that people trust and to minimize value and identity conflict. With global warming, for instance, hearing that the U.S. military is worried about its consequences for national security may be more persuasive to skeptical audiences than the concerns of liberal environmental groups. It is also the case that reality can break through on issues like climate change, the state of the economy, and COVID-19 that affect people’s everyday lives. Some denialism will always remain, but people clearly do update at least to some extent as these facts become apparent.

Burd_tirgler74 karma

What action can the average person do to combat disinformation?

ElectionTaskForce80 karma

CW: There are a lot of tools and resources for those trying to investigate potential disinformation. For example if you see an account that looks suspicious, check out their digital footprint. Do a reverse image search on their profile picture. Google their username so you can see whether they’re consistent across different social platforms. If they have a website, do a who.is search to see when the website was set up. If you’re looking at a Facebook page, click on the Page Transparency box so you can see when the page was set up, where the page admin is located and whether it previously had a different name.

Ultimately there is no perfect resource. Wikipedia has real strengths for certain types of research, and is a good starting place, but the secret is tapping into your inner Sherlock Holmes and look for as many clues as you can. Piece together the puzzle to see what looks credible, and what seems dubious.

At First Draft we have a lot of resources to help people who are interested in learning these verification skills. https://firstdraftnews.org/training/

PabloEscoGnar58 karma

What is the most dangerous thing, in your opinion, that could happen during this election period? Coming from either side of the spectrum, Democrat, Republican, and everthing else in the middle. Also side question, what is your favorite part of your job? I was not even aware that this was a occupation choice until now.

ElectionTaskForce109 karma

BN: I’ve learned that I lack imagination when it comes to speculating about the worst thing that could happen in 2020, but I’m concerned that the President will use misinformation about the prevalence of voter/election fraud as a pretext to refuse to concede defeat if he loses the election. The peaceful transfer of power is the core of the democratic process. Trump has been engaged in a months-long campaign against the legitimacy of the election. It’s a highly dangerous situation.

get_a_job_guy50 karma

In your opinion, what are the top 5 most reliable sources for news and information?

ElectionTaskForce89 karma

CW: There’s no winning by answering this question (!), but I do want to start by saying that we’re incredibly lucky to have as many news outlets as do. Plurality is a strength, and the fact that we can choose what to read and to compare coverage makes us more informed. But my own bias is for consuming information from news outlets that have really strong editorial guidelines. Those outlets take impartiality very seriously, and you can see from their codes what they do when mistakes happen. So for example the BBC has a huge book for their editorial guidelines - https://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/. I also look to news outlets that have a lot of journalists, which means they have people close to any story, whether that’s foreign or domestic. So the BBC, AP, Reuters, PBS and NPR are all reliable. Not perfect, but reliable with processes for correcting mistakes when they happen. I also read NYT, Washington Post, and the WSJ to get a rounded view of different stories.

DonPedretti45 karma

Do they teach kids and/or the elderly in the US about disinformation and being able to view information with a critical eye? Here in Sweden we were taught this in high school and it has helped me a lot since. Although I wish older people, especially on social media, were taught what we were taught in high school..

ElectionTaskForce65 karma

CW: This is a great question. Most of the media literacy training is aimed at school age children, but research from NYU last year showed that the demographic most likely to share misinformation is men over the age of 60! We should be rolling out information literacy training across all age groups, and we need to make it relevant to each. So younger people are used to manipulated images, filters, and text editing. My mom grew up having to rely on the news media to help her navigate the information ecosystem so she’s actually more trusting and needs help. There’s a lot we need to do.

Nobsailor45 karma

Given how profilic political (or other!) bias is in the mainstream media - what would be your ideal model of information dissemination for people to be neutrally well-informed ??

ElectionTaskForce75 karma

CW: One of the problems we have right now, is that the news media is set up as it has been for decades. It’s a top down model where journalists and editors act as gatekeepers, deciding what is news and how it should be framed. But the audience is now networked. The audience has a loud voice, and is connected to one another (today is a case in point). So the news media see dissemination as - I hope people watch our 6pm bulletin or read our news headlines tomorrow morning, whereas the audience is turning to one another for information, googling and fact-checking what they’re seeing, acting as ‘gatekeepers’ within their own communities. I would like to see a model where the public really is part of the information creation process. Not just - “tell us what you think?” at the end of an article. Wikipedia is the closest thing we have but I would like to see some really new innovative designs for collaborative information creation and dissemination where the public is a key part of all elements, not just seen as passive recipients of information.

PSiggS17 karma

Are you concerned with the development of deep-fake videos as a potential threat to future elections as a tool of disinformation? How can we recognize them when they inevitably show up?

ElectionTaskForce25 karma

CW: Certainly we need to be aware that content created by Artificial Intelligence - whether that’s videos, automated text, generated profile pictures - is going to cause real problems. I don’t see us having a deep fake ahead of this election, but I am worried that by 2022 we could have a serious problem. Very smart researchers are building detection technology, so hopefully, we can stay one step ahead of those trying to use deepfakes for harm. BUT one thing to be aware of is that simply the fact that they exist means that people can say - “oh, that must be a deep fake. You can’t trust anything these days.” That’s actually the thing I’m more worried about.

JaggersLips6 karma

What are your thoughts on the results of the last election, Brexit referendum result and Cambridge Analytical?

ElectionTaskForce7 karma

BN: There’s a lot of misinformation out there about misinformation. I can’t speak directly to Brexit but there’s no convincing evidence (https://gen.medium.com/why-fears-of-fake-news-are-overhyped-2ed9ca0a52c9) that false news changed the outcome of the 2020 election here in the U.S. Similarly, Cambridge Analytica was selling snake oil (https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2020/10/06/1602008755000/ICO-s-final-report-into-Cambridge-Analytica-invites-regulatory-questions/) - they didn’t have magical powers of persuasion or microtargeting. In general, it’s really hard to change people’s minds (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/upshot/fake-news-and-bots-may-be-worrisome-but-their-political-power-is-overblown.html).

icepck2 karma

How do we know that the things we are seeing are disinformation? What standard is used to define disinformation/misinformation and what is true and shocking?

ElectionTaskForce7 karma

CW: Disinformation is false information that is created and shared deliberately to cause harm. So for example the Russians meddling in the 2016 election. Misinformation is also false or misleading information but the people sharing it don’t realize it’s false and don’t mean any harm when they share. So this would be my Mom re-posting something on Facebook that she saw but hadn’t checked out. But one thing I want to stress is that we’re seeing less content today that is actually false….it’s increasingly warped, biased, designed to cause strong emotional reactions. As the platforms have cracked down on false content, this has been the goal. Make people fired up and angry at each other by taking genuine content and weaponizing it in the eyes of different communities. That’s what we need to watch out for.