In the digital age, disinformation and misinformation can spread easily and quickly, especially over the hyper accessible format that social media provides. No matter what the original source is, false information can reach the entire world in a matter of minutes, and it often becomes difficult or near-impossible to discern whether or not the information that you are taking in is accurate.
Starting on Nov. 10, the Pace Upper School hosted Nina Jankowicz, a Wilson Center fellow and expert on disinformation and media, as assembly presenter and visitor to 11 classes spanning each grade and many subjects. Over the course of a week, students learned about disinformation, how they may be affected by it on a daily basis and how certain countries use it to control elections to either maintain or gain power.
These visits came at the perfect time, just a week after the final day of the 2020 U.S. general election. Given the highly contested nature of this election, it should not come as a surprise that some disinformation, defined as false information spread with malicious intent, as well as misinformation, false information spread without malicious intent, was present in American media, on social media and even in speeches made by government officials leading up to the election, as well as in the wake of the announcement of President-elect Joe Biden’s win.
The New York Times, along with other news sources, has been tracking the spread of election-related disinformation in their “Daily Distortions” section of their website. Disinformation included videos and rumors about improper behavior at polling stations spread on Nov. 3 while polls were still open, along with President Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud that were subsequently flagged by Twitter. Americans also spread a false rumor that Sharpies were being used to invalidate votes in key swing states and the false allegation that 21,000 dead people “voted” in Pennsylvania, the state that pushed President-elect Biden over the 270 electorate mark.
The narrative behind each of these stories came overwhelmingly from the President, his advisors and other key Republican officials and each centered around the idea that improper activity only worked in Biden’s favor. Meanwhile, the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council, along with the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committees, released a press release on Nov. 12 announcing that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” prompting President Trump to fire Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs. Krebs, a Trump appointee, has run the agency since its creation after the 2016 Election.
It also appears that much of the disinformation that is being disseminated is sticking with Trump’s supporters. According to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted in the days following the announcement of President-elect Biden’s win, 70% of Republican respondents said that they do not believe that this was a free and fair election.
This number is in stark contrast to the data released by the CISA, and is double the number of Republican voters who held this belief prior to the election. Many of the reasons that these Republicans cited for why this election was neither free nor fair were statements or concepts that President Trump tweeted out in the days following Nov. 3.
There was also an increase from 18% to 64% of Republicans who believed that the results of the election would be unreliable before and after the election. This distrust, as well as the belief that Biden won the election based on voter fraud, is especially strong in key swing states that Trump seems to have lost. This should not come as a surprise, since he has filed largely baseless lawsuits in many close states and used language to provoke Republican voters’ sense of distrust in their state’s results.
The fact that so many elected officials, who are supposed to represent the will of the people and act for their benefit, were willing to tweet, retweet, like and spread messages that were clearly false narratives set to call into question Biden’s decisive victory, says a lot about their moral integrity. The highly politicized nature of these messages was spread often with the intent to galvanize Trump’s most loyal supporters, those who would be willing to incite violence. Throughout his time as president, Trump has spent time dividing the country by spreading messages of hate and division, and the wake of this election has been no different.
Besides the danger of having an angry base ready to take action into their own hands, Trump’s refusal to concede this election may cause trouble for the early days of the Biden administration. After the 2000 Election, the delayed transfer of power was cited by the 9/11 Commission as a potential reason for the 9/11 attacks.
As the Trump administration refuses Biden his right to a daily security briefing, the funds that are typically given to a president-elect before their inauguration, and other information and services that would typically be allocated to a president-elect during the transition period, it is almost certainly going to come back to hurt the country in the long run. Trump’s team knows this. Without spreading disinformation that makes the election results seem contestable, there would be no reason to keep this act going.
As domestic disinformation becomes more widespread and increasingly more politicized, it puts the state of our nation’s democracy at a heightened risk. Even though President-elect Biden has promised to work for all Americans, not just “blue states,” he will still face an uphill battle with gaining legitimacy among Trump supporters who still refuse to believe that he will even take office in the first place.
In Georgia, which will remain at the center of national news until at least Jan. 5 when two Senate runoff elections will take place, expect to see more disinformation or misinformation in the coming months. Georgia GOP officials, including Party Chair David Shafer and U.S. Representative Doug Collins, have released tweets littered with false allegations about Georgia’s vote count.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has had to dispute these claims and call out disinformation, while also dealing with incumbent Senate candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue’s demand for his resignation and claim that he and his office mishandled the election. Disinformation is quickly becoming a new norm, and it’s not going away anytime soon.