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Mail-in voter fraud and disinformation campaign


Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:

Benkler, Y., Tilton, C., Etling, B., Roberts, H., Clark, J., Faris, R., ... & Schmitt, C. (2020). Mail-In Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign. Available at SSRN

In this Harvard University study, Yochai Benkler and his colleagues dissect what they consider to be a disinformation campaign instigated by high-ranking members of the Republican Party. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, several U.S. states implemented remote voting procedures in preparation for the 2020 presidential elections. Donald Trump and his entourage have since denounced these procedures, depicting them as political maneuvers originating from the Democratic camp. According to them, online voting will facilitate voter fraud and compromise the legitimacy of the upcoming elections.  However, experts in the field believe that the risk of voter fraud is marginal, if not negligible. Republican attempts to exaggerate these risks would therefore contribute to a disinformation campaign aiming to impact the election.  

The authors show that this disinformation campaign orchestrated by the Republican Party has polarized public opinion on the subject of electoral fraud: Republican voters are more likely than their Democratic counterparts to believe that voter fraud poses a significant risk to the 2020 presidential election.

In an effort to understand the development of this opinion, the study combines quantitative analyses of social media (Twitter and Facebook) with a chronological description of the key stages of the disinformation campaign led by Donald Trump's camp. 

The study’s principal findings are as follows:  

  • The disinformation campaign concerning the risks of electoral fraud was launched by President Donald Trump and his entourage in March 2020 and lasted until September 2020. 
  • Donald Trump was able to effectively benefit from the workings of mass media (television and radio) by placing the issue of electoral fraud at the center of their agenda. 
  • The media, namely national and local television channels, contributed to the success of this campaign by giving it extensive coverage. 
  • The impact of this media coverage is quantifiable: Republican voters who primarily obtain their information from Fox News are over-represented among Americans who believe that electoral fraud poses a major threat to the elections.
  •  Mass media was the principal channel through which this disinformation campaign was broadcasted.
  • Social media activity peaked whenever Donald Trump mentioned voter fraud on television. Social networks therefore functioned as an echo chamber for Donald Trump's comments and played a secondary role when compared to mass media.

The study insists on the fact that social media played a minor role, and that the disinformation campaign did not contain any traces of outside interference. The authors therefore consider that the information crisis currently disturbing the United States is misdiagnosed. Indeed, while the role of social media and external interference is frequently highlighted in analyses of this crisis, too few studies focus on the role played by political elites and mass media. 

The study further highlights the role played by journalists:  

Early in the campaign, it is these journalists and editors who appear to have been the most susceptible to Trump’s tactics of harnessing professional journalism to his disinformation campaign. Coverage at that time emphasized a “balanced” approach that repeated and in effect reinforced and legitimated the president’s framing of the problem as a partisan conflict.  

Lastly, the authors consider that the neutral stance adopted by the mass media throughout the campaign helped to legitimize the idea that voter fraud indeed constitutes a real threat to the 2020 presidential elections. As a result, the report argues for stronger commitment on behalf of the media to dissuade attempts by political elites to spread disinformation. For the authors, the concern for media neutrality should not lead to accepting statements that clearly amount to disinformation, even when these statements are coming from the President of the United States. 

Topic :  Disinformation  
Edition :  Harvard University  
Country :  United States 
Language  :  English 
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