Experts warn that much of the discourse voters see this election will be laced with false information, misleading or out-of-context claims, and targeted disinformation. Most of that will be designed to suppress voter turnout and undermine confidence in our election system and election results.
And it is spreading. According to ProPublica and First Draft, nearly half of recent top-performing posts on Facebook related to mail voting “contained false or substantially misleading claims.” NBC News has similarly found Google serving ads that contained false and misleading information about registering to vote.
The principal concerns fall into four categories:
- False information about the time, place or manner of voting or registering to vote.
- False claims about election administration practices, including how ballots are processed, verified and counted, with the intent to undermine faith in the election process and election results.
- False or misleading claims about the extent of electoral and voter fraud.
- Narratives and information presented without context, with the intent to suppress voter turnout.
Here are concrete, simple steps journalists can take to fight misinformation, avoid confusion and add context.
1. Write more direct headlines. Many audiences only see bits and pieces of a given story, often only a headline shared on social media. What’s more, search engines often pick up only the beginning of headlines. A simple solution? Headlines should lead with what’s true, not with what’s false, as Ángel Díaz of the Brennan Center suggests during a recent discussion of election-related misinformation. Aimee Rinehart asks journalists to think of headlines as an inverted pyramid.
2. Report on the mechanics of election administration. Many people are confused about the electoral processes in their states and are unsure if they’re secure or trustworthy. Election officials and voting experts say it’s important to demystify these “behind the scenes processes.” Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting does this well in this story on risk-limiting audits, to help build voters’ confidence in the system.
3. Repeat critical accurate information that voters will need frequently. Voters are overloaded with information, often conflicting. It’s helpful, after you provide accurate, relevant information, to repeat it frequently in stories and place it online in places where users will easily find it. Jonathan Lai of the Philadelphia Inquirer has set up an automated tweet every morning to relay deadlines for registering to vote and request absentee ballots, with information on how to do so. This is a relatively simple but powerful gesture that can be easily replicated with a tool like Buffer or SocialOomph. Lai says he was inspired by this Talking Points Memo piece that suggests the creation of a prominent “democracy box” to relay important information to voters in highly visible ways.
There are 13 weeks to Election Day!
— Jonathan Lai 🙊 賴柏羽 (@Elaijuh) August 4, 2020
4. Avoid jargon. Audiences may not understand terms like “misinformation” or “disinformation” and how they’re used by academics and researchers. Use precise language when describing each issue. If a claim lacks evidence, or an image has been digitally altered, say so. If a quote or video is taken out of context, share the additional context.
5. Avoid unwittingly promoting false information. Jane Lytvynenko of Buzzfeed News recommends newsrooms watermark fake or misleading images with clear stamps, as in this rundown of protest hoaxes, so that images aren’t shared and seen without context on social media.
6. Ask your audiences about their information needs and questions. Often misleading information is shared in non-public ways — like in ads on social media, private chat groups, email or direct text messages — that are difficult for reporters to track and correct. Such efforts may be targeted especially at voters of color. Provide opportunities for your audience, and non-audience members of your community, to share their questions or claims they’re seeing in these channels that they’re unsure about. Be sure to follow up with those individuals and provide them with accurate information they can share easily among their networks.
7. Remind your audience what you do to verify and independently check information. Acknowledge that it’s confusing to navigate election-related information, and pledge to be a credible source they can turn to for help. Explain how you decide what to trust, describe how you double check what you’re told and assure them you’re on the side of facts.
8. Be aware of hyperpartisan news sites in your area. Hyperpartisan outlets, branding themselves as legitimate news sites but often with ties to political funding, will likely push partisan election narratives to encourage or suppress turnout. Pay attention especially to their efforts on Facebook. Duke University researchers have created a map of these sites operating at the local level. Let your audience know about them. Police them for misinformation. Become the annotator in your market of what people can believe.
9. Investigate the purveyors of disinformation. The Global Investigative Journalism Network offers 6 techniques and tools for uncovering the originators of targeted false information. The Verification Handbook for Disinformation and Media Manipulation goes deeper on using the suggested tools.