S1E11.5: Election 2020 Dis/Misinformation Preview

Podcast published date: 

Oct 30, 2020


Election Preview

Michael: This is Misinfo weekly, a somewhat weekly program about misinformation in our time. Misinfo weekly is made by the unit for Data Science and Analytics at Arizona State University Library.

Hi and welcome. It's Friday, October 23rd, 2020. We are going to be talking about misinformation and the upcoming election. We're going to be going through all the different things that are swirling around the Internet in terms of misinformation and talk about what kind of potential they have and really how to prepare yourself for the election and all the events that may or may not happen. Subsequently. 

Shawn, are you ready for the election?

Shawn: I think as ready as I can be.

Michael: Yeah, I feel like that's a fair assessment.  Are you ready to talk about some of the misinformation that's circulating around in run up to the election?

Shawn:  Yeah. The misinformation feels like a hot humid, Florida summer day.

Michael:  Yeah, there's just so much of it around us all the time.  We've been using the weather metaphor, I think, to talk about misinformation both on and offline. And I do feel all the things we're going to be talking about today are like water in the air. And the right event might trigger it and spread it all around.

I'm thinking of the America's top doctors and the pandemic film, which went viral to the tune of millions of interactions, where a lot of the conspiracy theories that were represented in these films had already been laid down. But then they were activated by these really influential videos or pieces of media.

And so today, it'd be good to think about what kinds of things are in the air, but could be activated. And could we become much more influential come November 3rd or leading up to  November 3rd? 

Shawn: These pieces of missing disinformation are waiting in the wings, circulating more in. Extreme communities or more of come seriously communities in there. They're basically waiting for a  series of events to activate them and allow them to jump from more fringe communities into the public discourse.

Michael: Yeah. Or there could be an example where people just have a low level anxiety about something, and everybody has that, but then it gets activated by some piece of misinformation too. So, I think we're looking at two different ways that we can go from a simmer to a boil. 

And so with all of our metaphors kind of laid out on the table, let's talk through a couple of different areas where there's potential for some trouble. Shawn, what's the first one you've got for today.

Shawn:  One area that's been sort of right with mis and disinformation and rumors would be the integrity of the election, meaning election equipment, processing of ballots, mailing of ballots. Yeah. Voting patterns. So I think that area has already been set and it's just sort of waiting for any of these hundreds of different rumors and pieces of misinformation to just sort of catch hold. And then that becomes a story into itself.

Michael:  Yeah, and it seems like there's a couple of different categories here. There's the actual databases that could be hacked by  intelligence service or black hat hackers. And then there's the actual posts, right? The getting the ballots to the places to be counted and, and like the counting of the ballots too.

Shawn: The problem with the way the scene has been set, is that any hiccup in the process, which voting is a complex process with a number of safeguards, but so any hiccup, no matter how small that hiccup is, these rumors that have already been kind of put into place in are circulating. They just sort of explode that from potentially a hiccup that's easily corrected and caught into saying something about the entire voting system rather than, than one hiccup.

Michael: Yeah. And I think this feeds into some of this stuff that, you know, we've covered before where the more complex something is the easier it is to invent a conspiracy about it. But integrity in the election seems like a ripe target at this point. So beyond the  integrity of the vote counts and the voting process and all that. What's another area where we think there's some stuff moving around and could be activated?

Shawn:  Questions and rumors that are swirling around the health of the candidates. So their accusations on both sides about seasonality, health status, about age. So those are all kind of right for the picking and just waiting for some event, someone to just stumble on one stair and then boom, these rumors can then easily be activated.

Michael: Yeah, the number of people on Twitter counting the number of open mouth breaths made by either candidate to try to speculate about their respiratory health. Allegations about one candidate coughing or another one not being able to , recollect anything at all. All of these are of a piece of what we can see on social media, about when people generally try to cast aspersions on someone's vitality. They're more subtle. I think in the past, there's been a lot more subtlety, in other elections, but in this one, given the age of each of the candidates, ya, I think you really see things that range from respiratory health to mental health, to drug use. So, there's all kinds of things that I think if people are hunting for symptoms or looking for bloodshot eyes or, you know, uneven breathing, there's a lot of room for interpretation there.

Shawn: These things tend to easily snowball, especially when the stage has already been set for this to happen.It's sort of like a foreshadowing in a movie.

Michael: Yeah, I feel like once you establish that people are not straightforward about their health. Or you start kind of creating this narrative that no one's straightforward about their health. Then you're extra suspicious about their motivations because you feel like all they're doing is trying to hold onto and conduct power. And so that, again, that, that erodes people's trust in institutions, if there's a lot of conjecture about people's health, because that's a kind of dictator thing to do is hold onto power as long as possible, even though physically it's really not appropriate for you to be doing that job.

Shawn: And if we foreshadow dozens or more possibilities of how their health can go wrong, when any of those happened to be correct, then you know, of course we predicted this, we knew this was going to happen. But, in many cases, we're just kind of throwing everything at the wall. That's what this sort of pool of rumors is. And if just one of them happened to be correct, then there's this overreaction to that.

Michael: Okay. Yeah. So we've got election integrity. We've got health of elected officials.

 Shawn: So another potential, is discussing COVID. So what happens to these COVID numbers and right around the election? So we have some folks that are saying that  the numbers are going to go down right after the election, because this is a hoax. And some folks are saying numbers are going to go up for various reasons.So, basically no matter what happens, there's some seemingly election connection to COVID. That's, you know, not actually what's happening.

Michael: I think that's a really interesting area with COVID has been kind of really diverse in the kinds of problems it's pose for people. Of course. but a, a new rumor about  how contagious COVID is or how harmful it is, could easily feed into, see this as a hoax or see this is even more deadly than we thought, or it can be weaponized and we're cranking that aspect of it up.

So, I think COVID of all of the things that we're talking about right now is the least straightforward in terms of how it might play out.  I think it could bounce either way, depending on the conspiracy theory. But either way COVID is in the front of everyone's mind so much, it does seem like a ripe target to be able to, have something happen or have a development overblown, and then turn that into something that's going to have people mistrust the institutions that are kind of on the ballot for the election.

Shawn:  If an announcement is made that a vaccine made it through a certain set of trials, or if there's a lack of an announcement, then people are imbibing more meaning into that rather than this is part of the scientific process for testing and determining the effectiveness of a vaccine.

Michael:  Yes. If a vaccine were to be developed or promised within weeks of the election, I think that would definitely be interpreted by many as a sort of manipulation. Some people would wonder, even if they could trust the vaccine itself or the sources of that information, you look at how trust in the CDC. And the FDA has fallen since the advent of the COVID pandemic. And I think those are some ingredients for trouble here.

Shawn: For example, whether that announcement comes before the election or after the election then is imbibed with potentially political meaning when in many cases that might just be the pace that the scientific evidence is coming out at, right. It takes time to do trials. So that might be when the trial information is available and it has nothing to do with the election.

So we're cautious and imbibing the meaning and the timing of certain scientific developments.

Michael: Yes. You know, another one that comes to mind is also the judiciary. Where there's so much conversation right now about how the Supreme court nomination and then confirmation is in service to making sure that if there is an election that goes to the courts, that it's going to come out in the favor of the Republican party.

Now, to be fair, this issue was raised by the President of the United States as one of the things he was hopeful for when selecting this person. That's not to say that the person who is nominated is going to behave that way. But either way, even that we're here. When we talk about people being primed to be suspicious, I feel like at this point, the court's ability to act impartially is really, really reduced based on some of this stuff hanging around now. 

Or I should say it's really hard for the court to appear impartial around any of these kinds of decisions.

Shawn:  Right. So if we think of the structure of the Supreme court, we think of justices and what they can say publicly, what they can't say publicly. And in many cases that puts them in a position where they're just sort of prime for politicization by the public and politicians and members of the media. And they're not able to really respond to that fully because of just how the Supreme court operates.

Michael: Yeah. Yeah. And that's a huge loss when you know, how many branches of government of the three do people trust right now? 

Shawn:  Probably zero.

Michael:  Could we do like a rank...it's zero. Right? But is there more trust in the legislature than the executive branch or the judiciary branch that this is just.This is really tough, right? So, confidence in all branches of government is pretty low. The Supreme court nomination events that have come up in the month of October, I think have decreased, people's trust in at least what the Supreme Court might rule on the election. We also have to think about, Q Anon, and we can use Q Anon as a placeholder for a lot of other conspiracy theories when people are arrested by the FBI, because they're planning to kidnap and put on trial, the governor of Michigan, when there's more and more Q stuff, kind of bubbling up into the public as we've been tracking all summer.And as the major news has been tracking all summer, there is a lot of formally circulated conspiracy theories and other groups that are thinking about opportunities to take action.

Shawn:  And I find it interesting that Q is continuing to  gain ground and circulate, even though social media platforms are upping their active, they have measures to remove QAnon. So Tik TOK, for example, has started to remove QAnon content Facebook, Twitter, they're actively trying to remove this content, but at the same time, that's still entering popular discourse.

I can't count the number of friends that I have that are asking why isn't Biden talking about child trafficking more and what his plans are to stop child trafficking, like how this has become, in some circles, a very central political issue. And in past election, it has not.

And this is not to say that no child trafficking is horrific, but the incidents of child trafficking is much lower than many of the QAnonconspiracy theories, make it sound. And the ways that child trafficking operates, is also different than described in a lot of these conspiracy theories.

Michael: Yeah. And the landscape that these theories produce is that the media and one political party are on the same side. And so people talk about polarization and they talk about polarizing rhetoric, but one of the simplest ways to polarize a country is to just continue to maintain and circulate this idea that the mainstream media, and if you turn on the television or if you get on the internet for normal people, then what's going to happen is you are just going to be indoctrinated into the side of the enemy.

And so it makes it real hard to have a conversation when you lump all the media in one political party together, this idea of a deep state of like MSDNC and all this other stuff that is, you know, a really tectonic move for creating all this polarization.

Shawn:  And that creates an environment where it's almost impossible to verify the authenticity of claims that are made. So where if you don't trust the media, if you don't trust the opposing political party. If you don't trust people who support the opposing party then, and you only trusting this insular group.

I mean, this is happening on both sides, but I think especially within the QAnon, there’s, no one can prove this wrong. Similarly, if we go back to the, the Wayfair child trafficking, conspiracy that we talked about. Many of the believers of that conspiracy, we're basically saying, unless you prove this false beyond a shadow of a doubt, then this is true.

So, how do we operate in that type of environment?

Michael: Yeah, we talk about, or say figuratively, it's like we're living in two different worlds or that people don't inhabit the same reality. This is how people don't inhabit the same reality. They believe that the information sources that are out there, that some people are consuming are just so corrupt that they're unbelievable.

And you believe that you have an inside track on the truth that nobody else has. That's how you do it is that two people have completely different information diets and they really do create two different realities. And when people are spending more time at home, it's kind of doubles down on that effect.

You're kind of living in a different internet.

Shawn:  We're not saying that there isn't bias in the media. I mean, there's bias everywhere and it's just, how do we account for that bias whenever we're interpreting things. So to say that it's so biased that we can't even find a nugget of truth or usefulness on the other side, that's when it becomes problematic.

That's when it moves from being pragmatic and seeing some bias. Because certain outlets might see favor in a certain candidate, but that's different than just saying there's nothing legitimate here that I can trust or that I can even discuss. And because you're referencing it, you are no longer legitimate.

Then we've kind of jumped off the deep end where we can't have a conversation about our beliefs.

Michael:  Yeah. It makes me nostalgic for the days when people were talking about American media outlets and they would say, Oh, everything's biased. So who cares? It's like, yeah, I wish we could go back to that time when we were talking about stuff, just being biased.  Rather than say a part of a vast conspiracy that's covering up a worldwide ring of child sacrifice in satanic worship, right?

I, it is really hard to, you know, bias, you can work with, that other stuff that just cancels out anything as a source of information.  And it cancels out all the people who believe it, you know, the idea of people being sheeple as a way to just disqualify someone from participating in a conversation.

This is how we get to the point where it feels like we're living in different worlds.

Shawn: And on the other side, we have this belief that anyone who's a supporter of Trump for example, is, you know, a redneck living in the fire zone and that's extremely uneducated and is racist. Right. So we once we put people in these two different categories, we can no longer talk to each other.

Michael:  Yup. Yup. Well, this puts us in quite an interesting situation. We have working backwards, a whole lot of different conspiracies that divide us in terms of the information that we have and divide and ruin our political conversations and even start to spark acts of violence or conspiracies to commit violence and maybe even suppress the vote.

So we've got these conspiracies going on. We've got COVID-19 and people's kind of beliefs or trust in the institutions handling COVID-19. We've got the integrity of the elections and do people actually trust the process where in their votes are counted? We have a kind of dwindling trust in the judiciary.

Should the judiciary actually be called upon to make any kind of meaningful decisions? What did I miss?

Shawn:  I mean that’s a whole lot. It makes me kind of want to turn off the microphone for a little bit, but, I don't know.

Michael:  I mean, this is, this is, this is, this is, so I think it's good to talk about these things and then kind of lay them out all at once, because there are so many opportunities to get us to freak out. With, you know, already, right? This is a volatile mix before we even get to  misinformation about these things, right?

This is such a volatile combination to stare down, but this really does feel  like a fragile wherever we are right now, leading up to selection feels very fragile. Given the conditions that we're in.

Shawn:  Well, potentially fragile. We don't know what the outcome's going to be.  Whoever's elected. We don't know how either side is going to respond and, and what's going to happen. So it could be as a lot of this, these rumors are saying it could be sort of utter chaos and the disintegration of the United States on one side too.

Normal transfer of power or somewhere in between. But just thinking about that in training to sort through that, I think it's important. Like you're saying to admit that this is difficult, this is exhausting. And questions like how do we actually navigate this in a way where we can still engage with each other as, as humans, and not just sort of run away and brand each other as you know, crazy on both sides.

Michael: Yeah. I think all this stuff that we've talked about has kind of pushed a lot of folks like, push all of us to an edge. And so as we think about how to process the next...Couple of weeks, couple months. You know, what are some things that we can kind of recommend to people out there about how to live with this? Really superheated set of circumstances and how to  process things as they happen surrounding the election.  Is there anything we can do? That's like practical advice that might help people, not inadvertently make it worse for themselves or for others.

Shawn:  So this is what is our virtual or potential small in-person Thanksgiving gathering is going to be like, and how do we not make them enter powder kegs of political discourse? Is that what you're asking?

Michael:  I don't know. I hadn't even even thought about Thanksgiving or what that could be like, but,  if a piece of potentially explosive news suddenly drops, what's the way to go.

Shawn: I think that's an excellent question. I think the first step in my mind is to do what we've been talking about since the beginning of the podcast is to sit down and topause for a second. To go then go back and not to be a broken record, but to think about our initial emotional reaction.

And then if we can sort of calm that to then start to kind of process the news and whatever that information is,  what are multiple sources saying? What are the actual implications? What are the possibilities for it being as true or as much fiction as the sort of maybe potentially bombastic event is?

Michael:  Yeah. I think keeping track of, you know, where your feelings are, can be really helpful. I think. I think everything's got to have a 48 hour delay before you really take action on anything. Unless  three or four different sources are reporting it and have confirmed it, it just doesn't make any sense to have a single piece of information or a single leak or a supposedly hard drive, get anybody to believe anything for 48 hours.

Right. We normally think about being able to delay our actions, but really should put a 48 hour timer on your beliefs.

Shawn: Well, and I think it's important to humanize those that disagree with you because we often,  say I post something online about this news story, you know, Michael, you disagree with me and all of a sudden now I think you're an idiot. And you're, you know, you're a sheep or you're stupid redneck whatever terms people have been throwing around.

I think it's important to have those conversations with the fact that you're a human you're also thinking through this, we might disagree, but that doesn't mean that the other side's garbage. 

Michael:  Yeah. This, what do you think of this practice of unfriending people who kind of don't agree with you on one particular, very important issue. Like, so for instance, , for those of you that still support Trump after learning about the DHS policies on child separation, unfriend me now.

Shawn:  I understand the desire for those practices on both sides of just these issues have become so hot button in our disagreements feel like we're so far apart. But, I think then we actually start to create those filter bubbles that researchers have been debating about for awhile. So for me, I've been trying to have conversations with friends to some success and sometimes, you know, just they've kind of exploded and it went South pretty quickly. But trying to have conversations with friends of, well, we're going to disagree.

I'm not going into this conversation, trying to change your mind. But part of it is like, well, why do you believe this? Why do you think this? And help me understand. No, I'm not going to criticize you for what you're thinking. I might disagree with you vehemently, is an understatement. But at least I understand why.

Are you afraid of something? Is there some policy issue that's really important to you, why you believe this? Does this news article really mean something to you? And that information is important? Because there's a reason why people believe something. And I think sometimes it's helpful for us to understand why they're believing it. Because, it might still seem maybe crazy to us, but then we like at least, Oh, well, I think that's crazy, but at least I can see that.

Michael:  Yeah, I think there is a fine line we can draw between why does someone share something and why does someone believe something. That, you know, someone can share something without believing that it's a hundred percent factually true. But it resonates with them in some way. That's not like a responsible thing to do.

Right. That's, that's something you don't want to do. But  I'm not going to recommend what people do with their friend lists on any social media. Right. But I do, well, don't, unless you're studying them, don't befriend, you know, Russian botnets. That seems like a really bad idea. But otherwise, like socially, you know, don't, I don't, I'm not going to tell anybody what to do, but, it does...

Shawn:  Because their profiles always say Russian botnet in there, so you can easily identify them. Right.

Michael: Well, look, I, I do think as an aside, I think we are going to look back at how do I identify a Russian bot as the same as how to identify a fake news website. Right that Russian bots of course, or other kinds of bots are just going to evolve to be, you know, a whole lot more persuasive and a lot more resistant to some of the, you know, identification strategies that, researchers use right now and recommend to the public.

But all that aside. When you're thinking about why unfriend somebody, or why not? You know, one thing that I would just kind of invite people to think about is that people believe stuff for reasons that doesn't have to do with that. With the thing itself. Right. What I mean by that is, if someone says, well, I support Trump's HHS, chances are, they don't actually believe or something about them and is in total denial about the idea of children being separated.

Right. So like whatever the most morally odious thing in the, in the piece of news is. My guess is, is that, the person who's defending it, doesn't actually believe it's true, or doesn't actually believe it's as bad as it is or thinks it's overblown. Right? So we see this with the child separation. We see this with COVID. The folks who are, are kind of defending, one political sides practices around COVID they're minimizing how bad COVID is.

They're not both owning how bad COVID is and saying they really support, not really doing anything about it. And so , it might not be a moral issue. You might not have a moral disagreement. And I think it's those moral disagreements that cause people sometimes to feel very strongly about these things.

We might have very different ways of knowing and learning as we've been talking about before. And that leaves us with these situations where it may seem very true and like a really big deal to you. But that other person really feels like it's an overblown hoax or it's a manipulation by the media. And therefore they don't really see it as the same kind of moral issue that you do.

Shawn: So you're saying that in other words, someone might think that issue is less of a big deal. You might think that issue is really important to you. So you're basically imbibing a whole bunch of meaning and a whole set of beliefs on the other side when they might not even be there. Cause they might just be like calm down.

Michael:  Yeah. And look, these, all these things work together. If we have, like a media ecosystem where people are only consuming one kind of news or getting information from one kind of side, then it's very easy for. You know, one party to feel like this is a moral issue and an existential threat to our democracy.

And another side to feel like this is overblown and part of a media conspiracy to kind of use the language of morality to manipulate them public. Then together. Yeah. No one person might think that we're arguing about the same thing. We're really not.

Shawn: Right. And what's circulating in your network and very popular might not be as circulating and be popular in my network. And we often use this heuristic of popularity to say something's really urgent. Something's really important. Or something is true.

Michael:  Yeah. Yeah, I think so. All right. Are we, are we done giving advice or do we have any other kinds of, insights to offer as we wind down the clock? On the election season?

Shawn:  Yeah, I think I'm just like everyone else just kind of holding on and watching what's swirling around and, trying to stay as healthy as possible in the current environment. Which is difficult to do. I think.

Michael:  I think so too. One other thing that occurs to me. Is that we were, 2016 was one of these situations where we got used to the idea. Of misinformation and disinformation and election hacking and whatever, that, that the greatest impact was leading up to election day and on the day of the election.

But we might very well be in a situation where the most harmful dis and misinformation circulating around and the most harmful activity happens after all the votes are cast this time.

Shawn:  I think that's a really important point. We have often viewed this as are these, the media we're discussing well, this election mis and disinformation, but this just hasn't stopped at the election. There's not sort of an expiration date where all of this just disappears.

This is a continual process that has become more and more intense over [00:28:00] time. And that's going to continue to happen no matter who's elected after November 3rd in the US.

Michael:  Yeah. I mean, and look at how, how wide of a data point the election is. Right. And we've basically recounted like the last year of activity as part of the mix for misinformation or disinformation surrounding the election. It's like, we're no longer talking about interfering in the election using misinformation.

Now we're, we're in the conversation of interfering with democracy and interfering with the government and interfering with day to day interactions, just general interference all the time, rather than election interference for, you know, a couple of months.

Shawn:  And that's not to minimize the issue of mis and disinformation. You can also see that there's this hyping of the role of misinformation in society. And, so I think that adds to the stress and adds a bit to the drama of mis and disinformation.

Michael: What do you mean by that  people [00:29:00] amplifying misinformation, like, are they paying more attention to it? Is that what you mean?

Shawn: What I was trying to say is that, It's been around for awhile, it's become more intense, but then the hype surrounding it has become even more intense, which then increases the stress and amplifies a lot of the mis and disinformation. So in the past, there might be rumors and misinformation swirling, but that was ignored by the general population.

For the most part versus now this is something that like every single day, there's new rumor, new mis and disinformation, that's on the news across the new spectrum. So it's in our faces every day and is hyped by society, which then makes this even sort of more intense problem that we have to respond to.

Michael:  Yeah, so there's problems with not knowing. And now it seems like we're dealing with some of the problems that tend to knowing about misinformation and disinformation.

Shawn:  And the knowing in some ways, by discussing a lot of them, isn't disinformation. We give legitimacy to it to say, well, this conspiracy theory is worth discussing. So therefore we all need to sit down and think about it, rather than oftentimes you might encounter some of this information. We might review it, then discard it.

Now we're continuing to talk about it as if it's legitimate, which means we have to deal with it in a different way than we did in the past.

Michael:  Yeah. So does that mean we have to pack up and stop what we're doing?

Shawn: You mean our podcast? 

Michael: Yeah. 

Shawn: Well, this is, I mean, to be honest, this is something I struggle with in my classes when I talk about mis and disinformation. But I think also in our podcast, by reviewing some of this, we have to be very careful because that can sometimes give legs to the content. So I think that's why we discuss mis and disinformation from a very specific point of view.

So instead of fact-checking, debunking, and describing an event in detail, we more sort of discuss what happened. And what the vulnerabilities are. And I think that's a safer approach that, that tends to amplify, or at least I hope it amplifies the misinformation less.

Michael: Yeah, I think, you know, to round out our metaphors episode, if you want to handle toxic stuff, you should wear some kind of protective equipment in our case, it's conceptual, but I think this is a good, a good note to end on as we kind of look forward to the next couple of weeks, everyone be careful, go out and vote, be thoughtful and be well. 

 For questions or comments, use the email address datascience@asu.edu. And to check out more about what we're doing, try library.asu.edu/data