A UB researcher discusses how misinformation is impacting U.S. democracy, and shares tips for how social media users can identify these falsehoods
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Misinformation about the 2020 election has been rampant, originating from many different sources and spreading rapidly on social media.
In a Q&A, University at Buffalo faculty expert Yotam Ophir discusses election-related misinformation, how social media users can avoid falling prey to it, and how these falsehoods and the people who spread them endanger democracy.
Ophir, PhD, is an assistant professor of communication in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. He is an expert on misinformation, including in relation to politics.
Q: Where is misinformation about the 2020 U.S. election coming from?
Ophir: “As expected, misinformation has been prevalent during the 2020 race. It’s coming from multiple sources, from citizens, from foreign nations’ trolls and bots (Russia and others), and from politicians — including the U.S. president.
“Following the first debate, the president began to emphasize his unsubstantiated claims for large-scale voter fraud, particularly in mail-in voting. These became more and more prevalent and have completely overwhelmed the information environment since Election Day. Sadly, as the votes were still coming in, the president falsely argued that he won the elections when no winner had been decided yet, and kept promoting conspiracy theories about illegal votes, at times pointing fingers to specific cities, including Philadelphia and Detroit. He also argued, without any reason, that vote counts should be stopped in states where he was in advantage. The unsubstantiated allegations of fraud continued even after all TV networks had called the winner, president-elect Joe Biden.”
Q: How can people avoid spreading misinformation?
Ophir: “There’s a lot that people can do to avoid believing and spreading misinformation. I share some of these strategies on my website.
“The most important steps are to check the reliability of sources, look for primary sources (i.e., reading original articles and not summaries in secondary sources such as Facebook or Twitter posts), diversify your media diet — don’t get all your news from only one source even if you really trust them — and remember that seeing doesn’t necessarily mean believing. These days, with deepfakes and Photoshopped images, one should be skeptical even of visual evidence.
“While skepticism could be healthy, cynicism is not. A skeptic carefully checks unreasonable claims. A cynic argues that you cannot trust anyone. A good compromise is to trust the consensus among multiple diverse sources, and not rely on one source.”
Q: Some social media platforms are taking steps to slow the spread of election-related misinformation. Is it working?
Ophir: “It’s a ‘too little, too late’ situation, but at least social media companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are now beginning to act against misinformation. It seems to be having an impact. During President Trump’s constant flow of disinformation around voter fraud, Twitter, for example, tagged some statements as misleading, and even blocked access to some of his Tweets.
“This is a step in the right direction, but will not replace the need for a deep revolution of the ways we teach citizens from a young age how to cope with the complex and overwhelming information system we live in. I would not put all my hopes on private, profit-oriented companies to solve our social problems. We should keep in mind that they contributed to the severity of those problems to begin with.”
Q: Has the misinformation surrounding this election surprised you?
Ophir: “Unfortunately no, which shows how low the bar is these days.
“An incumbent president who threatens to reject the voters’ choice based on unsubstantiated conspiracies poses a direct threat to democracy, but no one should have been surprised based on Trump’s tradition of promoting falsehoods before and after he became president.
“Another thing that should have dropped our jaws, but once again was expected, is that we now have an elected congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who as a candidate had been supporting and promoting misinformation online, including about the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory (Greene backed away from the Q conspiracy during her campaign following a public backlash).
"QAnon is an unsubstantiated, false conspiracy claiming that the Democratic party, along with global elites, are running a cabal of pedophiles and child abusers. This is, of course, based on nothing. Having a person who has believed in such a ludicrous theory in the House of Representatives is frightening. It’s hard to imagine her past vilification of Democrats not compromising her ability to cooperate across the aisle with them as an acting Congresswoman.
“Those following the far-right could have seen that coming. QAnon gained traction in mainstream right-wing media recently, and has long left the extreme margins of society. So her election was expected, but in normal times, we would definitely consider this an unimaginable development.”