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Oct. 2, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Trump, down in the polls, ramps up assaults on the election’s legitimacy as Facebook does “worse than nothing”

Plus: How Trump’s 2016 digital campaign sought to suppress the Black vote, and people on both sides of the political spectrum are vulnerable to misinformation about mail dumping.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed. For the next several weeks, it will focus on the U.S. presidential election.

“Worse than nothing.” “Trump’s chances are dwindling. That could make him dangerous,” Nate Silver wrote on FiveThirtyEight this week. The president is doubling down on false claims of voter fraud, as Jim Rutenberg wrote in The New York Times Magazine this week:

As the 2020 presidential election nears, it is becoming clear that the Trump administration and the Republican Party are not just looking at but heavily investing in the largely nonexistent problem of voter fraud. A New York Times Magazine investigation, based on a review of thousands of pages of court records and interviews with more than 100 key players — lawyers, activists and current and former government officials — found an extensive effort to gain partisan advantage by aggressively promoting the false claim that voter fraud is a pervasive problem. The effort takes its most prominent form in the president’s own public statements, which relentlessly promote the false notion that voter fraud is rampant.

Trump lied repeatedly about rigged elections and voter fraud during Tuesday night’s debate. He also makes these statements on Facebook and Twitter. Popular Information’s Judd Legum pointed out that in October 2019, “Facebook said that attempts ‘to interfere with or suppress voting undermine our core values as a company,’ and therefore, it would prohibit ‘misrepresentation’ or ‘whether a vote will be counted.’ Facebook explicitly said it would ‘remove this type of content regardless of who it’s coming from.’ That means the policy applies to Trump.”

“Facebook later changed the label to make it more aggressive, describing a ‘long history of trustworthiness’ for both voting in person and by mail,” David Ingram wrote for NBC News. “A parallel scene played out with Twitter, where an identical claim from the president resulted in a short label: ‘Learn how voting by mail is safe and secure.'”

Facebook and Instagram said this week that they will ban paid ads “that try to undermine the election process, such as by declaring voter fraud.” Of course, Trump’s own posts aren’t paid ads.

Related: The U.K.’s Channel 4 reported this week that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign sought to suppress the Black vote by targeting the community with negative ads including “videos featuring Hillary Clinton referring to Black youths as ‘super predators’ which aired on television 402 times in October 2016 and received millions of views on Facebook.”

The data on voters was collected in part from Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct British political consulting firm that harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent.

In 16 key battleground states, millions of Americans were separated by an algorithm into one of eight categories, also described as “audiences,” so they could then be targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other platforms. […]

One of the categories was named “Deterrence,” which was later described publicly by Trump’s chief data scientist as containing people that the campaign “hope don’t show up to vote.”

Analysis by Channel 4 News shows Black Americans — historically a community targeted with voter suppression tactics — were disproportionately marked “Deterrence” by the 2016 campaign.

In total, 3.5 million Black Americans were marked “Deterrence.”

In Georgia, despite Black people constituting 32% of the population, they made up 61% of the “Deterrence” category. In North Carolina, Black people are 22% of the population but were 46% of “Deterrence.” In Wisconsin, Black people constitute just 5.4% of the population but made up 17% of “Deterrence.”

The disproportionate categorizing of Black Americans for “Deterrence” is seen across the U.S.. Overall, people of color labelled as Black, Hispanic, Asian and “Other” groups made up 54% of the “Deterrence” category. In contrast, other categories of voters the campaign wished to attract were overwhelmingly white.

“Since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook — what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNN.

“People on ‘both sides’ of the political spectrum are vulnerable to misleading narratives emerging from discarded mail.” The Election Integrity Partnership took a look at disinformation around “mail dumping” — the rare instances in which “U.S. Postal Service letter carriers and related partners sometimes improperly discard mail. Given the volume of mail and number of mail carriers, the practice is enough to generate a small number of news stories every year. Mail dumping is against the law and is punishable with up to five years of prison, but it does occasionally happen. EIP took a look at two recent incidents — one in Glendale, Calif., on Sept. 3, and one in Greenville, Wisc., on Sept. 23.

The California incident was picked up by media both on the left and the right, while the Wisconsin incident gained attention primarily via right-wing news. In California:

The three most visible media outlets in our Twitter data were a local broadcast media outlet (KTLA), a national television outlet (CBS News), and a local newspaper with national readership (Los Angeles Times). The tweeted articles from these outlets were primarily fact-based, relaying the incident to their audiences. However, the KTLA and Los Angeles Times articles included comments connecting the event to ongoing criticisms of the USPS.

Social media users on the political left carried over and built upon the framing from KTLA and the Los Angeles Times in their tweets — using the incident to further criticisms of the Trump administration’s management of the USPS.

Social media users on the political right re-contextualized the information from the articles within their own framing — using the incident to further distrust of mail-in voting. Eventually, they also came to rely on content from partisan right-wing media (i.e. Washington Examiner, Townhall, Breitbart, The Gateway Pundit and Zero Hedge) to enhance and sharpen this framing. The articles hosted on those domains included content specifically framing this event as an election security issue.

And in Wisconsin:

Unlike the Glendale incident where the top domains were local news outlets, the most linked-to domains by tweets pushing misleading narratives about the Greenville incident are primarily conservative or otherwise right-wing partisan media outlets. Interestingly, many of the accounts and media outlets that helped provide and spread the misleading framing connecting the Glendale, CA mail-dumping incident to concerns about mail-in ballots also participated in seeding and amplifying the false narratives around this event.

“In the coming weeks, we expect that additional cases of discarded mail — or other similar incidents that include discarded ballots — will be highlighted, exaggerated, and used to support claims that mail-in voting is insecure and that the results of the election cannot be trusted,” the researchers write. They recommend that publications “revisit and update old stories on Postal Service misbehavior and clarify the date of the story in a way that will be visible to those that share it. A good example of this process is this story from NBC News,” which makes it clear that the incident happened in 2016.

Photo of an absentee ballot in Georgia by Thomas Cizauskas 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. 2, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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