2020 US Election: The Week That Was in Misinformation

Oct 24, 2020


There is only one more full week of this unusual election to go. What I keep thinking is: maybe this is not unusual anymore? Maybe most elections around the world are going to have outrageous claims, bizarre behaviour and the insidious spread of false information barely disguised at all as a political weapon. 

We shall see. Let’s dig in. 

The Biden Emails

Many journalists are treating this as a non-story. Since the New York Post “revealed” potentially incriminating information about Hunter and Joe Biden, it’s been covered extensively in right-wing media and fora. Much less so in the mainstream media. Perhaps for the casual reader it’s all a bit messy and murky and difficult to understand (like some of the Trump-Russia details). For journalistic organisations, it’s difficult to verify the authenticity of the emails, and the sourcing and background to the whole thing are sketchy at best. 

We covered some of that last week. This week in the alternate reality that is MAGAworld, disgusting insinuations of child pornography and abuse were aired by Rudy Giuliani, egged on by Steve Bannon, and them fomented through conspiracy groups, anti-elite fora, and right-wing sites. 

See for example this tweet with over 35,000 retweets and over 52,000 likes:

It’s nearly a week later and there’s still not a shred of evidence whatsoever to back up these claims. With just days to go to the election, there is clear political disinformation at work. Of course, discussions of this theory were spread on Fox News having been earlier fomented by Revolver and The Gateway Pundit.

At NBC News, there is an excellent report on the development of the Pizzagate-style campaign to attack Hunter Biden, if you want to go down the rabbit hole here. 

What is the result of all this? YouGov reports that “half of Trump's supporters think top Democrats are involved in child sex-trafficking.”

Let that sink in. Where is the evidence for such beliefs?

Meanwhile The New York Times reported that the New York Post story was written by a veteran at the paper who refused to put his byline on it; another journalist only learned her byline was on the story after it was published. We learned that the FBI is investigating whether the Biden emails are part of a foreign disinformation campaign. And Politico reported that more than 50 former intelligence officers signed a letter outlining their belief that the emailsare part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

A related narrative that has been a big feature of the Biden attacks is his relationship with China. Politifact has a report investigating such claims and finds: "The granular details of many of the allegations about Hunter Biden’s dealings in China are supported by documentation, but larger conclusions resurrected at the end of the 2020 campaign are unsubstantiated. Foreign policy experts say these allegations do not add up to a picture of Joe Biden being corrupt or pursuing policies contrary to the national interest. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden came close to breaking the law, much less any evidence that his father has done so."

The biggest YouTube video shared amongst QAnon Facebook groups on Friday featured more claims of damning evidence of corruption against Hunter and Joe Biden. However The Wall Street Journal reported that corporate records reviewed by them indicate no involvement by the presidential candidate. And a Fox News reporter found the same:

Nevertheless, the phrase and hashtag #BeijingBiden continues to be used amongst QAnon groups.

Election Integrity, Misinformation, and Possible Violence

Ballot misinformation continues to spread. There is a big concern amongst election observers that with the integrity of the election called into question, and Trump’s clear dog whistles to violent forces in American society, things could turn ugly in the aftermath of November 3. 

One of the bigger examples came earlier in the week when The Geller Report claimed that "Pennsylvania rejects 372,000 mail-in ballots" - but the rejections were of ballot applications, not actual ballots. Most were rejected because they were duplicates. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk's Twitter account was locked after he promoted the story.

The Election Integrity Partnership reported on a viral video alleging electoral fraud in Germantown, Maryland which has already been debunked but continues to gain traction.

Later in the week, an insight to the possibility of violence becoming real. WBTV reported that a man was arrested in Kannapolis, NC with a van full of guns and explosives. He had allegedly researched killing Joe Biden. 

ACLED and MilitiaWatch reported that theProud Boys, Boogaloo Bois and Three Percenters are at a high risk of committing violence. Geographically, the highest areas of risk for militia-related violence are Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Oregon.

Of course, there’s already been violence committed by some of these groups. In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reported that one of the Boogaloo Bois was charged with opening fire on a Minneapolis police precinct during protests over George Floyd.

The combination of violent groups and election integrity seemed to come together in one big story midweek. There were reports of threatening emails being sent to Democrat voters in Florida and Alaska. The emails purported to be from the Proud Boys - who denied any involvement - and suggested that the reader vote for Trump “or we will come after you”. Later in the week, US officials said that Iran, not the Proud Boys, was behind the threatening emails. 

Actor James Woods posted about a similar threat that was directed to Trump supporters although the authenticity of this is in question. 

Misinformation Miscellany

Claims of censorship and attacks on “Big Tech” have been a prominent feature of discourse in MAGAworld in recent weeks and months. Two new stories this week claimed that Facebook and Google are rife with corrupt practices. The New York Post reported that some Facebook employees are “ashamed” of the company’s approach to moderating the Biden emails controversy. The other big story in relation to this is from Project Veritas, a very questionable source. The related video, which at time of writing has over 2.4 million views on Twitter, claims that Google is skewing search results in favor of Joe Biden. The video stars whistleblower Ritesh Lakhkar, who is allegedly a Technical Program Manager at Google. The story is in text format here.

Anti-vaccine activists are sharing claims that if Biden becomes president he will shut down the country until everyone has taken a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine. Lead Stories reports he has not said this.

Dr Scott Atlas, Trump’s COVID advisor, undermined the importance of masks in a tweet, which was then removed by Twitter. 

The US charged six Russian hackers with various cyberattacks. 

The New York Times reported on false political news in Spanish in the run up to the November 3 election. This could impact a key state like Florida.

Fact checks covering all the claims made from the final debate are available from AP, Politifact and CNN, to name a few.

We’ve focused mostly on domestic disinformation but US officials say that “Russia’s hackers appeared to be preparing to sow chaos amid any uncertainty around election results”, according to The New York Times. While Russia appears to be a bigger threat, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and FBI reported on how Iran is intent on influencing the election too.

There have been claims that Trump’s Twitter account was hacked. Both the White House and Twitter have denied this.

There’s only one more full week of this election to go. Until next time...