How to counter the misinformation that deceives and incites Americans

By Janine Zacharia | Nov. 8, 2020

As it appeared Tuesday night there would be no Blue Wave and that any Joe Biden victory might be narrow, my Twitter feed morphed into a giant scroll of hair-pulling angst about how so many Americans could still vote for President Trump after his bungling of a pandemic response, impeachment, and four years of autocratic, racist, misogynistic, unhinged, self-dealing behavior.

Ben Rhodes, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, expressed shock “that this many Americans took a hard look at Trump and determined, ‘Yeah, I want four more years of that.’”

For me, the most critical question to ask to figure out the answer will be: What were Trump voters reading, watching and listening to the past four years?

The information environment you reside in shapes — and often mirrors — your personal worldview. And most Trump voters inhabit an information ecosystem dominated by Fox News. As important as all the outstanding reporting in the New York Times or Washington Post has been, Sean Hannity is perhaps the most influential media figure in the United States followed only by Tucker Carlson.

If you live in this right-wing media universe, and you are one of Trump’s 88.7 million Twitter followers, then you might have cast your ballot thinking Biden was a socialist and would take away your guns. Trump’s impeachment was a con and President Obama spied on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

You would have disregarded — or maybe didn’t read — the mountain of stories about Trump’s malfeasance. You wouldn’t have cared Trump lied more than 22,000 times because, surely, there must be some truth there.

In this information ecosphere, Hunter Biden’s laptop was a bigger, more important story in October than over 225,000 Americans dying from COVID-19 and kids being forced to stay home from school, because, after all, it’s a Democratic hoax.

You will believe now the Democrats stole the election, even after the news media have called it for Biden, because your most trusted figures tell you it is so. As Trump appeared headed for defeat Wednesday night, Hannity, Carlson and Laura Ingraham all told viewers the election result was not to be trusted. On Thursday, in what some observers called the most mendacious, dangerous remarks of his presidency, Trump said of Democrats, “This is a case when they are trying to steal an election, they are trying to rig an election.”

Even after Trump’s defeat, we are never reducing Trumpism unless we restore respect for credible, fact-based news, ensure every American gets quality information and has the critical thinking skills to evaluate what they see, read and hear. That requires a radical change in for-profit cable news and social media that amplifies baseless assertions, and a huge investment in education.

Ahead of the election, my Stanford colleague Andy Grotto and I published 10 guidelines on how to report responsibly on hacks and leaks, and disinformation. As Trump’s surrogates tried to push propaganda about Hunter Biden, the mainstream media mostly handled it responsibly. Yet, on right-wing media, Hunter Biden’s alleged wrongdoing remained a central narrative in the run-up to Nov. 3.

When Trump declared victory and made bogus claims of fraudulent vote counts early Wednesday morning, legacy news outlets and social media platforms who drilled for this scenario framed his statements properly, labeled them and mitigated — but could not completely eliminate — their potentially dangerous impact. Trump’s repetition of this lie could fuel violent protests and determine how millions of his supporters perceive the legitimacy Biden’s victory.

Even though Twitter rightly slapped warnings on Trump tweets because they violated its prohibition on election misinformation, it is this platform that helped Trump into office in the first place and from which he will continue to spin dangerous falsehoods whether he is defeated or reelected.

“I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” Trump remarked in 2017. Research supports this.

“In the lead up to his election, Trump engaged a whole new cohort of people who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in politics,” researcher David Caldwell said as part of his study released in December. “His hashtag, #CrookedHillaryClinton, seared into the American consciousness, casting doubt on Clinton’s honesty, her capacity to lead and her trustworthiness … Twitter was clearly highly influential for him in winning the 2016 US election.”

It was critical to how Trump — despite all his failures — remained so popular in 2020, too.

Trump didn’t use his Twitter account only to boost his popularity or discredit his opponent, however. He used it to spread dangerous conspiracy theories. An astonishing 57% of Trump voters in a new Indiana University study say they believe false QAnon stories about pedophiles and cannibals serving in the U.S. government are definitely or likely true. Nearly three-quarters of Trump’s supporters said mail-in ballots cause voter fraud and that Biden was mentally unfit to be president — two narratives pushed ceaselessly by Trump and right-wing media.

In a great tragedy of our times, credible local newspapers that should be a bulwark against all this dangerous disinformation are being decimated just when people need quality information the most.

Wildly popular podcasters like Joe Rogan — who shared a debunked conspiracy with his millions of listeners that left-wing protesters lit forest fires in Oregon (he subsequently apologized), are shaping how millions of Americans see this country more than our top investigative journalists.

As those wildfires raged, a Newsmax reporter with 250,000 followers tweeted a map illustrating the blazes. “If the fires in Oregon & Washington are ‘climate change’ then why do the fires stop at the Canadian border?” she wrote. The reason was because the map only showed U.S. data. Her tweet of a ridiculous conspiracy theory had 4,000 shares and 6,700 likes.

We need to start fixing these problems.

We rate every Uber driver. Yet there is generally no cost to a user for sharing falsehoods on social media. Twitter is starting to suspend some accounts and label certain misleading tweets, action that is ad hoc and inadequate. It should consider a reliability score for information shared by social media’s most popular personalities, a structured penalty for posting nonsense.

Besides pressing for more responsible behavior by social media companies, we need to champion credible, fact-based news outlets, which, yes, make mistakes and are imperfect, but are essential to our democracy.

We have failed miserably to counter Trump’s “fake news” canard.

It could take decades to repair the damage he has done to the way people see journalists. A start could be to facilitate interactions between local reporters and the communities they cover so they realize these journalists aren’t enemies of the people, but rather hardworking people who perform an essential societal function.

If you care about our democracy, champion local journalism. Subscribe to a metro newspaper and support local public radio. Consider donating to a local nonprofit news source. Donate to an outlet in a battleground state, too.

Fact-checkers and social media content moderators are an exhausted fire command dispatching brigades to extinguish blazes of bunk across our information landscape. As we process the 2020 election result, we need to ensure the conflagration doesn’t engulf even more of the electorate. If we don’t, we may be left wondering again on Election Day 2024, possibly, how someone as malevolent or as unqualified as Trump could win 70 million votes once again.

Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post reporter, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy lecturer in the department of communication at Stanford University.