Blog: The US Presidential election and fake news

Published: 2 Nov 2020

Blog: The US Presidential election and fake news

As we approach tomorrow’s hard-fought election in the USA, legions of fact-checkers are attempting to keep up with the soaring number of false claims being made online. But like Hercules' Hydra, with every head cut off another two appear in its place. Covid-19 is the unprecedented backdrop to the Presidential election, with so-called ‘fake news’ spreading and mutating from country to country like the virus itself.

"Hope can be found in the innovative approaches that other countries are taking in addressing both misinformation and disinformation." - Beth Lambert, Fellow

Twitter and Facebook have started labelling misleading posts to try and limit the spread of harmful content, but this fact-checking comes late and cannot make up for the irreversible impact of lies already spread. By its very nature, fact-checking is reactive rather than proactive and so - as my Churchill Fellowship research explores - it cannot be the sole way that countries choose to tackle the issue.  

False online claims have increased in the build-up to the US election, including accusations of voting fraud and images supposedly showing mail-in ballots being found in landfill. The popular QAnon conspiracy theory even claims that America’s upper echelons of government, business and media are run by an elite ring of Satan-worshipping paedophiles.

It’s tempting to dismiss such claims, but they have gained real traction with the public. Despite Twitter banning 150,000 QAnon-associated accounts due to their “potential to lead to offline harm”, the damage has already been done. Polling from the UK-based non-profit advocacy group Hope Not Hate has found that roughly one in ten Americans claim to support the QAnon theory. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said, “We are feeling machines that think (not thinking machines that feel),” so we spend more time quickly responding to emotive posts than we do thoughtfully considering whether they are indeed true.

Conspiracy theories are by no means a new phenomenon. There is even a conspiracy theory that the CIA created the term itself back in 1967 after the assassination of President Kennedy. However, it is clear they gain more exposure and have more impact in the age of the internet, with researchers seeing recent surges in Holocaust denial, climate change denial and the anti-vax movement. The flood of disinformation around the US Presidential elections has prompted the FBI to publicly warn of foreign states “convincing the public of the election’s illegitimacy.”

These fears are not new. In the wake of the 2016 US election, a team of Oxford University researchers provided evidence to the US Senate concluding that “Russia’s Internet Research Agency launched an extended attack on the United States by using computational propaganda to misinform and polarize US voters.” Their research also uncovered the global scale of this issue, with evidence of organised social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries in 2018 alone. The message is clear: no country can be complacent in tackling this complex issue. 

Hope can be found in the innovative approaches that other countries are taking in addressing both misinformation (unwittingly sharing false information) and disinformation (deliberately sharing false information, with the intent to mislead). The purpose of my 2020 Churchill Fellowship is to research these global frontrunners and see what the UK can learn from them.

At the forefront of approaches to new regulation, Germany has passed a law that fines online platforms up to £44m if they do not remove fake news and hate speech within 24 hours. Singapore has introduced jail time of up to 10 years for those who use bots or fake accounts to share false information. 

Estonia, nicknamed ‘the Silicon Valley of Europe’, is using blockchain technology to make sure that legislation and presidential speeches are not tampered with by hostile states and then misquoted online. The country has more start-ups per head than any other country in Europe and 99% of the country’s government services are available online, including electronic voting. The country uses technological expertise to promote transparency, citizen engagement and e-democracy, while keeping a watchful eye on how these methods can combat cyber warfare from neighbouring Russia.   

Meanwhile, Finland is a world leader in media literacy and holds the top spot in the index of European countries most resilient to fake news. As part of its national curriculum, teachers there show students how to spot the differences between real and fake news sources on WhatsApp, Snapchat, YouTube and other social media sites. The country has an award-winning fact-checking service, FactBar, run by volunteer journalists and researchers. This service also offers a practical toolkit for teachers and parents, including lesson plans to help students understand hoaxes, clickbait, and propaganda.

These countries are ahead of the curve in creatively using regulation, innovation and education to supplement the work of their own legions of fact-checkers. With technology rapidly advancing and the threat of ‘deep fake’ videos looming, it is essential that countries learn from one another and fully explore the multi-faceted approaches available. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of democracy depends on it. 

View Beth's profile 

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