The 2020 election may be remembered best for misinformation.
Led by the defeated president himself, partisans — including elected officials — and others seeking to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the election spread false claims about voting and election results, undermining confidence in the foundations of our shared democracy.
After the 2016 election, in which malicious actors used social media to spread false information and sought to manipulate mainstream news outlets, the challenge presented by misinformation was not unexpected. Many journalists anticipated similar efforts in 2020.
Through the Trusted Elections Network Fund, we supported several newsrooms focused on understanding the origins and spread of misinformation and helping audiences respond to it. The projects we supported sought to provide basic explanatory information, understand how to spot misinformation, and track the provenance and spread of false claims to help audiences understand where misinformation comes from and who is behind it. Their experiences hold lessons for reporters and newsrooms dealing with the spread of false information in 2021 and beyond.
1. Look beyond the obvious platforms to track misinformation.
Journalists from the Detroit Free Press widened their lens on the platforms Michiganders were using. In 2016, much of their focus was on Facebook and Twitter. In 2020, they looked at 11 different platforms, joining closed groups and expanding their networks of potential sources.
“We found news tips on smaller social media sites where people were trying to organize among like-minded individuals (Example: Parler and MeWe sites, Stand Up Michigan group). It’s important for reporters to just be on these sites. We weren’t caught by surprise when narratives reached the mainstream. Even coded language usually going undetected in the comments on Free Press stories became clear to us.” — Detroit Free Press
The Raleigh News & Observer, too, emphasized the importance of diversifying the online sources journalists should pay attention to in order to find misinformation.
“We would like to find better ways to identify, and fact-check, misinformation that large numbers of voters in North Carolina are seeing online. Much of what influences voters is unique to their own news feeds and hidden from our view.” — Raleigh News & Observer
2. Pay attention to misinformation spreading offline.
The most pertinent misinformation may not be visible online at all. It’s important to be plugged into the false information shared offline. Shana Black, of Black Girl Media and First Draft, launched an effort to provide explanatory information about voting and the election to folks in her Cleveland community. She made it a point to listen in public, offline spaces — like coffee shops and grocery stores — to understand what information her audience was hearing and to help identify information gaps.
“To complete this project I needed to understand how the voters interacted with information and who they deemed as a trusted source. Prior to this project most of my work was done in the digital space but I understood that many of our inner-city residents live on the other side of the digital divide.” — Shana Black, Black Girl Media
3. Find ways to make basic voting information accessible.
Misinformation can often take root when audiences lack reliable information about the basics of voting. The Arizona State University News Co/Lab partnered with Spaceship Media to create shareable social media graphics with basic information about voting, the electoral college and other election processes.
“Newsrooms know that people respond to graphics, and memes are among the most shared forms of content (bad and good). One piece of advice would be to keep it simple: the infomemes need to be somewhat context-proof, so that they are factual on their own without needing additional explanation — and so they can’t be taken out of context to be perceived as false. The infomemes that were the most concise and clearly covered one point that had been contentious on social media generated the most organic engagement. For instance, the infomeme we shared that said votes didn’t need to be counted on Nov. 3 was shared across platforms more widely than others with more complicated content.” — Arizona State University News Co/Lab
Shana Black of Black Girl Media provided basic information about the voting process and involvement in local civic processes in print guides and in podcasts with guests from trusted local organizations.
“By utilizing multiple formats I was able to broaden my reach and connect and collaborate with other organizations that I hadn’t previously been able to connect with. These neighborhoods are often residents I have been unable to reach due to primarily working with digital reporting. We were contacted by local business owners to ask if they could receive copies of the voter guides that they could distribute to their customers. The podcast connected with our Gen X audience and provided information on how to support other organizations doing election work and what to do if there are issues or concerns at the polls. The number of downloads and plays for these episodes were higher than past episodes and were shared to new audiences by the organizations and guests.” — Shana Black, Black Girl Media
For additional ideas, see our article on back-to-basics election reporting.
4. Help audiences understand and spot misinformation, and explain where your journalism fits in the information ecosystem.
Two McClatchy outlets, the Raleigh News & Observer and the Kansas City Star, each held events with journalists and other speakers to help audiences understand election-related misinformation. The events also sought to help audiences independently evaluate the accuracy of claims they were seeing or hearing. The conversations prompted each newsroom to explain more clearly how they cover misinformation and the election.
“Our disinformation project reinforced that our readers have a strong interest in understanding how we do our jobs and learning more about how to seek out credible sources of information. Too often, we assume that our audience intuitively understands the key differences between The Kansas City Star’s rigorous reporting standards and the questionable claims circulated on social media.
We need to continue to pull back the curtain and help readers understand how we do our jobs. To build credibility and slow the spread of disinformation, we should make it a priority to explain our journalistic and ethical standards and to show our work.
We sometimes think it’s navel-gazing to write about journalism, or we assume that if we just quote all sides, readers can sort things out for themselves. We have seen in recent weeks and months that we can’t give equal weight to those who make patently false claims, and it’s our responsibility to help readers separate fact from fiction. This project underscored our audience’s strong interest in credible information and high-quality journalism.” — Kansas City Star
5. Trace the origins of misinformation to help audiences understand how false claims proliferate.
The Detroit Free Press tracked misinformation across multiple platforms and, as misinformation made its way into the mainstream, was able to explain where specific claims and narratives originated and how they were manipulated along the way. The Free Press made efforts to signal the distinction between this work and their more traditional fact-checking approaches.
“We traced the origin of viral information and showed how it may have been framed one way originally, then quickly distorted and shared to achieve a desired effect. This really resonated with people across the political spectrum.” — Detroit Free Press
6. Build the skills to understand, track, and cover misinformation for reporters on every beat.
The Detroit Free Press had reporters focused exclusively on election misinformation and fact-checking, but the news organization also recognized the importance for others in the newsroom to have those skills. The Free Press’s misinformation reporters led an all-staff training session to help other reporters across beats expand their social networks, investigate the origins of conspiracy narratives, consider new online investigative tools (e.g. Tweetbeaver, Lusha, Facebook Directories, Crowdtangle, One Tab, Wayback Machine extension, Instagram location searches), and understand how misinformation reporting can affect mental health and ways to practice self care in that context.
“We understand the need for concentrated mis- and disinformation reporting in crisis situations and hope to continue this work with our own and philanthropic funding. But the skills necessary to do this work — identifying misinformation worth reporting on, tracking provenance, investigating networks — benefit any beat writer and make all of our work more authoritative. Going into the election, we gave Free Press reporters a specific and new three-step playbook for preserving and reporting misinformation:
1. Use the Wayback Machine Chrome Extension to save the page in the Wayback Machine in case someone takes it down.
2. Take a screenshot (same reason).
3. Send the screenshot and a link to the page or post to our reporter covering mis/disinformation.”
— Detroit Free Press
Taking deeper approaches to misinformation coverage also resonates with audiences. The Detroit Free Press’s election misinformation coverage generated more than half a million page views and 34 direct subscriptions through two paywalled stories. ASU’s infomemes reached 660,000 people across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter through organic and paid efforts. The Kansas City Star’s “Fact or Fiction: How to Spot Election Disinformation” event attracted more than 5,000 viewers, with some later subscribing to the paper.
In other words, efforts to address false information not only served to inform and engage the public but was also good business.
The overall impact of a polluted information ecosystem may be up for debate, but it’s clear that mis- and disinformation have real consequences. The experience of 2020 showed that journalists need to stay vigilant and keep innovating in service of their audiences as purveyors of misinformation find new platforms and tactics to spread falsehoods.
This article is part of a series on lessons from Trusted Elections Network Fund grantees. See the rest of the articles in the series here.