October 29, 2020

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Planting the seeds of election doubt

Humans make mistakes, and this year’s election – run by humans – will bring plenty of them. Poll workers are managing the vote during a pandemic. Laws are changing, sometimes late in the game because of court rulings. A greater number of people are voting by mail.

And with the inevitable mistakes comes a whole new category of misinformation: One that takes these human errors and contorts them into an intentionally “rigged” election.

One of the more prominent examples occurred in Pennsylvania last month when an  independent contractor mistakenly discarded nine military ballots. The secretary of state said it was not intentional fraud. But it wasn’t long before President Donald Trump’s team turned this  human error into an effort to steal the election. His Justice Department launched an investigation into the incident.

In a Michigan case that state officials called human error, 400 ballots intended for military personnel included the wrong name where Vice President Mike Pence’s should have been. The problem was fixed and voters got the right ballot. But Trump tweeted that the misprint was done “illegally and on purpose.”

In California, a printing error meant 2,100 voters mistakenly received mail-in ballots that didn’t have the presidential slates. Trump tweeted about the incident, using it as a basis for saying “this will be the most corrupt Election in American History!” Voters ultimately were sent the right ballots.

Ascribing the worst possible motives to local election officials who are just trying to do their jobs in a difficult year seems like an especially cynical falsehood to spread. But local officials, of course, aren’t the real targets of this disinformation campaign. It’s aimed at the voters themselves, to undermine their confidence in the integrity of the election system, and it has become a regular feature of Trump’s campaign strategy.

The human errors that come with an already stressed election will continue for the next five days and beyond. Fact-checkers can and have debunked individual “fraud” claims, but the larger intent is to plant seeds of doubt across the landscape. And, as FactCheck.org’s Lori Robertson pointed out in a recent piece summing up Trump’s false claims, they are usually aimed at swing states.

– Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter faced a barrage of questions from lawmakers yesterday at a hearing aimed at figuring out what to do with a 1996 law that shields the platforms from legal liability for content posted by third-party users.
    • Democrats said the companies haven’t been aggressive enough in policing their content, while Republicans say the law has allowed the platforms to stifle speech. The New York Times and The Washington Post live-blogged the proceedings. People who missed it can watch here.
  • Facebook demanded that New York University researchers stop using a browser plug-in that tracks micro-targeted political ads, claiming it violates the company’s terms of service, Politico reported.
    • Researchers have been using the plug-in to study the different ways political advertisers have crafted their micro-targeted messaging.
    • Facebook set a deadline of Nov. 30 for the researchers to stop using it. The researchers told Politico they don’t plan to comply.

. . . politics

  • A false campaign against Hunter Biden shows how claims that might have only lived on fringe sites can now be found in mainstream conservative media, NBC’s Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny reported.
    • “The disinformation campaign appears to have been successful in its goal of generating a smear against the former vice president’s son,” they wrote.
  • Harvard Kennedy School professor Thomas E. Patterson, writing in Journalist’s Resource, addressed the question of how America’s news outlets had become prime sources of misinformation, and what they can do about it.
    • Among his conclusions: “There’s no evidence to support the notion that news outlets’ fact-checking puts an appreciable dent in our misinformation problem. The misinformed rarely fact check their beliefs and, when they do, are seldom persuaded that they’re wrong.”

. . . science and health

  • The BBC’s Marianna Spring has interviewed a man who tells the story of how his mother has built a big following online spreading conspiracy theories on the coronavirus, including that COVID-19 doesn’t exist and that it’s spread by 5G radio waves.
    • Sebastian Shemirani told Spring he thinks his mother’s beliefs have ruined their relationship and said it’s important to “nip it in the bud” when someone says they’re starting to believe conspiracy theories.
  • Podcaster Joe Rogan is letting conspiracy theory promoter Alex Jones spread misinformation, including falsehoods about vaccines and the effectiveness of masks in halting the spread of COVID-19, Ashley Carman reported in The Verge.
    • “Although Rogan attempts to fact-check Jones live by asking for his sources and then attempting to search and pull up links during the recording, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he is giving Jones a place to share his views,” Carman wrote.
    • At Spotify, which is reportedly paying Rogan $100 million for exclusive streaming rights, an executive defended the arrangement in a private email, BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko wrote this week.

This week’s fact-check tackles a claim on Instagram from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady that there have been more deaths from suicide than COVID-19 in the past two months. We’ve seen variations of this claim before in Germany, Colombia, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and even previously in the United States.

COVID-19 has caused immense disruption in our lives, so this claim feels plausible. PolitiFact’s Jon Greenberg spoke to experts and used the latest available data to show that the average number of suicides per month in the United States pales in comparison to the number of people dying from COVID-19.

In 2018, the year for which we have the most complete data, the U.S. averaged 4,026 suicides a month. The average deaths per month from COVID-19 has been many times larger than that, and suicide researcher Dr. Jonathan Singer told Greenberg there’s no way the rate of suicides could have jumped that much.

What we liked: As noted above, this is a claim that feels true, but isn’t. It reminds us of how our emotional response to information impacts our willingness to believe it. This is also a claim that has spread globally, so this fact-check plays an important role in building a reservoir of debunks other fact-checkers can use to fight similar claims.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. IFCN Associate Director Cristina Tardáguila spoke to NPR’s Michel Martin about FactChat, the bilingual WhatsApp chatbot designed to help both English and Spanish speakers fight election misinformation.
  2. Poynter-owned MediaWise, in collaboration with The Technology and Social Change Project, released its “Democracy and Dragons” webcomic to help voters fight misinformation this election season.
  3. The New York Times put together a snazzy video about how disinformation affecting Americans voters is homegrown this year, as opposed to the 2016 campaigns of Russian trolls.
  4. Right-wing hoaxers Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman were indicted in Ohio in connection with a voter suppression scheme involving robocalls.
  5. QAnon remains a primary source of disinformation despite efforts by Silicon Valley to rein it in, wrote The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send feedback to factually@poynter.org. And send us your favorite fact-checks! We’d love to hear from you.

Until next week,

Susan and Harrison

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Donate

More News

Back to News