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Oct. 5, 2020, 11:18 a.m.
Audience & Social

A new study shows how Trump and the RNC duped traditional media into covering mail-in voter fraud

“To the extent that the mass media model we identify here is the primary driver of information disorder, it will not be cured by more fact checking on Facebook.”

Editor’s note: With mis- and disinformation campaigns heating up, a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and a President who is ill with Covid-19 and who refuses to commit to accepting the results, the 2020 election arrives at a period of extraordinary uncertainty and tension. Nieman Reports and Nieman Lab are publishing a collection of stories exploring how newsrooms are covering this intensely contested vote and its aftermath.

The misinformation is coming from inside the house, and mainstream media is spreading it.

It’s Trump, the Republican National Committee, and Fox News — not Facebook spammers and Russian trolls — who are the primary drivers of misinformation around mail-in voting fraud, say the authors of a new working paper from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, who analyzed 55,000 news stories, five million tweets, and 75,000 public Facebook posts.

The outlets publishing these stories or linked to by the tweets and posts include mainstream media, including the online presence of local television and radio stations, local newspapers, and cable television, and online-only sources and forums ranging from large entities like the Huffington Post or Breitbart, through forums like Townhall or DailyKos, to personal blogs. We supplement these directly-searchable materials with desk research looking at videos of cable and network television when the online research suggests significant interaction between online media and TV.

And Trump took advantage of “three core standard practices of professional journalism” to drive the disinformation campaign.

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. 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.

The paper provides a useful overview of “three competing conceptions of how public opinion is shaped in the twenty-first century.” Here are those three competing conceptions:

1. Social media dominates. “Social media has changed everything, and that false beliefs spread in the population directly through exposure to social media[…] This model focuses on the power of actors who are not political or media elites with access to mass media, but instead are individuals or networks who are empowered to shape public perceptions directly through social media activity and without recourse to mass media.” This model clearly applies to stories like the Black Lives Matter protests over police shootings.

2. Social media leads. This concept “accepts the importance of mass media, but sees social media as the origin of falsehoods spread initially online, and thereby influencing political and media elites who diffuse the falsehoods more broadly.”

3. Mass media leads.Media and political elites still drive agenda setting (what we think about as important) and framing (how we think about it), primarily through mass media.” Social media’s supporting role is mostly “to recirculate agendas and frames generated through mass media.”

Model 3, “mass media leads,” applies most strongly to the disinformation around voter fraud, the authors write. “Media coverage across the entire media ecosystem — online stories across the political spectrum, Twitter, and Facebook — was driven primarily by
agenda-setting interventions by President Trump.”

We have been unable to identify a single episode where a peak in media attention to the question of fraud associated with voting by mail or absentee ballots, in either mass media or social media, was meaningfully driven by an online disinformation campaign, and for which we did not have an obvious elite-driven triggering event.

Trump’s campaign to make mail-in voter fraud, which is vanishingly rare, into an oxygen-sucking issue has worked:

A Pew poll published on September 16 found that “43% of Republicans identify fraud as a major problem with voting by mail versus 11% of Democrats.” That gap grew from 4:1 to 15:1 once comparing Republicans to Democrats who consumed only the major political mass media outlets and no other sources, who made up about 30% of each of the two groups. Sixty-one percent of Republicans whose major source of news was only Fox News or talk radio thought voter fraud by mail was a major issue. Only 4% of Democrats whose source of news was only The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, CNN, or MSNBC held the same belief. The gap between the two appears to reflect the roughly 30% of respondents who rely on network television (ABC, NBC, CBS).

It’s that middle 30% — people who rely on local TV for news, who aren’t die-hard Fox News viewers or New York Times subscribers — who are most likely to change their views of whether mail-in vote fraud is a major problem, the authors write.

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. When we match these to survey evidence about who relies on these media sources, it becomes likely that the way in which local TV, network TV, and local news sites report on the mail-in voter fraud disinformation campaign will play a crucial role in shaping the beliefs and attitudes of the most persuadable 30% of Americans, whose views about mail-in voting and the risk of fraud are the most up for grabs.

So what kinds of headlines are that “persuadable 30% of Americans” seeing? Here are just a few of the many, many examples in the paper:

“As Trump rails against mail voting, some allies embrace it​.” (AP, April 10, 2020.)

“‘Do-or-die moment’ to boost vote-by-mail for November election. But the politics is getting harder.” (USA Today, April 17, 2020.)

“Vote-by-mail debate raises fears of election disinformation.” (AP, May 5, 2020.)

“The most important independent actors in the month before the election and the months following November 3 will be the editors and reporters of traditional mainstream media, in particular those who write and use syndicated news stories,” the authors conclude. “Those mass media outlets continue to be the most important source of, and defense against, disinformation in American politics in the 2020 election.”

As we noted, Donald Trump has perfected the art of using professional journalism’s standard practices as a way of harnessing mass media to his disinformation campaign. To the extent that the mass media model we identify here is the primary driver of information disorder, it will not be cured by more fact checking on Facebook. Fox News and talk radio will continue to purvey the President’s propaganda, despite Chris Wallace’s occasional valiant efforts. The readers of The New York Times and NPR listeners too are unlikely to be in the balance, persuaded as they already are that the allegations of fraud are bunk. Quite possibly the most important efforts will be those of mass media outlets used and trusted by less politically pre committed, in some cases less politically attentive viewers, readers, and listeners. It will likely require more aggressive editorial counteraction by media editors and journalists of those outlets, in decidedly non-tech organizations such as the AP, the television networks, and local TV news, pursued through choices regarding whether and how they cover the propaganda efforts of the President and his party, and how they educate their audiences about this months-long coordinated disinformation campaign.

You can read the full paper, which includes many more specific examples of how media outlets have covered mail-in voting fraud, here.

Mailboxes in Goleta, California, by Glenn Beltz used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Oct. 5, 2020, 11:18 a.m.
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