The politicization of misinformation in a battleground state—and how to avoid it

MADISON, Wis. — When the La Crosse County Republicans’ Facebook page announced earlier this week that they believed Facebook was restricting their reach in the wake of sharing posts that fact checkers found to be false, other county parties chimed in.

“Our page is not the only one to be censored,” Pierce County Republicans wrote. This month, they’ve posted one claim that independent fact-checkers found had no basis in fact. Other GOP pages, such as Jefferson and Waukesha counties, have made multiple posts in the last few months that third-party fact checkers have flagged for misinformation. (Spokespeople for both state parties said county-level Facebook partisan pages aren’t bound by rules or guidelines set by state parties. Managers for individual Facebook pages didn’t respond to emails asking for comment.)

Opponents of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking exercises accuse them of interfering in elections, and dozens of comments on fact-checked posts on partisan pages reflect a lack of trust in verified information. It should be noted, Facebook has also come under fire from the left for accusations of algorithms that favor conservative pages; the majority of Facebook’s top ten most viewed posts daily are frequently popular right wing voices.

While President Donald Trump has repeatedly been fact checked by social media platforms and uses misinformation about the election process in his campaigning, the problem of misinformation in the 2020 cycle isn’t limited to one party. Earlier in the fall, a Democrat party activist tweeted a photo of a yard of stacked postal boxes that went viral–calling them proof of voter suppression in a tweet thread that has not been corrected but found to contain false information. PACs for both parties are running ads with misleading claims.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s voters are left to sort through the claims.

Misinformation: The individuals it affects

There isn’t scientific research backing the idea that misinformation can affect voting behavior on a widespread scale, according to UW-Madison political science professor Michael Wagner. But on a smaller plane, it has the power to impact small numbers that take on added significance in battleground states where elections are won by the smallest of percentages.

“While misinformation doesn’t have a huge effect on voting behavior, affecting voting behavior in a small way in a state like Wisconsin could be hugely important to how an election turns out,” Wagner noted.

He recently completed a misinformation study with graduate student Jianing Lee that explored how people are impacted by fact checks based on the level of correct information they already know about an issue. The study grouped people into three categories based on their level of information: the uninformed, the misinformed, and the ambiguous. They found that people with no knowledge of an issue were more likely to accept correct information in the form of a fact-check than people who were misinformed, or already believed incorrect information.

“People who are most likely to be susceptible to misinformation are the people who believe false things, and are sure that they’re right,” Wagner said. “These are people who are not helped by a fact check.” (Read more about the study’s methodology here.)

Protecting yourself: How to evaluate and avoid misinformation online

First Draft News, a nonprofit organization that helps journalists and communities sift through misinformation throughout the election cycle, along with Wisconsin Watch and the UW-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics, offers these tips for evaluating the information voters consume. The tips are simple, but take more time than clicking share on an emotional, misinformed post: Find primary sources. Look for names and dates. Find other places where the information was reported. Watch for red flags and suspicious pictures.

The consumer’s toolkit is the work of Howard Hardee, an election integrity reporter with Wisconsin Watch and First Draft’s local fellow on the ground tracking misinformation in Wisconsin, one of five fellows in key battleground states this election cycle.

“Propagandists would have us believe that nothing can be trusted and everything is super hyper-partisan, and there is no such thing as journalism with the public good in mind,” he explained. “And that’s just not true.” The guide walks consumers through the process of finding trustworthy sources–whether that’s your city clerk’s website, local paper or TV station, or trusted national outlet.

He advises consumers to find original sources, rather than sources where the information is coming three or four times removed from the original reporting or data, aggregated by organizations, social media or bad actors looking to introduce spin, commentary, remove context or introduce outright falsehoods. Red flags for misinformation include all caps, lots of exclamation points, grammatical or punctuation errors, and content designed to produce strong emotions: anger, sadness, or emotional validation.

“Pause to consider whether that content was designed for that purpose,” he said. “And certainly don’t share the content before you cool down and let your rational mind take over.”