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How disinformation splintered and became more intractable as America prepares to vote

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WASHINGTON – On the morning of July 8, former president Donald Trump took to Truth Social, a social media platform he founded with people close to him, to claim that he had, in fact, won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Barely 8,000 people shared that missive on Truth Social, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of responses his posts on Facebook and Twitter regularly generated before those services suspended his megaphones after the deadly riot on Capitol Hill on Jan 6, 2021.

And yet Mr Trump’s baseless claim pulsed through the public consciousness anyway. It jumped from his app to other social media platforms – not to mention podcasts, talk radio or television.

Within 48 hours of Mr Trump’s post, more than 1 million people saw his claim on at least a dozen other media. It appeared not only on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also on YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

The spread of Mr Trump’s claim illustrates how, before this year’s midterm elections, disinformation has metastasized since experts began raising alarms about the threat. Despite years of efforts by the media, by academics and even by social media companies themselves to address the problem, it is arguably more pervasive and widespread today.

“I think the problem is worse than it’s ever been, frankly,” said Ms Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation who briefly led an advisory board within the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to combating misinformation. The creation of the panel set off a furore, prompting her to resign and the group to be dismantled.

Taking over new platforms

Not long ago, the fight against disinformation focused on the major social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. When pressed, they often removed troubling content, including misinformation and intentional disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, however, there are dozens of new platforms, including some that pride themselves on not moderating – censoring, as they put it – untrue statements in the name of free speech.

Other figures followed Mr Trump in migrating to these new platforms after being “censored” by Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. They included Michael Flynn, the retired general who served briefly as Mr Trump’s first national security adviser; Mr L. Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer; Ms Naomi Wolf, a feminist author and vaccine sceptic; and assorted adherents of QAnon and the Oath Keepers, the far-right militia.

At least 69 million people have joined platforms like Parler, Gab, Truth Social, Gettr and Rumble, which advertise themselves as conservative alternatives to Big Tech, according to statements by the companies. Although many of those users are ostracised from larger platforms, they continue to spread their views, which often appear in screenshots posted on the sites that barred them.

“Nothing on the Internet exists in a silo,” said Mr Jared Holt, a senior manager on hate and extremism research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “Whatever happens in alt platforms like Gab or Telegram or Truth makes its way back to Facebook and Twitter and others.”

No longer an aberration

The shifts in the disinformation landscape are becoming clear with the new cycle of American elections. In 2016, Russia’s covert campaign to spread false and divisive posts seemed like an aberration in the American political system. Today, disinformation, from enemies foreign and domestic, has become a feature of it.

The baseless idea that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected has gone mainstream among Republican Party members, driving state and county officials to impose new restrictions on casting ballots, often based on mere conspiracy theories percolating in right-wing media.

Voters must now sift through not only an ever-growing torrent of lies and falsehoods about candidates and their policies but also information on when and where to vote. Officials appointed or elected in the name of fighting voter fraud have put themselves in the position to refuse to certify outcomes that are not to their liking.

The purveyors of disinformation have also become increasingly sophisticated at sidestepping the major platforms’ rules, while the use of video to spread false claims on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram has made them harder for automated systems to track than text.


WASHINGTON – On the morning of July 8, former president Donald Trump took to Truth Social, a social media platform he founded with people close to him, to claim that he had, in fact, won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Barely 8,000 people shared that missive on Truth Social, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of responses his posts on Facebook and Twitter regularly generated before those services suspended his megaphones after the deadly riot on Capitol Hill on Jan 6, 2021.

And yet Mr Trump’s baseless claim pulsed through the public consciousness anyway. It jumped from his app to other social media platforms – not to mention podcasts, talk radio or television.

Within 48 hours of Mr Trump’s post, more than 1 million people saw his claim on at least a dozen other media. It appeared not only on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also on YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

The spread of Mr Trump’s claim illustrates how, before this year’s midterm elections, disinformation has metastasized since experts began raising alarms about the threat. Despite years of efforts by the media, by academics and even by social media companies themselves to address the problem, it is arguably more pervasive and widespread today.

“I think the problem is worse than it’s ever been, frankly,” said Ms Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation who briefly led an advisory board within the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to combating misinformation. The creation of the panel set off a furore, prompting her to resign and the group to be dismantled.

Taking over new platforms

Not long ago, the fight against disinformation focused on the major social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. When pressed, they often removed troubling content, including misinformation and intentional disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, however, there are dozens of new platforms, including some that pride themselves on not moderating – censoring, as they put it – untrue statements in the name of free speech.

Other figures followed Mr Trump in migrating to these new platforms after being “censored” by Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. They included Michael Flynn, the retired general who served briefly as Mr Trump’s first national security adviser; Mr L. Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer; Ms Naomi Wolf, a feminist author and vaccine sceptic; and assorted adherents of QAnon and the Oath Keepers, the far-right militia.

At least 69 million people have joined platforms like Parler, Gab, Truth Social, Gettr and Rumble, which advertise themselves as conservative alternatives to Big Tech, according to statements by the companies. Although many of those users are ostracised from larger platforms, they continue to spread their views, which often appear in screenshots posted on the sites that barred them.

“Nothing on the Internet exists in a silo,” said Mr Jared Holt, a senior manager on hate and extremism research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “Whatever happens in alt platforms like Gab or Telegram or Truth makes its way back to Facebook and Twitter and others.”

No longer an aberration

The shifts in the disinformation landscape are becoming clear with the new cycle of American elections. In 2016, Russia’s covert campaign to spread false and divisive posts seemed like an aberration in the American political system. Today, disinformation, from enemies foreign and domestic, has become a feature of it.

The baseless idea that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected has gone mainstream among Republican Party members, driving state and county officials to impose new restrictions on casting ballots, often based on mere conspiracy theories percolating in right-wing media.

Voters must now sift through not only an ever-growing torrent of lies and falsehoods about candidates and their policies but also information on when and where to vote. Officials appointed or elected in the name of fighting voter fraud have put themselves in the position to refuse to certify outcomes that are not to their liking.

The purveyors of disinformation have also become increasingly sophisticated at sidestepping the major platforms’ rules, while the use of video to spread false claims on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram has made them harder for automated systems to track than text.

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