Factually: How the Postal Service story lends itself to misinformation

The current conversation about the U.S. Postal Service and whether it’s prepared to handle mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect case study in how mis- and disinformation take hold in social and conventional media.

The story contains many of the elements we commonly see in topics that are ripe for misinformation. But there are three that stand out in particular.

1.) It’s a fast-moving story

As we’ve written before, stories that are quickly changing are ripe for manipulation. The Postal Service is no exception. Here’s a good example. In June, FactCheck.org debunked a “baseless election conspiracy” from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that President Donald Trump would “cut off money from the post office, so they cannot deliver mail-in ballots.” At the time, FactCheck.org director Eugene Kiely correctly pointed out there was no evidence for this.

That changed last week after the president’s admission on Fox Business that his opposition to post office relief funding was tied to his opposition to mail-in voting. So what was once not true then became true — and FactCheck.org updated its fact-check, adding additional information to the headline to reflect that the reality had changed.

Responding to a reader comment, Kiely wrote he chose not to completely rewrite the fact-check’s headline because it was accurate at the time, however, “we did add an update to the original headline to give the new information more prominence.”

2.) There are grains of truth

The Postal Service does have well-documented financial and service problems. In July, CBS performed a vote-by-mail experiment that showed the potential for delays and lost ballots due to the expected increased volume of mail-in voting. On Aug. 7, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy reorganized leadership at the Postal Service, which led to speculation that this would exacerbate already documented delays.

Experts say that effective disinformation campaigns often contain a kernel of truth. Indeed, reports that the Postal Service was removing mail sorting machines and mailboxes led to a viral photo claiming to show stacks of mailboxes removed from neighborhoods in Wisconsin. PolitiFact correctly noted this was a photo from a Wisconsin company that refurbishes old mailboxes.

3.) There is a confusing torrent of information

There has been a flurry of coverage about mail-in voting and the Postal Service in light of states’ efforts to encourage people to use mail-in ballots to stem the spread of COVID-19. As this torrent has grown, so have opportunities for misinformers to do their handiwork. As a May 2020 report from the Digital Future Society noted, “information overload” overwhelms the public and exacerbates confirmation biases.

New York Times opinion columnist Charlie Warzel suggested this may be the aim of the president’s messaging on mail-in voting. Referring to a Vox piece from February, Warzel suggested the president was implementing 2016 campaign CEO Steve Bannon’s strategy of “flooding the zone.”

“It’s exhausting and deliberate,” Warzel wrote, cautioning journalists to be mindful of this tactic, and deliberate in their reporting so as not to exacerbate its effects.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

. . . technology

  • Africa Check’s WhatsApp voice note podcast saw massive subscriber growth in the first half of 2020.

    • Subscriptions to “What’s Crap on WhatsApp” grew by 215%, and Africa Check has released a series of manuals to help other fact-checkers create their own podcasts

  • The sequel to the discredited “Plandemic” video arrived this week — and bombed, according to misinformation reporters, as social platforms were successful in stemming the spread of the movie, “Plandemic: Indoctornation.”

    • “The punningly titled sequel was a flop,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko. PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke said the video “is so far not the viral hit that the original was.”

    • “There’s still some possibility that Indoctornation will find new life on the social platforms,” wrote The Verge’s Casey Newton. “But it appears that for the most part, this time platforms passed the test: they identified the video as being in violation of their standards in real time, stopped hosting it and prevented users from sharing it.”

. . . politics

  • The Wall Street Journal reported a high-level Facebook executive in India protected prominent members of India’s ruling BJP party from being banned from the platform over hate speech violations.

    • In a statement to India Today, Facebook said that it prohibits hate speech and incitement of violence and enforces its rules regardless of someone’s political affiliation. “While we know there is more to do, we’re making progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy,” the company said.

  • A new Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 election also holds warnings about this year’s contests, wrote CNN’s Katelyn Polantz. She quoted senators from both parties who are concerned about the threat this year.

    • Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden told CNN that redacted information in the report is “directly relevant to Russia’s interference in the 2020 election.”

. . . science and health

  • Doctors on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic say their patients are increasingly being exposed to dangerous misinformation about the virus, The New York Times’ Adam Satariano reported.

    • The falsehoods, they say, have “undermined efforts to get people to wear masks and fueled a belief that the seriousness of the disease is overblown,” he wrote.

  • new study by the human rights group Avaaz found that only 16% of the health misinformation it analyzed on Facebook included a warning label.

    • “Despite their content being fact-checked, the other 84% of articles and posts sampled in this report remain online without warnings,” the report said.

    • A Facebook spokesman told various news outlets, including The Washington Post, that the findings “don’t reflect the steps we’ve taken” to keep misinformation from spreading, and that the company applied warning labels to 98 million instances of COVID-19 misinformation from April to June.

At first blush, it sounds like trouble. “Michigan Rejects 846 Mailed Ballots ‘Because the Voter Was Dead’” Breitbart News said in a recent headline about the state’s Aug. 4 primary.

Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller then tweeted the Breitbart story. It didn’t specifically say there was cheating in Michigan, but the end of the story discussed “absentee ballot fraud.”

Miller’s tweet was then retweeted by the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who insinuated that there was some kind of chicanery in Michigan: “The media: NOTHING TO SEE HERE!!! Hey, it was only about 8% of the votes cast which I imagine are amateur numbers for the democrats in places like Michigan.” He repeated the “amateur” line in another tweet the next day.

Both CNN and the Detroit Free Press wrote in fact-checks that the 846 ballots were rejected because the voters were alive when they submitted them, but died before Election Day. This has happened in past years, too, including 2016.

Trump also got his math wrong, according to the Free Press. The number was 8% of votes rejected, not of those cast.

What we liked: CNN put the claim in context, explaining that the system actually worked as intended. And the Free Press untangled the numbers. Both demonstrated why Breitbart’s headline and the tweets that followed were alarmist and part of the ongoing Trump campaign against mail-in voting.

– Susan Benkelman, API

  1. The Associated Press summed up how regimes around the world have used alleged misinformation about COVID-19 to justify crackdowns on press freedoms.

  1. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose has done a new explainer on QAnon.

  1. Consumer Reports published a series of infographics visualizing the misinformation policies of the major social media companies.

  1. Maharat Magazine dedicated its latest issue to its fact-checking efforts following the Beirut Blast.

  2. Turkish fact-checking organization Teyit released its latest report on misinformation and fact-checking during Turkey’s COVID-19 infodemic.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

We will be taking a late summer break next week, so we’ll be back in your inbox on Thursday, Sept. 3.

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See you in two weeks.

Harrison and Susan