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Conventional Media, Donald Trump Are Primary Drivers of Voting Disinformation, Harvard Study Finds

The Berkman Klein Center was founded at Harvard Law School.
The Berkman Klein Center was founded at Harvard Law School. By Ellis J. Yeo
By Chinmay M. Deshpande and Dekyi T. Tsotsong, Crimson Staff Writers

Researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center found that unsubstantiated concerns about widespread mail-in voter fraud in the 2020 election are mainly spread by high-ranking Republicans — including Donald Trump — and conventional media, according to a working paper released Oct. 2.

Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler and others analyzed “over fifty-five thousand online media stories, five million tweets, and seventy-five thousand posts on public Facebook pages which garnered millions of engagements.” They found that — contrary to conventional wisdom — social media played a secondary role in spreading disinformation, though they counted Trump’s Twitter account as a media source rather than as a social media account.

Benkler said he and the team hope their findings will help assure the legitimacy of this fall’s election.

He also said that the paper ought to make policymakers reconsider their assumptions about so-called “fake news.” They should renew their focus on traditional media sources, such as local television and syndicated articles, since most relatively apolitical voters rely on them, he added.

“You need to shift your frame towards these very non-sexy, non-tech outlets, given who their audience is and given that they’re really the only remaining persuadable audience,” Benkler said.

The report found that, of the viewers and readers of local media, between 15 to 20 percent believe voter mail-in fraud would be a major problem. Consumers of national sources like the New York Times or NPR were less likely to share those worries.

The report found that CNN, the Washington Post, Trump’s Twitter account, NBC, NPR and Politico — among others — played the largest role in spreading information about voter fraud.

The Berkman Klein team began studying information dissemination about a dozen years ago, publishing “on more specific topics, like intellectual property legislation,” according to Benkler. They moved to studying larger issues after the 2016 election, publishing an analysis of that election in 2018, and started focusing on mail-in voting this summer.

“It became clear to me that this one controversy, specifically on fraud related to mail-in ballots, was becoming the major disinformation campaign in the 2020 election, the one that was really potentially threatening voter participation,” Benkler said.

The report calls for a reevaluation of journalistic standards of objectivity, which, it argues, force reporters to be overly sympathetic to falsehoods stated by prominent figures.

Benkler said he views so-called “fact-checking columns,” separate portions of a newspaper debunking false claims, as unhelpful. He advocates instead for what he calls a “sandwich approach,” one in which journalists correct false statements in the same articles in which they originally reported them.

“That’s a way to stay true to the normative commitments of professional journalism without becoming replicators and reinforcers of the propagandists’ message,” he said.

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Harvard Law SchoolResearch2020 Election