From the Sift®: Understanding misinformation in the wake of the election

Updates

Peter Adams

I am NLP's senior vice president of education. My team runs all of our professional learning opportunities, including NewsLit Camps, and our resource and content development, including Checkology assets. Many years ago I taught middle school ELA and social studies, in an after school program for high schoolers and at the college level.


Misinformation and conspiracy theories thrive when curiosity and controversy are widespread and conclusive information is scarce or unavailable. The deeply polarized 2020 presidential election not only produced these conditions, it sustained them as ballots in a number of swing states with narrow vote margins were adjudicated and carefully counted.

To be sure, viral rumors swirled in the aftermath of Election Day. People who had been primed by partisan rhetoric to expect voter fraud leaned into their own biases. They misinterpreted isolated moments on livestreams of the ballot counting process in counties in several swing states, mistakenly saw “evidence” of rogue ballots being delivered in vague video clips, and were exploited by bad actors who readily circulated staged, manipulated and out-of-context content designed to mislead.

But the impact of these falsehoods was blunted by the work of professional fact-checkers, disinformation researchers and standards-based news organizations — and by social media platforms, which improved their content moderation efforts for the election. Facebook and Twitter took more effective actions against misinformation than either had previously. (However, Twitter indicated that with the election over, it would stop using warning labels on false or misleading tweets about the election outcome but continue its use of labels that provide additional context.) YouTube was more lax, allowing videos containing false claims about the election — including those that it acknowledged undermine trust in the democratic process — to remain live but without ads.

The days of uncertainty sparked isolated protests and some arrests, including two armed Virginia men. But for all the unresolved questions and still-rampant falsehoods, it seems, at least so far, that the worst-case scenarios were averted, even in an otherwise historic election with record turnout.

Related:

Note: Misinterpreting videos of the vote counting process at locations across the country is a textbook example of confirmation bias.

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