The 2022 Midterm Elections are over. The results are still being tabulated in some states, but one of the narratives that dominated this cycle has been focused on the potential impact of misinformation on the electoral outcome. According to the MediaCloud database, national news outlets in the United States featured over 1800 news stories that mentioned misinformation as a problem in the context of the election in the month leading up to the election alone.
The problem of misinformation is by no means a new one. Fake news, propaganda, lies, and just generally made-up things are as old as the republic. Our current fear of misinformation started in 2016 when some observers of the presidential election noticed that made-up stories, such as one that claimed that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, got more traction on social media than legitimate news stories. Since then, scholars, commentators, and the public have been laser-focused on fake news and misinformation and the impact it might have had on our politics. Sure, over time, the (mostly) useless term “fake news” — which essentially became a partisan insult other than any meaningful concept — gave way to terms like misinformation and, increasingly, disinformation. Nonetheless, the concern about it persists.
THE INTENT TO HARM
Given that misinformation has been such a focus of the press in the United States and abroad, it is useful to hone in on the actual definition of the term. As some have pointed out, misinformation has increasingly followed in the footsteps of “fake news” in a way that increasingly just means information that someone disagrees with. A useful framework here is the concept of Information Disorder and how it is composed of both misinformation (incorrect things like unintentional mistakes) and disinformation (fabricated or manipulated content aimed at deceiving people). The key thing to remember is that something being false or inaccurate is not the only condition making content part of the Information Disorder; intent to harm or deceive matters as well.
When most GOP candidates endorse the Big Lie, and when the only trusted news source on the right promotes unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud, it is no longer a marginal theory but a mainstream belief.
Of course, the reason why so many people continue to care about some form of Information Disorder is the assumption that this content matters considerably, not just affecting elections (and especially helping to elect Trump in 2016, as many have claimed) but also motivating people to storm the Capital on Jan. 6, 2021 or fire an AR-15 rifle inside a Washington, DC pizzeria in order to save imaginary children trapped in an imaginary basement. It is hard to argue that misinformation doesn’t impact elections at a time when elections are decided by tight margins, such as the 2020 general election where only 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin separated Joe Biden and Trump from a tie in the Electoral College. It is also entirely conceivable that orchestrated disinformation efforts swayed enough voters to matter in 2016.
It is, however, important to keep things in perspective. For example, studies show that only a tiny minority of Twitter users were exposed to or shared misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign. This was also the case for Facebook. A seminal study of the 2016 cycle has found that the average American adult saw one or several fake news stories in the months leading up to the election but just over half of those who recalled seeing them actually believed those stories. On top of that, the insights of decades of research in communication (especially political communication) showcase how difficult persuasion really is without repeated exposure to the message and other confluence of factors, so and it hardly sounds like a backbone of a crisis of epic proportions. As one study put it, “If a single ‘fake news’ article was as persuasive as a TV campaign ad, all the ‘fake news’ in 2016 would have an impact on vote choice measuring in hundredths of a percentage point.” But that did not occur.
None of this is to say that misinformation doesn’t matter, that we shouldn’t care about it, or that it doesn’t play a corrosive role in our society and politics — and that would be an odd pitch from an academic studying misinformation. All aspects of the Information Disorder are bad for our society and for our politics. But there is a lot of misinformation about misinformation, its impact, and solutions. So, it is important to keep things in perspective as we ponder what to do with Information Disorder.
THE CONSPIRACY ALONE ISN’T THE PROBLEM
Let’s take one of the most troubling pieces of disinformation that has surrounded our public life since the 2020 presidential election: the Big Lie. Is the problem the existence of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump? Not particularly, given that crazy conspiracy theories have been with us from the beginning of time. Is the problem that content about the Big Lie has circulated on social media? Sure, that is an issue, especially if that content spreads virally. It used to be the case that conspiracy theories were only espoused by people on society’s margins, and spewing conspiratorial nonsense would lead to marginalization. Conspiracists would gather around Lyndon LaRouche booths or at a regional airport hotel conference room, broadcasting their “truths” to a very limited audience of fellow travelers. In the age of social media, a much broader reach is possible.
But even with that in mind, a much bigger problem is not the conspiracy itself but the fact that it has been embraced by nearly all prominent Republican elites. When most GOP candidates in 2022 endorse the Big Lie, and when the only trusted news source on the right promotes unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud, it is no longer a marginal theory but a mainstream belief.
We also cannot underscore the demand for Information Disorder. The supply, of course, is an issue, but it is worth considering why people seek out that information on their own, without the help of algorithms or social media. When Facebook had an outage, for example, misinformation consumption did not go down as a result. Instead, people navigated to websites known to peddle disinformation, like InfoWars. This isn’t a one-off example. In the past few days, Google searches for Dinesh D’Souza’s “documentary” about the election fraud, “2000 Mules,” have skyrocketed. This shows that Americans have a real appetite for misinformation, and solving issues around social media governance and content moderation will not be a silver bullet.
What this leaves us with is that Information Disorder is a real and serious problem, but a problem that is magnified by our polarized politics, the absolute deterioration of political elites on the right side of the ideological spectrum, and our sinking trust in traditional sources of reliable information.
Misinformation and disinformation will always be there. There are enough crazy people in the United States to motivate both the supply and demand for all kinds of nonsense. There might be more or less of it on social media platforms, and figuring out how to best structure our public sphere is a worthwhile endeavor. But when we’re incapable of occupying the same, reality-based world, agreeing on a common set of facts and shared norms, or having faith in institutions to provide us with reliable information, the problem is not fundamentally misinformation but something much, much deeper. And with political elites, and especially “Make America Great Again” Republicans and conservative media, actively adding fuel to the fire by sowing distrust of the news, hatred of the “other side,” and amping up culture wars at any given opportunity, it is hard to imagine how we move forward from this.
Dominik A. Stecuła is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Colorado State University.