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.