So how did we get here?

An Interactive Blog Post by JOHN KEREZY (contact details at the front of the page)

The weekend, end of October 2020, all across America

A Latina woman in Florida checks her cell phone. Much of her information comes across her feeds in Spanish. She sees numerous stories about presidential candidate Joe Biden being a pedophile. She shakes her head in disgust as her fingers scroll through the articles.

The Lincoln Project is a political action committee operated by a group of Republicans opposed to Donald Trump’s re-election. This group reposts stories on its social media accounts about the group “Proud Boys” allegedly sending emails to voters in Florida, threatening them with physical violence if they vote for Trump. Unbeknown to the group, the emails actually came from malicious agents in Iran trying to influence the 2020 presidential election. The FBI identified and announced this days ago, and the Treasury Dept. put economic sanctions into place against the Iranian groups involved, but not before communicators from the Lincoln Project became unwitting dupes advancing the phony Iran messaging.

A man in Ohio looks at his Apple News Feed at the beginning of his Saturday. He’s heard stories about a laptop computer belonging to one of Joe Biden’s sons, Hunter, containing thousands of emails and documents linking the Biden family to corruption and money laundering by obtaining millions of dollars in contracts from foreign nations and businesses. These news stories originated from The New York Post (the paper Alexander Hamilton founded) more than two weeks ago, but not a single major news outlet has picked up on the story. The man scans through the first 50 stories in his Apple News. There’s nothing about that laptop or Hunter Biden. But there are several stories listed in the feed which are highly critical of Donald Trump.

So just how DID we get here?

In what is the most advanced democracy in the world, how did the U.S. become so inundated with false information (misinformation) and so many campaigns designed to cause intentional harm (disinformation) to others?

How did we get to the point where all of the nation’s major news outlets extensively reported on another media outlet (The Atlantic) story that President Trump called dead soldiers “suckers” and losers” without a single person going on the record verifying that he actually said these words, despite dozens of people (some now hostile to Trump, such as John Bolton) stating that he never made these statements?

Yet why do these very same media outlets ignore Hunter Biden’s laptop contents weeks later, even after the FBI issues a statement that the device from which the emails and documents emanated is genuine? Why do the nation’s largest social media services, Facebook and Twitter, amplify the Trump “suckers and losers” story and suppress or outright censor the Hunter Biden laptop story? 

TERMS, AND HOW DISINFORMATION SPREADS

DISINFORMATION is not real. It is manufactured information, deliberately created and disseminated with the intent to cause harm. If it is done repeatedly, it’s part of a Disinformation (DI) campaign. So in the first example, any communication identifying former vice president Joe Biden as a pedophile would be disinformation. And yes, some of many dozens of DI campaigns in operation in the 2020 election have spread “fake news” (more on that below) about Joe Biden.

MISINFORMATION is false information shared without the intent to mislead. Did you ever give your spouse the wrong starting time for a party or social gathering, by mistake? That’s misinformation.

MALINFORMATION is genuine information, generally private or revealing, which may be distributed in a campaign to cause harm to a person’s reputation with the purpose of furthering the campaign’s objective. There are a lot of malinformation operations taking place in the 2020 election cycle as well.

In its October 2019 report, the Analytic Exchange Project (AEP) calls us – Jane Average and Joe Average Americans – the “unwitting actors” in Disinformation (DI) campaigns. With specificity, AEP is describing people who see something on social media and then simply sharing it on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts. They don’t first examine the source of the information carefully, usually because it matches something which they believe.

And precisely what is the source of all this information? Let’s just look at one social media platform, the largest in the world, Facebook. Here’s a quick glance:

  • There are about 3 billion Facebook accounts in the world
  • About 70 percent of all U.S. adults and 75 percent of “high income” US adults are on Facebook
  • The average FB user logs on eight times a day and spends a least an hour on the platform
  • Nearly 45 percent of Facebook users say it is a major source for their news
  • There are more than 350 million photos uploaded to Facebook every day
  • More than 4 billion videos are viewed on Facebook every day. (This is more video content than all the major news and cable news networks, and the TV newsrooms in the top 200 media markets in the U.S., combined, present to their audiences each year.)
  • More than 35 percent of the top stories on Facebook are related to politics
  • There are at least 120 million fake accounts on Facebook

(Aside: If Trump is re-elected, watch for how Facebook “gets blamed” for it.)

There, in social media, lies the problem. In fact, that step – you and me not checking and instead spreading disinformation – is precisely what the DI campaigners are counting on the get out their harmful messaging. Videos containing disinformation are being circulated and shared via texts messages, via Messenger, and via other social media platforms tens of millions of times each day in the U.S. They are part of DI campaigns about Covid-19, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, vaccinations, 5G cell phone networks, and many other important subjects.

YOUR TURN: Go to the website www.spotthetroll.org and go through the eight simple questions appearing there. Pay attention to the answer and explanation there. This site, from the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University, provides each visitor with an excellent explanation of how trolling, a precursor to disinformation, happens. Watch who your “friends” are on social media. Don’t be an unwitting actor to spreading disinformation in the final months of 2020.

DI WITHIN DI: Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election

Disinformation has been going on for hundreds of years. The Philadelphia Aurora, a newspaper which Benjamin Franklin’s grandson published in the 1790s, ran dozens of fake and defamatory news stories in the late 1790s aimed at our nation’s second president, John Adams. These accounts contributed to Adams’ loss in the presidential campaign of 1800.

The former Soviet Union researched human behavior when it decided to employ Disinformation as a major part of its propaganda activities against enemies in Europe and the U.S. in the Cold War era. In the book Disinformation, authors Ion Mihai Pacepa (a defector from behind the Iron Curtain) and Ron Rychlak documented dozens of cases where DI campaigns changed hearts and minds. The Soviets, and the Russians succeeding them, have perfected a three-step disinformation process. The steps are:

  1. Begin with a kernel of truth from an authentic artifact (a document, video, etc.)
  2. Change or twist that kernel to suit the objectives of your campaign.
  3. Amplify the disinformation. Repeat, Repeat, and Repeat. If you’re caught, always deny and blame it on your opponent or the “other side” in the court of public opinion

If you want to know more about this topic, Papeca and Rychlak’s 2013 book is an excellent starting point. The full title is:  Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism.

Also, The New York Times produced an excellent three-part video series on this topic. Here’s a link to it:

https://www.nytimes.com/video/what-is-disinformation-fake-news-playlist

Now let’s roll back to July 2016. Around the time when candidate Donald Trump said sarcastically, “Russia, if you’re listening….” about trying to retrieve missing tens of thousands of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, little did he know what was about to happen.

In materials provided to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in late September and early October, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has made the following assertions. (A copy of his Sept. 29, 2020, letter launching this process is available below.)

  • It was the Clinton for President campaign which created the story of Trump being under Russian influence in July 2016. It was done expressly to deflect attention away from the missing email scandal, and an attempt to tie Trump to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
  • Next the Clinton campaign, using third parties, paid for the production of the Steele Dossier which contained allegedly “compromising” material about Trump. (Much of this material has since been proven to be false. Erik Wemple, media critic for the Washington Post, has written more than a dozen articles about this. Want more details? Do an internet search using the words “Erik Wemple Steele dossier” for verification)
  • CIA Director (at the time) John Brennan briefed the Obama administration and President Obama personally about this in September 2016.
  • Despite knowing these facts, top officials at the FBI asked the FISA Court for warrants to wiretap (conduct telephone and other surveillance) of people associated with the Trump campaign, alleging possible Russian influence with the Trump campaign in the applications.
  • In September 2016, U.S. intelligence officials actually forwarded an investigative referral (recommendation of a criminal investigation) to FBI Director James Comey regarding “U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private mail server.” Of course no criminal action was taken against Clinton. But there was a Special Prosecutor appointed and nearly $50 million spent on an investigation about whether Trump had colluded in Russia.

In other words, Clinton for President was behind the disinformation campaign tying Trump to Russia, the Obama administration knew this, and “looked the other way” as the campaign unfolded. Here is Director Ratcliffe’s letter:

The internet news media outlet Vox reported on this less than a month ago:

“In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”

Terrible enough? There is also evidence suggesting that Russia took advantage of the situation and used its assets to help provide phony information appearing in the Steele Dossier. The nation which is foremost at conducting DI campaigns, Russia, probably used its disinformation assets and contributed to the Clinton smear effort against Trump.

(NOTE: To be clear, Russian disinformation WAS happening in the 2016 election cycle. This website has chronicled numerous instances of that, and the FBI and researchers are still looking for more wrong doing.)

What the Clinton campaign apparently had done is also most significant because, a month after her election defeat, it was Clinton who accused the news media of helping cause her defeat. She also re-introduced the term ‘fake news’ into the public vernacular. Below is an excerpt from a USA Today (Gannett) story:

One danger is the “malicious threat of fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year,” said Clinton in December 2016.  “It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real world consequences” including for the “lives of ordinary people,” she added. “It’s a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly.”

We all know the next portion of the disinformation narrative from here. “Fake News” became the mantra which Trump then adopted, criticizing the media for bias and/or inaccurate news coverage. This led to many media outlets redoubling their investments in fact checking operations. News organizations also sprang up to get involved in fake news and disinformation identification. Google funded (and continues to support) the efforts of First Draft News, for example. Major colleges and universities launched various fact checking initiatives.

More recently, media outlets began adding Disinformation/Misinformation activities to their reporting efforts. For example, “Daily Distortions” is now a regular part of the New York Times. Here is a link to it:
https://www.nytimes.com/spotlight/disinformation

Fact Checking and Disinformation/Misinformation operations serve many purposes. But their existence acknowledges the most basic truth of all: every media outlet is biased. This has also been chronicled in earlier posts on this website.

YOUR TURN: Get the name of your favorite media outlet. Then go to mediabiasfactcheck.com and type or “copy and paste” in the name of that outlet. See what you find.

Media Bias Fact Check is operated by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit organization that has been dedicated to improving the practice of professional journalism since its founding in 1975. It also is the sponsor of the International Fact Checking Network. In my opinion, these are far less biased sources than many of the other fact checker and disinformation checking operations today.

MEDIA ATTITUDES TOWARD TRUMP IN HIS FIRST TERM OF OFFICE

After Trump became president, already-bad relations between the president and the reporters and the media outlets covering the White House exacerbated. There is no need to chronicle that deterioration, save to state that there is plenty of fault or blame on both sides, and it has been disastrous for journalism and the American democracy.

When researchers look, they have discovered that – as conservatives complain – media coverage of Trump has been much more negative than positive. Pew Research conducted an analysis of news stories about Trump during his first months in office. Normally media coverage of new presidents is favorable, but not on this instance. A 2017 National Public Radio report on the research stated that two-thirds of the news stories about Trump were negative, more than twice the negativity seen in stories from the first 60 days of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama’s presidencies.  Only 5 percent of the stories on Trump were positive, compared to a 42 percent positive ranking for his predecessor, Obama. (Link to the research is below).

As Trump’s term progressed, negativity in news coverage only increased. According to the Media Research Center, fully 92 percent of the major networks’ stories about Trump are now negative. It conducted a content analysis (measuring every mention) of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden from late June through early October. Here is what they found:

“During the twelve weeks we examined, Trump received 839 minutes of coverage, compared to just 269 minutes of airtime for Biden, a three-to-one disparity….Even more lopsided, our analysts found ten times more evaluative statements about Trump than Biden: 890 comments about the President, of which 822 (92.4%) were negative, vs. 68 (7.6%) that were positive….”

“Biden’s media profile might be a dream-come-true for a presidential nominee, especially one favored in the polls. (Link is to Real Clear Politics.)Out of 91 evaluative comments, Biden benefitted from 60 positive statements, vs. only 31 that were negative, adding up to a sunny 66% positive good press score.”

In fact, one of the most significant differences in media coverage of the 2020 election compared to 2016 has been how the “major” news television networks have covered the Democratic Party candidates. The graphic below, also from the Media Research Center, chronicles this shift.

The tilt against Trump has extended to social media also. Conservatives have complained for years about their social media posts being censored or blocked. Some have been shadow banned and/or put in “Facebook jail” for days due to their posts.

No social media platform has been more biased against Trump than Twitter. With nearly 88 million followers on his Twitter account, Trump has used this outlet repeatedly to get his word out, rather than allow negative or uncovered news from traditional media outlets to dominate what’s known as the news cycle. But recently Twitter took steps to curb Trump’s tweets. The Media Research Center examined Tweets from Trump and from the Biden campaign between May 30, 2018, and October 16, 2020. Here’s what it found:

“Twitter has been far and away the biggest offender, labeling, fact-checking, and removing Trump’s tweets and the tweets from his campaign accounts 64 times since the president’s election.” Biden has had zero posts challenged or removed.

(Separately, another Media Research Center analysis showed that Twitter and Facebook employees making political contributions gave to Democrats 90 percent of the time in 2020. It is worth noting that Anna Makanju, Facebook’s global policy manager for content regulation, formerly served as an adviser to then VP Joe Biden on Ukraine policy. Nick Pacilio, former press secretary for Kamala Harris, is now a senior communications manager with Twitter and is involved in its censorship decisions.)

Big Tech favoritism of the “left” over the “right” came to a head on October 14, when the New York Post printed the first in a multi-part series of stories accusing Joe Biden’s son Hunter of corruption by using his father’s connections to land multi-million dollar consulting contracts. Twitter censored – removed – the story from many person Twitter accounts and suspended the New York Post’s Twitter account. As of this writing (10/29) that account is still suspended. This raises much larger First Amendment and Section 230 (of the Communications Decency Act of 1996) questions which are over/above the purview of this article.

Cover of New York Post, October 29, 2020

Of course social media also deserves credit for becoming much better and more proactive in combatting Disinformation campaigns. Facebook has removed thousands of pages and accounts emanating from Russia, China, Iran, and other places due to what it calls “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior” for example. But that does not offset the “tilt” which Big Tech has done against Trump and those on the “right” or the conservative side of the political ledger.

There are hundreds of different social media websites today. Some “lean” to the left, others lean to the right. Like us, these outlets have biases too. But the largest (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) should received universal condemnation from everyone who cares about the First Amendment and freedom of the press when they practice censorship.

CABLE NEWS & BIG TECH FEED REPULSION

YOUR TURN : Open up a search window in Google and type in the words “Obama without evidence” into it. See the total number of items which appear. Read just 4-5 of them. Chance are that at least one story critical of Trump for claiming without evidence that his predecessor did something.

Now open another search window and type in the words “Trump without evidence” into it. Chances are you’ll see 4-5 times the number of items you found the first time. Read just a few of them and draw your own conclusion.

This simple experiment also demonstrates how both “Big Tech” (Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets) have contributed to creating and feeding the political digital divide in the U.S.

As Big Tech practices become more observable (and some platforms such as Facebook resist external analysis efforts) researchers are able to discern more about how social media platforms impact us. David Sabin-Miller and Dr. Daniel Abrams are mathematicians with the Dept. of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics at Northwestern University. Their research, titled “When Pull Turns to Shove: A Continuous-Time Model for Opinion Dynamics” has been published in the October 2020 edition of Phys.Rev.Research.

The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims explained the work of Sabin-Miller and Abrams in his recent article, Why Social Media Is So Good at Polarizing Us. He points out that social media platform algorithms tend to magnify punch—that is, they operate on the principle that if it is outrageous, it’s contagious—when we’re exposed to a differing view, it often takes an extreme form, one that seems personally noxious to us. This, social media managers know, helps lure us into spending more time on their platforms.

Many of us are familiar with the concept of echo chambers, repeatedly seeing viewings reinforcing our own, as prevalent in social media. We accept that as a given. And until now, some researchers and especially sociologists have posited the belief that seeing opposite points of view would have a positive effect on individuals and the general public. It would make us more reflective, more tolerant of other viewpoints.

Sabin-Miller and Abrams’ research seems to prove just the opposite. Repulsion of opposing viewpoints is more powerful in social media than attraction to one’s own side of a debate. Their findings support a conclusion that social media is contributing to the further polarization of our nation.

That’s just the opposite of what the U.S. needs right now.

SOURCES CITED (over/above documents provide and/or linked in the blog itself)

Definitions from Claire Wardle, “Information Disorder: The Essential Glossary” Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center, July 2018

https://www.socialpilot.co/blog/social-media-statistics

Ion Mihai PacepaRonald J. Rychlak, Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism. (2013)

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/12/08/hillary-clinton-cites-fake-news-urgent-threat-democracy/95161136/

https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/518853-trump-official-releases-unverified-russian-intel-on-clinton

https://www.npr.org/2017/10/02/555092743/study-news-coverage-of-trump-more-negative-than-for-other-presidents

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/10/1/21497176/john-ratcliffe-russia-intelligence-hillary-clinton-donald-trump

https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/nb/rich-noyes/2020/10/27/never-more-biased-tv-blasts-trump-92-negative-coverage-66-positive

https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/techwatch/corinne-weaver/2020/10/19/twitter-facebook-censored-trump-campaign-65-times-leave

FINAL NOTE

There are some new developments since I completed this blog on October 29. One is the report from some news outlets (Sinclair Broadcasting and CBS News among them) that the FBI has an ongoing active investigation in Hunter Biden’s business activities, allegedly for money laundering activities. The other is reporting from various sources that a 64-page fake intelligence report has been circulating about Hunter Biden. If you’ve read this far, neither development should be a surprise.

Finally, on October 30, Twitter unblocked the New York Post’s Twitter feed and account. This comes 16 days after it blocked the paper’s initial three stories about Hunter Biden’s business activities, and possible corruption and money laundering associated with them.

Published by jkerezy

I'm an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies (MJS) at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and have also had a "side job" as a high school speech and debate coach for the past 13 years. I also worked in journalism, public relations and marketing for many years before going into higher education. My professional email address is john.kerezy@tri-c.edu

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