A pile of mailboxes: Tracking the spread of misinformation in Wisconsin
The life cycle of misleading images purporting to prove Postal Service misconduct shows how social media users can amplify falsehoods
By Naomi Kowles and Howard Hardee /News 3 Now and Wisconsin Watch
A self-described media junkie and active voter who’s passionate about liberal political causes, Keith Klein of Menomonee Falls recently started using Twitter heavily. In spite of himself, he occasionally succumbs to what he calls “Twitter rage.”
“I understand I’m creating my own bubble by doing this,” Klein said. “But at least I found like-minded people who are as outraged at everything that is happening as I am.”
Frustrated by clickbait and sensationalized news, he subscribes to traditional media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post, and he listens to public radio. Klein considers himself media literate, but acknowledges exercising clouded judgment while he’s on Twitter.
In August, he saw a picture of decommissioned mailboxes on Twitter — at the time, the U.S. Postal Service’s recently appointed postmaster Louis DeJoy was under fire for allegedly interfering with the election — and retweeted it.
Klein recalls thinking it could be three things: “Corruption on the part of the postmaster. A lazy postman. Or just an anomaly.”
But the content represented none of those things. And he wasn’t alone in mistakenly sharing the image of mailboxes stacked outside Hartford Finishing — a powder-painting company that contracts with the USPS to refinish or destroy old mailboxes. It first appeared in a Reddit thread on Aug. 14, feeding into widespread concern about the USPS’s cost-cutting measures and delivery delays and amplified by celebrities, activists and top political figures including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Misleading content such as the photo of a pile of mailboxes often is spread unwittingly by people like Klein. Like an oil spill, false information is difficult to stop — and hard to clean up.
Such content has saturated social media in the weeks leading up to Nov. 3. Political misinformation has appeared in the Facebook feeds of nearly two-thirds of voters in nine swing states, including Wisconsin, according to research provided by Avaaz, a global nonprofit that advocates on a range of issues, including corruption, poverty and climate change.
“Swing states were definitely being targeted more with misinformation than other states in the union,” said Fadi Quran, campaign director with Avaaz. “We found a lot of that content being shared within Wisconsin, but then it was going viral and spreading across the country.”
Mailbox lie spreads quickly
Little context was provided aside from a caption of the pile of mailboxes reading, “Whole thing looks terrible,” and a comment noting that the photograph had been captured in Wisconsin. It was reposted in another Reddit thread with the caption “Harford, Wisconsin today” — misspelling “Hartford,” but setting off a flurry of sharing across social platforms.
Within a few hours, Twitter users in and outside of Wisconsin had shared the image thousands of times, with many claiming it was evidence of voter suppression.
One social media user became a superspreader of the misleading image. Thomas Kennedy is a Miami-based civil rights organizer who made headlines this summer for confronting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a press conference, calling him an embarrassment and arguing that the state’s COVID-19 response contributed to the crisis. His July 13 tweet showing a video of the interaction went viral.
The following month, another one of Kennedy’s tweets took off, this time homing in on Wisconsin. (He declined to discuss the post with News 3 Now.)
“This is happening right before our eyes,” his post reads. “They are sabotaging USPS to sabotage vote by mail. This is massive voter suppression and part of their plan to steal the election.”
That message was retweeted about 81,500 times, including by influencers with large Twitter audiences such as actor John Cusack (1.7 million followers) and activist April Reign (183,000 followers).
It was also captured in a screenshot and shared widely on Facebook on Instagram. (The image was flagged by Facebook as false information.) Actor Jeri Ryan shared it with her 386,000 Facebook followers, adding that “THEY AREN’T EVEN TRYING TO HIDE IT NOW.”
Corrective efforts reach few users
On Aug. 17, PolitiFact debunked the image as proof of voter suppression, and New York-based photojournalist Gary He posted a Twitter thread explaining why it wasn’t evidence of President Donald Trump “sabotaging USPS.”
But the corrective efforts had relatively low engagement compared with the viral image. His thread had about 12,000 retweets, while PolitiFact’s story picked up 522 shares on Facebook and was retweeted about 250 times. Vox and Newsweek also ran stories fact-checking the images, picking up 1,411 and 213 shares on Facebook. And conservative commentator Steven Crowder’s Twitter post linking to the PolitiFact article was shared a few thousand times, though he characterized the image as a “leftwing hoax.”
By then, the image had spread far and wide — as had the narrative that decommissioned mailboxes in an industrial lot represented voter suppression in Wisconsin. On Aug. 26, the mailboxes appeared in the opening frame of a political video posted by Pelosi’s Twitter account, along with the hashtag #DontMessWithUSPS.
Kennedy’s original tweet has mostly stopped spreading, but it remains visible and unflagged as false information. Twitter recently expanded its civic integrity policy to remove false or misleading information intended to undermine confidence in an election.
Old image = false impression
Around the time that the post about postal boxes in Wisconsin was picking up speed in mostly liberal social media circles, another decontextualized image was casting doubt on the reliability of postal workers themselves.
Showing a mail carrier removing Trump signs from a yard, the photo was shared in a conservative-leaning, Wisconsin-based Facebook group, and also on Twitter. The photo was taken in Delaware during the 2016 campaign, and had prompted a USPS investigation which had been reported by multiple media outlets, but was presented as evidence of potential postal malfeasance during this election season.
“There’s no evidence of any systematic fraud associated with voting by mail or absentee balloting, or really any other kind of voting in the United States,” said Michael Wagner, a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor who studies political communication. “So when our political elites give us reason to question the methods by which we vote, they could influence whether we choose to vote, whether we accept the results of an election, and how we might respond if there’s a contest over who won.”
Fake claims about Kenosha, COVID
Of more than 1,000 registered voters in Wisconsin who participated in an Oct. 14-19 SurveyUSA poll sponsored by Avaaz, about half reported seeing the false claim that “Jacob Blake, shot by police in Kenosha, once raped a 14-year-old” — and nearly a quarter said they believed it was true.
Nearly four-in-10 Wisconsin voters reported seeing false claims that “Kyle Rittenhouse has a violent criminal history before the shootings in Kenosha,” and 14% believed them.
Eight-in-10 voters saw posts saying that “Joe Biden plans to raise taxes on the middle class” — a repeatedly debunked claim that has been the subject of pro-Trump ads targeted at Facebook users in Wisconsin — and more than a third believed them.
And nearly nine in 10 Wisconsin voters saw the false claim that “If the number of COVID cases has increased, it’s only because we’re testing more” on social media, with slightly less than a third of respondents believing that increased COVID testing accounted for the surge in cases.
In each case, more than two-thirds of respondents said they saw the false claims on Facebook.
Quran sees his organization’s research as an effort to preserve a core element of democracy: voters who participate based on their beliefs, informed by facts.
“It’s not just followers of one political party or one side of the spectrum that believes these lies,” he said. “All of us have probably fallen for some of these pieces of misinformation.”
Klein, an Army veteran who enlisted near the end of the Vietnam War, has owned and operated his web marketing and graphic design business out of Menomonee Falls for more than 30 years.
In the past week, he’s sent about 600 tweets and retweets. He admits he could do a better job of verifying what he shares.
“I actually have tried to temper my posts not to just attack the other side … but to actually read about it and then repost,” Klein said, adding, “I’m not always diligent as I should be about that.”
This story was reported in collaboration with News 3 Now in Madison. Howard Hardee is a Madison-based journalist who created a misinformation toolkit for consumers funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies. He is a fellow at First Draft, an organization that trains journalists to detect and report on disinformation. Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
THE WISCONSIN CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM (WWW.WISCONSINWATCH.ORG) COLLABORATES WITH OTHER NEWS MEDIA AND THE UW-MADISON SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION. ALL WORKS CREATED, PUBLISHED, POSTED OR DISSEMINATED BY THE CENTER DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OR OPINIONS OF UW-MADISON OR ANY OF ITS AFFILIATES.