New Study: Once Again, The Mainstream Media Is A Bigger Problem In Spreading Disinformation Than Social Media

from the deal-with-fox-news-first dept

We’ve discussed in the past Yochai Benkler’s excellent book “Network Propaganda,” (and had Benkler on our podcast) showing (with a ton of data) how the inclination many have to immediately blame social media for the spread of disinformation is, in its own way, misinformation itself. What the research found was that crazy conspiracy theories didn’t really spread as fast until they showed up on Fox News. That was basically the catalyst for them to then spread wildly on social media.

Benkler and his team are back with a new study, specifically regarding how disinformation about mail-in ballots has spread. And, again, the details show that mass media was the key in making it spread, with social media “playing a secondary role.”

Despite the consensus among independent academic and journalistic investigations that voter fraud is rare and extremely unlikely to determine a national election, tens of millions of Americans believe the opposite. This is a study of the disinformation campaign that led to widespread acceptance of this apparently false belief and to its partisan distribution pattern. Contrary to the focus of most contemporary work on disinformation, our findings suggest that this highly effective disinformation campaign, with potentially profound effects for both participation in and the legitimacy of the 2020 election, was an elite-driven, mass-media led process. Social media played only a secondary and supportive role.

Using the same methods in Network Propaganda, they found that this time it went beyond Fox News, but that the President was basically using his position at President, to harness the big mainstream media operations — which still have simply failed to contend with how to cover a President who deliberately lies, who deliberately tries to bully the media into spreading utter nonsense. The report shows that he’s been very, very successful in turning the media — who he frequently accuses of publishing “fake news” — into actual purveyors of fake news: namely the fake news Donald Trump himself wants them to spread.

Our findings here suggest that Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign by using three core standard practices of professional journalism. These three are: elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it?s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side. He uses the first two in combination to summon coverage at will, and has used them continuously to set the agenda surrounding mail-in voting through a combination of tweets, press conferences, and television interviews on Fox News. He relies on the latter professional practice to keep audiences that are not politically pre-committed and have relatively low political knowledge confused, because it limits the degree to which professional journalists in mass media organizations are willing or able to directly call the voter fraud frame disinformation.

Of course, Fox News and the wider Republican Party and media ecosystem also remains a key issue:

The president is, however, not acting alone. Throughout the first six months of the disinformation campaign, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and staff from the Trump campaign appear repeatedly and consistently on message at the same moments, suggesting an institutionalized rather than individual disinformation campaign. The efforts of the president and the Republican Party are supported by the right-wing media ecosystem, primarily Fox News and talk radio functioning in effect as a party press. These reinforce the message, provide the president a platform, and marginalize or attack those Republican leaders or any conservative media personalities who insist that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud associated with mail-in voting.

Benkler wrote a detailed post for the Columbia Journalism Review that gives you a more reader friendly version of the paper’s findings. In it, he notes that when it comes to mail-in ballot disinformation, it’s not happening because of foreign interference or social media algorithms. The disinformation is coming from inside the White House.

What this means is that the ?usual suspects? in public debates about disinformation are not the central actors in voting disinformation. We found no examples where clickbait factories, fake pages (Russian or otherwise), or Facebook?s algorithms could explain any peak in engagement that was not better explained as having been set in motion and heavily promoted by political figures and elite right-wing media personalities, and disseminated to millions by major media outlets. On Twitter, if bots or trolls played any role, it was dwarfed by tweets from the president, his staff, and other institutional and media allies.

While the information does eventually spread on social media, that happens after the mainstream media discusses it. As Benkler notes, all the worries and attacks about social media appear to be somewhat misguided:

There is a profound disconnect between the broad public concern with social media disinformation, the persistent scientific evidence that exposure to online fake news is concentrated in a tiny minority of users, and survey evidence that repeatedly shows that less than 20 percent of US respondents say they rely on social media as a major source of political news. Network and local TV, by contrast, are the primary source of political news for about 30 percent of the population, and news websites or apps accounted for another 25 percent, according to the most recent Pew survey. When arranged according to the degree to which they report believing mail-in voter fraud is a major problem, adults who get their news from ABC, CBS, and NBC occupy an intermediate position between Fox News viewers, on one end, and readers of the New York Times, viewers of MSNBC, or NPR listeners, on the other. Local TV news viewers, in turn, form the least politically knowledgeable group of Americans, edging out the much younger respondents who mostly rely on social media. When we analyzed the stories about mail-in voter fraud, we observed that peaks in media coverage usually consisted of large numbers of syndicated stories reported by the online sites of local papers and television stations.

There’s a lot more in the full paper, but the underlying message is that perhaps we should stop blaming social media for disinformation. That does not appear to be the root of the problem at all.

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Comments on “New Study: Once Again, The Mainstream Media Is A Bigger Problem In Spreading Disinformation Than Social Media”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'If we can't control it then it's the enemy'

There’s a lot more in the full paper, but the underlying message is that perhaps we should stop blaming social media for disinformation. That does not appear to be the root of the problem at all.

That depends on who you are and what your goals are really.

If you’re trying to reduce lies and falsehoods, then no, social media should not be your primary target.

If you’re trying to spread them however then going after the platforms that you don’t control and have dancing to your tune is of high priority, as they allow people to refute your lies and show that you’re wrong, which makes it ever so slightly more difficult both currently and in the future to mislead people since they’re now aware that you’re a liar and not to be trusted.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 'If we can't control it then it's the enemy'

If you’re trying to spread them however then going after the platforms that you don’t control and have dancing to your tune is of high priority,

You mean like going after section230 because Facebook has deleted on of Trumps posts, because of the claim t is less dangerous than the flu, because it did not kill him.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: 'If we can't control it then it's the enemy'

The bastard has the gall to suggest he was immune to covid-19 despite three solid days of treatments, including getting injected with anti-bodies from people who were recovered from it, along with steroids and a number of other things. You can’t believe anything this a-hole says. If he says the sky is blue, I’m going to have to change my thoughts on the color of the sky.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

A brief reminder:

The Republican Party can and will contest the results of the election only if the election sways in Biden’s favor. They will proclaim fraud is rampant in all fifty states (including the ones that voted for Trump), then launch month-long investigations into mail-in ballots to delay having Biden named the winner.

They will do this because they have no other choice. The Republicans know they have unpopular policies and unpopular candidates. Their major Republican voting bases are either dying from old age(/COVID) or abandoning ship (mostly because of Trump). This knowledge has given rise to the gerrymandering, the voter suppression, the packing of the judiciary with conservative judges, the calls for Trump supporters to “watch the polls” (read: intimidate possible Biden voters), the bullshit claims of widescale voter fraud across the country, and all the other lies and deceit that Republicans have rushed out in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

These tactics mark the last gasp of the Republican Party, and their brand of “own the libs” politics, as we know it. If they cannot win an election on the strength of their platform and their policies, they will steal an election by any means necessary.

(Lest you think I have rose-tinted glasses on, the Democratic Party is full of right-of-center jackasses who talk a good game but rarely have the spine to be the actual opposition party in a way that matters. And both parties are basically owned by rich motherfuckers regardless, so there’s that, too. But at least the Democrats pay lip service to progressive ideals and civil rights. Republicans can’t muster up the moral courage to say “Black lives matter”.)

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: A brief reminder:

It’s not a wonder to find a few single people even in the darkest of organizations – even the reich had people like Rommel.

It’s rather a damning implication that today we look at a republican politician who isn’t a complete asshole with the wondering gaze of biologists faced with the sight of a calmly grazing diplodocus.

There are numerous issues with Romney as well, naturally. Ironically for a republican his religious adherence isn’t one of them – his devotion to a fairly liberal denomination of mormonism places him at direct odds with the more toxic doom cult evangelicals so unlike many other religious-minded republicans his voter base doesn’t consist of raging bigots.

He has, however, flip-flopped extensively on the environment before coming down a a hard stance of "More fossil fuels for the people".

He’s a hard-stance libertarian who still apparently believes consumer protection laws are an evil which cripple the economy.

He’s a complete flip-flop when it comes to pro-choice, apparently not understanding that abortion, much like pregnancy, is something you don’t have a little of; It’s either or.

Romney has been catering to the centrist crowd for a while but it’s pretty damn clear that on several issues either the party line or the campaign funding has been holding magnets to his moral compass. Items mormons are allegedly weak to.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: A brief reminder:

his devotion to a fairly liberal denomination of mormonism

Just want to clarify that he’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, which is I assume the denomination Scary is referring to. Some may not know there are small fundamentalist Mormon churches, as well as the larger Community of Christ that is (relatively) liberal, which are unaffiliated with the LDS church. And I would only describe the LDS church as liberal in comparison to the fundamentalist polygamist churches (/cults). It is by no means a liberal organization.

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Thad (profile) says:

Re: A brief reminder:

The Republican Party can and will contest the results of the election only if the election sways in Biden’s favor. They will proclaim fraud is rampant in all fifty states (including the ones that voted for Trump), then launch month-long investigations into mail-in ballots to delay having Biden named the winner.

"Months long" may not work; the deadline for states to cast electoral votes is December 10. That’s what happened in 2000: the Supreme Court ruled that the recount had to stop because it hadn’t been completed by the deadline.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the Court will reverse its precedent and decide that nah, this time we’ll let the challenges continue past the deadline. That’s certainly what Trump and his party are banking on in trying to ram another justice through before the election. But I don’t think it’s a sure thing even with a 6-3 majority.

The conservatives on the Supreme Court are often mistaken as a rubber stamp for Trump, but they’re not; they’re ideological conservatives, which isn’t quite the same thing even if it looks exactly the same 90% of the time. They usually agree with Trump, but they’ve balked at some of his more outlandish plays, like trying to declare that the president is immune from criminal investigations. Even Gorsuch and Kavanaugh haven’t ruled in his favor every time.

It’s also notable that in 2000, the entire election came down to Florida; in 2020, it most likely won’t. If the election comes down to a single state, the likeliest one is Pennsylvania — which has a Republican majority in the state legislature, but not a large enough majority to override a veto by the Democratic governor. Throwing out the electors and appointing new ones won’t work there, or in Wisconsin (another possible tipping-point state).

It might work in Florida (again), as Republicans have both the legislature and the governor’s mansion there, but I think that if Florida is close enough that Trump has to steal it instead of winning it outright then his goose is already cooked. Biden can win without Florida; Trump can’t.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Trump is very definitely going to try to steal the election and I think there is a significant possibility that he’ll succeed. I don’t mean to downplay that; we absolutely need to be vigilant and take that possibility seriously. But it’s also increasingly looking like that’s going to be very hard to do; even with all their best efforts at voter disenfranchisement and intimidation, things are going to have to break just right for Trump to pull off a win here, even if he cheats to do it. He’s running out of options.

Though even if he loses decisively, there’s still plenty to worry about in a lame duck session. He’s going to undermine the results of the election and he’s going to encourage the violent and unstable elements of his base toward action. I think some bad stuff is going to happen no matter what.

One nitpick: at the federal level, Republicans have not packed the courts. They did intentionally block Democratic nominees for years and then fill them at a rapid clip with ideologues, and that’s bad, but it’s not court-packing. Court-packing is when you add additional seats to a court. (Ducey did it in Arizona.)

The distinction is important, because there’s a growing argument that, should Barrett be confirmed (and perhaps even if she isn’t), Biden should pack the Supreme Court. I doubt it will happen — it’s hard to see Biden and Schumer as the engines of that kind of radical change, no matter how much Trump bleats about how they represent the radical left — but I think it’s important to make sure we’ve got the terms right in order to have that discussion.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
John85851 (profile) says:

Re: A brief reminder:

Excellent points.

I still wonder if the Republican’s plans would have gotten this far if the Democrats had pushed back.

It still infuriates me that NOT ONE SINGLE POLITICIAN ever disagrees with Trump. He can say the most outrageous thing, such as how COVID-19 isn’t very dangerous and people won’t die, and NOT ONE Democrat will stand up and say he’s wrong. Then NOT ONE Republican will disown him and say that’s not what the Republican party stands for.

Okay, in all fairness, maybe there are 1 or 2 politicians who will speak up against Trump, but what about the rest of them? You mean there’s NO ONE in all of Congress who wants to make a name for himself (or herself) for standing up against Trump?

And where’s the media when this happens? You rarely hear about the media making an issue over Trump lying. But they themselves don’t have to take a side (though that’s a complicit agreement with Trump), but they need to report on all the politicians standing against Trump. Oh, right- see above- there are no politicians standing against Trump.

So no wonder Trump continues to lie: there’s no one to tell him to stop and there’s no one to hold him accountable.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: A brief reminder:

He can say the most outrageous thing, such as how COVID-19 isn’t very dangerous and people won’t die, and NOT ONE Democrat will stand up and say he’s wrong.

Uh… not so. Plenty of Democrats have said he’s wrong. Very few Republicans though (but not zero).

You rarely hear about the media making an issue over Trump lying.

I mean I could go on and on (and on and on and on). They were slow to get started but they’ve finally caught up with the rest of us.

ECA (profile) says:

lets compare

News on the TV.
News on the net.
News in social groups.

TV and the news Published on the Net tend to be about equal. There are a few agencies on the net that Consider themselves NEWS, but are more opinion then anything else, or they just repeat what others say already.

Scoial groups tend to Gather those of the like. And reinforce thenselves, over and over. With a few Joining to contest and debate.
And as an OPEN system would be there to keep debating. But a closed system gets them Kicked, as not following the Lines of conversation and finding foundation in assumptions.

Watching TV or the News channels that are the Major sevices, including those from other countries, CAN give you an outside view, if you mix them up and watch more then 1-2. But thats not letting Many of us Comment/debate/ask questions, or find answers to our thoughts.

If you are willing to sit in a can, and let others Fill it with BS, you are liable to babble BS. If you have questions, you can never get answers. If you never see alternatives to what Stopped your car from working you only have the opinion of the Mechanic, who fixed it last time for the same problem.

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: If you have a defense you use it

It is a most telling response to be sure that so often the only ‘defense’ that can be raised in favor of Trump and/or his cult is an attempt to shift attention to someone else with an obvious ‘Oh yeah, well what about them?!’, almost as though even they know that they have no actual defense.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Gotta love the 'Look, a distraction!' classic

Nice standard there, I’ll definitely be applying that myself from now on such that any time someone from Trump’s GOP calls a democrat a liar I’ll dismiss it outright unless they also point out lies on their side as well.

Also [Citation Needed] and be specific so that people can judge if and to what extent they should condemn democratic misinformation.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Any article...

Point another finger.
DONT fix it, just say ‘They did it also’, ‘ He did it too’.
Just dont Show you are Better, dont fix it, dont help anything. Just point a finger.

Always thought, "If you arnt helping it, you are part of the problem", was a bad saying, until I met the politicians. THEY ARE TO FIX THINGS, not help with messing it up.

amberbolton (profile) says:

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