President Trump’s conspiracy-theory-fueled plan to overturn his defeat in the 2020 elections targeted six states that President-elect Joe Biden narrowly won: Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Georgia. All six of those states have now certified their vote counts—with recounts sometimes even increasing the victory margin for Biden.
The confirmation of the results has correlated with a decrease in election disinformation. But according to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company, while fraud-related claims have dropped in volume, they haven’t exactly gone away. In fact, they’re still getting widely shared: Zignal’s database of social media, broadcast, traditional media, and online sites recorded more than 1.9 million mentions of voter fraud claims over the past seven days. And tweets from prominent right-wing figures and elected officials, such as this one from Senator Rand Paul, are still getting tens of thousands of shares. So what will happen next?
It’s not going away
“I don’t think that the unrest will stop,” says Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science. If anything, she says, voters who believe the election was stolen from Trump will act with “increasing resolve” in the coming months.
Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, points out that it’s not just the volume of content disputing the result that we should be worried about. Instead, she’s concerned about the long-term impact this moment could have on how Trump-supporting voters view democracy. “It’s going to decrease trust in the process for a long time to come,” she says. “Perpetuating these narratives is going to make it more difficult for Trump supporters to trust the democratic process in the future.”
And while Trump may have lost his reelection bid, the political movements that have harnessed misinformation for their own benefit have not been voted out of office as a whole. One prominent QAnon promoter even won a seat in Congress.
There is a danger, especially on a local level, of conspiracy theories and other falsehoods about the 2020 elections translating into legislation, says Shireen Mitchell, a disinformation researcher who runs the Stop Digital Voter Suppression Project. “Imagine something that’s a complete disinformation campaign becoming a law,” she said. “Someone’s going to be in a policy position, trying to commit policy based on these conspiracy beliefs.”
Partly because it’s been around for a while
Trump didn’t suddenly start talking conspiracy theories about a stolen election in November; he’s been tweeting out baseless claims that the election was going to be stolen for months. Likewise, the infrastructure that helps spread these claims predates the 2020 election, as does the history of questioning whose votes should count in America.
“‘Stop the Steal’ is an evolution of an old argument used to disenfranchise predominantly people of color and indigenous communities,” says Brandi Collins-Dexter, a disinformation researcher. “So, is the fundamental argument ever going to go away completely? As long as voting and participation in our democracy is not embraced by the country as a fundamental human right, I have doubts.”
Tripodi’s work has involved following Facebook groups devoted to spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. Those groups, which previously played a role in helping introduce QAnon conspiracies to a wider audience, are also hotbeds of election misinformation. And “reopen” campaigns are themselves partially funded and influenced by some right-wing super-PACs and media outlets.
Preventing the spread of misinformation
There are so many aspects to the story of misinformation and American power: the companies that built networks incentivizing the spread of misinformation; the impact those narratives have on vulnerable and oppressed communities; the labor of content moderation, often causing trauma to the workers paid to do it; the money that funds the misinformation campaigns; the network of news-adjacent publications and organizations that help spread them; the impact of misinformation on our daily lives and relationships. It is important, say experts, that the media covering this problem gets it right.
“If I’m reading a story about white nationalist violence and the main person being directly quoted and discussed is a white nationalist, then that, to me, is romanticizing the abuser,” says Collins-Dexter. “But if you’re talking to and about the community that was impacted by white nationalism—if your experts are those from impacted communities, and not ‘reformed’ Nazis or active Nazis—that’s a different story and experience for the reader that does a public service.”
“Journalists can cover this effectively if they can cover climate change effectively,” says Ryan Hagen, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. “The wrong answer is that there’s good truth on both sides of every issue.”
These same considerations are also important for platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, where conspiracy theories about the election still gain large audiences, despite some temporary and permanent moderation policies that were designed to limit their reach.
For Collins-Dexter, the companies’ approach to misinformation remains inadequate. “Even with the most vigilant of moderating, this would be a hard job. But content moderators are undertrained, underpaid, and under-resourced on a number of fronts. And the companies want to do the bare minimum,” she says.
Tripodi, meanwhile, called on platforms to provide more transparency to researchers outside the company. “I think they, in some ways, don’t want to be held responsible for the degradation of democracy in the US,” she says. “But if they repeatedly keep data inaccessible to social scientists, then there’s no way to adequately combat this problem.”
This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our weekly email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.