Overview: Disinformation in the US 2020 elections

This Overview supported my newsletter (Sept 2020-present), during its focus on Disinformation in the US2020 elections, as part of my explorations into zettelkasten (see Don’t just Build a Second Brain: share (part of) it).

Last Update: 25 October 2020. Curated Resources covered: 41
Key MyHub.ai tags: #US2020 and #Disinformation (Latest 9 Best, below)
Key Roam tags: #us2020 and #PermNote (private)


Hindsight: Predictions from 2016

Where new technology enables, new forms of disinformation follow, so predicting social media tech trends should help prepare for future forms of disinformation. Clearly noone's having much success:


How better to predict (political) application of emerging (social media) tech? Ask:

  • Cui bono: who and how can make money/power out of it?
  • where? Not just usual suspects (St Petersburg): think Philippines, Macedonia. Where next?
  • who will mainstream it from there? think #BlackPR firms, #domestic adoption (next)

Domestic Disinformation

IRA's 2016 tactics now mainstreamed by domestic groups, notably GOP =censorship through noise on an epic scale, practised by a sitting President on a domestic population. IRA probably nowhere near as dangerous as Trump & Fox News himself - Russians can get a hashtag trending and may convince a few people, but Trump can get people to poison themselves with bleach with a single press conference.

See: #domestic and #disinformation.

Social v. mainstream media

Attacks on independent journalists integral part of the domestic disinfo package:

  • reflects greater fear of them than of social media platforms?
  • echoes political pressure on newspapers in the past:
    • what's the difference?
    • what's the same?
  • Platforms fearing regulation - existential attack on business model.
  • Mainstream media, on the other hand, inherited 20th century culture more resistant to political pressure - far from perfect, but idea there in theory. But now:
    • undermined economically by the platforms who lack this culture entirely and bend more easily to political force?
    • competing with AI-driven #pink slime

See: #media and #social media


Undermining legitimacy of election before it takes place has been a major Trump #disinfo effort, spanning social media to postal fraud, starting months before election:

  • Covid19-driven means mail-in voting will be larger than average, but Trump's base is likely to vote in person;
  • in-person votes will be counted first, so early results will be pro-Trump, with mailed votes slowly turning the tide towards Biden.
  • Claiming victory and seeing it overturned by mailed votes - which Trump has repeatedly claimed are open to fraud - is a perfect Trump narrative for delegitimising the vote if he loses.
  • probably why he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Bigger picture: the idea that postal voting is flawed is pure disinformation, but has a long history as part of GOP's voter suppression campaigns - Time.

See: delegitimise.

Foreign actors: waiting in the wings?

From ed. 4: (mid-October): There are two possible reasons why we are not talking as much about foreign interference. Both could be true. Only one is good news... anyone trying to mess with America probably realises they can’t get Trump re-elected, and so are better off focusing on the post-election period, which offers a “better chance to push more Americans to extremes than ever before”. - Six Disinformation Threats in the Post-Election Period.

They've certainly learnt to be bette at their job. From Russians Again Targeting Americans With Disinformation, Facebook and Twitter Say:

  • New tactic by IRS: "information laundering": creating the Peace Data website, featuring personas with computer-generated images to create what looked like a legitimate news organization, mixing pop culture, politics and leftwing activism to appeal to a young audience
  • More sophisticated, but the activities on Twitter and Facebook to promote the site "almost overt, designed to be detected". So are they trying to disinform some people, or convince everyone that noone can trust any information? - see Psychological Toll

Psychological toll

Paraphrasing JFK: the only thing we should fear about disinformation is the fear of disinformation.

Immune system over-response:

  • media response to Russian disinfo magnifies it
  • the general sense of danger is more the goal than disinforming/misleading individuals: "if the goal is disruption and confusion", being thought to have an effect is as good as actually having an effect - inability to trust anything, to even believe the truth can be known, paranoia & fear (private)

A domestic disinformation war also takes terrible toll on individuals:

  • hateful content
  • being hounded out of the public sphere
  • fearing to speak openly and lose your social group

Is Russian Meddling as Dangerous as We Think?  | The New Yorker

Social media platforms

Not ready:

Facebook & US2020

  • Dealt with under 5% posts flagged for misinformation
  • Facebook employees increasingly outraged, leaking information
  • Fearing regulation - existential attack on business model - Facebook Fired An Employee Who Collected Evidence Of Right-Wing Pages Getting Preferential Treatment & relaxed misinformation rules for conservative pages - Facebook account managers for important pages interfering with processing of #factcheck results. More from Yahoo!
  • contradictory rules: sometimes Facebook will remove disinformation about voting; other times it will apply a warning label. How the company will make that choice is unknown - probably even to them.
  • flip-flopped: set new rules, then changed them, particularly re: delegitimisation, triggering the #Censorship narrative, below
  • election-related disinformation policies unclear, particularly concerning content to #delegitimise election
    • doesn't factcheck political ads or politicians posts, so any post-election censorship against #delegitimise will look hypocritical.
    • banned political ads before election, actually rewarding those with major Facebook followings like Trump, who don't need ads and then get to say that he's being "silenced".

Twitter did ban political ads. Small beer compared to a President with 80m followers, no respect for the truth, a nation-wide infrastructure (GOP) and huge sums of money.

The #Censorship narrative triggered

Sudden flipflops in October inevitably sparked concerns about #censorship, as if this was an entirely new narrative, including a major attack re censorship on Twitter from Trump (on Twitter!).

See: #censorship and #disinformation (starting 2016).

Not helping

  • lack of cooperation by platforms -> harder to detect disinfo campaigns -> harder to fight -
  • if platforms are making money off disinformation, they seem morally obliged to cooperate, but with whom?


Study it

Frameworks for understanding disinfo collected here.

Look in the mirror

Is Russian Meddling as Dangerous as We Think?  | The New Yorker

What does it mean when a society can be so easily manipulated and turned against itself? Blaming Russians diverts responsibility: Trump and Fox News do more damage to US society and truth in general than any Russian, but are they not themselves symptoms as well as a perpetuating cause of a greater underlying problem?

Russian and others exploit flashpoints in American society, and election year 2020 has been rich: #BLM, Covid19 and Trump himself. If American society was more just, stable and fair, those flashpoints would not be there.


A ‘war room’ that arms Black and Latino voters against disinformation:

  • Black/Latino activists targeting disinfo campaigns designed to exploit #BLM anger, alienate & suppress Black voters
  • Counter speech which does not mention - and thus amplify - the disinformation itself:
  • creating recipes to nullify and educate
  • hindered by lack of cooperation from platforms

#Factchecking is not enough: needs to make way for reality-testing and gaslighting-fighting

Reframe as a health issue

cf Clay Johnson's Information Diet, "if there was food that was poisoning us we wouldn’t care how hard the companies were trying" - Twitter bots are impersonating Black Americans to sow disinformation


Automated links to relevant public Curated Resources follow:


Relevant resources

How Many American Idiots Are There? 73 Million. | by umair haque | Nov, 2020 | Eudaimonia and Co
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Not the only interesting piece on Trump viewed from ancient Greece."this election was something like a census of American Idiots... " defined using the classical Greek meaning of “people who are consumed only with self-interest". Any society with too many such idiots would be "consumed solely with self-interest... [and] cease …

50 Resources and five editions later (US2020 Disinformation news, ed. 5)

What did I learn from Hubbing 50 resources and writing five editions on disinformation during the US elections?

Evaluating contradictory foreign interference allegations in the 2020 U.S. election | by @DFRLab | DFRLab | Oct, 2020 | Medium
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DFRLab’s Foreign Interference Attribution Tracker (FIAT) database (see Interference2020.org) "captures allegations of foreign #us2020 interference... and assesses their credibility, bias, evidence, transparency, and impact".80 allegations were catalogued: a "sharp increase from 2016... vary widely in their evidence and objectivity, …

How Some Conservatives Have Switched to Parler, Rumble and Newsmax (FN)
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Fleeting Note (FN): the creation of Fediverse-based alternatives might suddenly become an urgency.

More than 8 in 10 Trump voters think Biden’s win is not legitimate - The Washington Post

Trump's delegitimisation disinformation campaign bears fruit: while 60% of those polled by Economist/YouGov thought Biden legitimately won:86% of Trump voters said he hadn’t, with 80% saying he shouldn’t concede, and most thinking the courts will overturn the resultsover 75% think there was sufficient fraud to influence the outcome - although…

Facebook Quietly Suspended Political Group Recommendations Ahead Of The US Presidential Election
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"Facebook quietly stopped recommending that people join online groups dealing with political or social issues", and will "assess when to lift them afterwards, but they are temporary." This part of the Facebook's AI plays a key role in pushing "people down a path of radicalization... groups reinforce like-minded views …

Thread by @kevinroose on Thread Reader App – Thread Reader App
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An interesting corrective: here's the Tech columnist for the New York Times, claiming Facebook is flooded with right-wing misinformation, not all labelled as such - and "it's not clear that labels are doing much". Most people - including, usually, me - will read that tweet, have their beliefs confirmed and move on. What's…

Meet the researchers and activists fighting misinformation - Protocol
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the Election Integrity Partnership and Disinfo Defense League ... two initiatives among hundreds ... reflect two mutually reinforcing sides of the same ecosystem... people devoting their livelihoods to combatting online misinformation and disinformation... These are their stories...EIP is uniquely close to the platforms, using Jira to communicate …

How Facebook and Twitter Handled Their First Major Election Day Tests | by Sarah Emerson | Nov, 2020 | OneZero
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Several of the president’s tweets overlaid with disclaimers ... invoking Twitter's Civic Integrity Policy, which prevents users from manipulating elections. Trump’s tweets also effectively throttled by preventing other users from amplifying them. Facebook’s measures were less accusatory, attaching an informational label.Neither stopped Trump …

Disinformation in the Presidential Election: Latest Updates - The New York Times
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Every day, Times reporters will chronicle and debunk false and misleading information that is going viral online... Whole collection of individual stories, all worth a look. Some key points:Twitter flagged half of President Trump’s 14 posts on Thursday for including disputed or misleading information. But hundreds of other accounts - over 150 of w…

Facebook Seeks Shutdown of NYU Research Project Into Political Ad Targeting - WSJ

Facebook threatens with legal action NY academics seeking to study Facebook's political ad targeting because their Ad Observer is a "scraping tool". The project collects data unavailable on Facebook's political ad archive: targeting data, geography, political contest, etc.., which they say now violates their rules established i…

Social Media and the Hunter Biden Report - The New York Times
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The platforms started doing what people concerned about disinformation have been asking for, and immediately came under fire from people concerned about censorship.When The New York Post published a story supposedly incriminating Hunter Biden "YouTube largely did nothing, Facebook deprioritized the Post story (slowing spread until 3rd party f…

Domestic v. foreign disinformation: A question of timing (US2020 Disinformation news, ed. 4)
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There are two possible reasons why we are not talking as much about foreign interference. Both could be true. Only one is good news.

YouTube Toughens its Rules Around Dangerous Conspiracy Theories, with a Focus on QAnon Content | Social Media Today
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A few days after Facebook, Youtube bans "content that targets an individual or group with conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence... such as QAnon or Pizzagate", although they may except "news coverage on these issues or content discussing them without targeting individuals or protected groups".&q;…

Unofficial ballot drop boxes popping up throughout the state worry elections officials – Orange County Register

"church officials don’t have a key to the box and that GOP officials picks up the ballots". Meanwhile, none of the ballot collection locations listed on the local Republican Party's website are official - instead they list their HQ, gun shops and other local businesses.They win either way: they can pass on Republican votes and suppr…

Democrats and Republicans Aren’t Watching the Same Pandemic | Time
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The Biden-Pence debate illustrated "how far apart Americans overall have become in their interpretation of the pandemic ... rejecting reality for their own preferred set of facts".Republicans dont believe the US has done that badly and think the issue is overblown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "94% of Democrats always or very often wore …

Twitter Will Turn Off Some Features to Fight Election Misinformation - The New York Times
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Most of the changes will start on Oct. 20, incl.:extra friction on retweeting, encouraging quote RTs adding the users' own thoughtspre-sharing warnings about flagged contentlabelling early election result claims disabling the algorithmic timelineAlso increasing factchecking and additional context on trending tweets.

A new study shows how Trump and the RNC duped traditional media into covering mail-in voter fraud » Nieman Journalism Lab
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Berkman Klein Center analyzed 55,000 news stories, five million tweets, and 75,000 public Facebook posts to discover that it's "Trump, the Republican National Committee, and Fox News — not Facebook spammers and Russian trolls — who are the primary drivers of misinformation around mail-in voting fraud", taking advantage of three stan…

Deepfake democracy: Here's how modern elections could be decided by fake news | World Economic Forum
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WEF examines the impact deepfakes could have on US2020. Not a lot of the analysis is new, except perhaps:how deepfakes could be used subtly: making small changes to "how a candidate delivers an otherwise authentic speech ... [to call] character, fitness and mental health into question"some examples from Gabon, Malaysia & Belgium(?)Ca…

The Biggest Risk to This Election Is Not Russia. It’s Us. - The New York Times
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"Americans must recognize that the United States is ripe for manipulation. With a month to go before Election Day, we are ripping ourselves apart."Covers ground covered earlier, but with an inside perspective from someone on the National Security Council 2017-2019: "Russian operatives wanted to weaken [Clinton] ... delighted when s…

Six Disinformation Threats in the Post-Election Period
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"perhaps it’s not the runup to the election we should be chiefly concerned about"Someone trying to mess with America probably realises they can't get Trump re-elected, so they are better off focusing on the post-election period, which offers a "better chance to push more Americans to extremes than ever before". Identifies …

Recommendations for Media Covering the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election | Election Coverage and Democracy Network
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The fact that this is actually necessary is saddening: "practical, nonpartisan, evidence-based recommendations to journalists covering the 2020 U.S. presidential election", including how to cover an election amid attempts to undermine it; what to do in the case of a contested result or Trump doesn't concede; and "what to do if …

QAnon shows that the age of alternative facts will not end with Trump - Columbia Journalism Review
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With more than a dozen congressional candidates appearing on ballots in November, Qanon is mainstream. While it looks like a lot of other conspiracy theories, this research provides a fascinating look at how the conspiracy's "Bakers" co-create their knowledgescape."QAnon doesn’t simply offer readers insider insight into current…

Facebook completely bans QAnon and labels it a ‘militarized social movement’ - The Verge
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All forms of content related to QAnon are banned, excepting posts from individual profiles, "even if they contain no violent content" - a significant update of Facebook's anti-Q August sweep - effectively treating it as an “identified Militarized Social Movement... no different than an extremist militia group, but not quite on the l…

A crease in Biden's shirt spawns a debate conspiracy theory - CNN
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Short video, filmed at a Trump rally, on two major disinfo trends: the Joe Biden earpiece, and Q.The "smoking gun" video - flagged false by factcheckers - "shared more than 22,000 times and viewed 800,000 times by Thursday night... one of the most widespread false narratives his team had handled this year"... another video &quo;…

FACT CHECK: 6 Claims From The 1st Presidential Debate | Check Your Fact
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factchecking the six topics covered in the first debate: “the Trump and Biden Records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the Economy, Race and Violence in our Cities and the Integrity of the Election.”Trump:misleading: 1correct: 1incorrect: 1Biden:correct: 2misleading: 1

Revealed: Trump campaign strategy to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016 – Channel 4 News
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"3.5 million Black Americans were categorised by Donald Trump’s campaign as ‘Deterrence’ – voters they wanted to stay home on election day."Part 1 of a Channel4 series on #DetteringDemocracy, analysing "data used by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign... almost 200 million American voters... 5 terabytes of data... separated by…

Who Won The Debate?
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538/IPSOS: Americans unimpressed with the president’s performance, but very few people changed their minds - shifts within margin of error. Biden wiped Trump in ratings of both performance and policy, with net favorability for Biden growing from 26 to 33 points.

Trump and the Limits of Content Moderation | WIRED
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Criticisms of social media platforms for allowing disinfo and hate speech to flourish are accurate, but sometimes also wishful thinking: "if only Mark Zuckerberg got his act together, American politics would get back to normal"A disinfo video gone viral may get half a million views - the first Trump-Biden "debate was probably seen b…

Facebook pledged to remove misinformation about voting posted by Trump. It's not following through.  - Popular Information
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The new label makes clear that Facebook understands Trump is posting misinformation about whether votes are counted. But it is not fulfilling its stated policy to remove the post. 

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