The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday February 28th

Before You Vote Episode 4: How to tackle misinformation and disinformation

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Voting is complicated. Before You Vote is a new podcast from The Daily Tar Heel's City and State desk breaking down all you need to know about voting before the 2020 election.

In the fourth episode, City & State Editor Sonia Rao talks to UNC professor Deen Freelon and Politifact's Josie Hollingsworth about misinformation and disinformation, and how becoming more media literate can help prepare voters for the election. 


Sonia Rao: Voting is complicated, especially for college students, who are often first-time voters, or have just moved to a new county or state. 

Voting during a pandemic is even more complicated. 

I’m Sonia Rao, the City & State Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. Welcome to Before You Vote, where we’ll be breaking down what you need to know about voting every Tuesday until Election Day. 

AD: This podcast is sponsored by Vote America. Reminder: Election Day is November 3. As a North Carolina student you can register now using your campus or home address. You can vote early, you can vote by mail, or you can vote in person on Election Day. Make your plan at VoteAmerica.com/Students.

SR: As the election approaches, there’s been some misinformation and disinformation circulating online. I talked to UNC professor Deen Freelon, about what misinformation and disinformation is, and what it could mean for the election. 

Deen Freelon: My name is Dean Freelon. I'm an associate professor at UNC’s school of journalism. Yeah. And lately, I've been doing research on this information, non factual beliefs on social media, and computational research, which means that I do a lot of work writing code and computer scripts to process very large amounts of digital and often social media data. 

SR: Freelon said misinformation and disinformation are forms of false information. 

DF: So misinformation and disinformation are both types of claims that have no factual basis for in which there is some aspect of it, that if you knew the whole story, you would interpret it differently. So you know, whether that's the idea that, you know, vaccines cause autism, or that COVID-19 was all planned out and buy a weapon or whatever. 

SR: But, what’s the difference between the two? 

DF: The difference between misinformation and disinformation has to do with the relationship between the claim itself and who is spreading it. So for disinformation, the person spreading it knows that it is false and deceptive. So it spread with a very specific purpose to damage harm, damage or harm others will also possibly for profit. And so that is where this information district differs from misinformation, which is a situation in which the person spreading it does not know that it's false, they actually believe it. And so it's not necessarily spread with an intention to harm people. But it is harmful nonetheless, there can be. But the person who's trying to spread it believes that it's true to try to educate folks, but they're trying to do so with content that is not true. And therefore, is inadvertently creating damage by doing that.

SR: Freelon said when it comes to disinformation, some groups are more heavily targeted than others. 

DF: In the studies that I've conducted, the identities that are targeted most are white conservatives, and, you know, left leaning people of various races, and especially black people. The thing to remember is that this information can kind of come from anywhere. So just because your group isn't necessarily being targeted now, doesn't mean it couldn't be targeted in the future.

SR: He said one organization he’s studied is called Internet Research Agency, a private organization that does work for the Russian government. 

DF: They created a number of social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that pretended to be the identity that is mentioned, to be white conservatives tended to be black left wing activists and be non black left wing activists, they also pretended to be news organizations, they pretend to be other other identities. And so but uh, you know, what they did was they basically just posted content, and tried to attract attention to what they're talking about. And you know, in some cases, that content was very obviously political.

SR: And Freelon said that often, disinformation is spread by groups who want to do political damage. He pointed to conspiracy theories that disproportionately implicate people of certain political parties or ideologies. 

DF: A lot of it is, you know, swirling around, you know, COVID-19, you know, some of those might be good examples of that, or, you know, before that the idea that, you know, the Moller investigation was really just a scam to get, you know, President Trump, etc. things of this nature could also be considered disinformation.

SR: Often, disinformation is meant to target people who are more susceptible to believing something they see on the internet due to their personal beliefs. 

DF: There was an ad put up by a group called the Lincoln Project, which is a group of Republicans who are opposed to President Trump. And they put out an ad that basically tried to imply that Trump is like, really like not doing well, health wise, he's sick, right? Like, he's is really, you know, can't really walk super well. And you know, he's really, like, decrepit, falling apart and all this. And I remember thinking, you know, you know, I'm not a big fan of trouble. I'm happy to admit that. But when I saw that ad, it just really made me think, Wow, somebody's really trying to like, you know, hit my anti Trump, you know, section of my brain in the very shameless way, like not going after what he's done, or how dangerous might be from country but really trying to do like a little glow here. 

SR: Freelon said combating misinformation and disinformation is as simple as taking thirty seconds to Google something and check for corroborating information. 

DF: The other thing you can do is, you can think of yourself as kind of like a fact checker for your own, you know, social media to me, so you can actually share the content, let's say, this is actually false, because of this other thing that I found. And here's why that's false. And so in other words, you can sort of join in I mean, I guess sharing this kind of stuff is kind of fun. But you can like, join and have some fun with the purpose, because you can actually debunk it and say, Wow, this is really ridiculous. 

SR: Freelon also recommended that people think about the sources they’re getting information from. 

DF: That is something that I really recommend to college students, really anybody to do is to seek that corroborating evidence and not rely on and then also just think about just sources in general, right? So is this a source is the no one just by content? That is a non factual nature, or that just is overly exaggerated in nature? Right? And then, you know, so if they share it, or if they're proposing it, then it may or may not be true. So you can look for other evidence to see whether it's something you should share or not, before accepting the word of an organization is known to post either false content, or content that is hyperbolic or blown out. 

SR: So, misinformation and disinformation is serious - but how could it impact the election? Freelon said this year, he thinks that casting doubt on systems like voting by mail could suppress votes, especially in the Black community. 

DF: I think it's, you know, something to the effect of oh, don't go vote because you might, well, don't vote, you might get COVID if you, like step outside your house. So that's not really that's not COVID specific, but it's not election specific, but um, you know, saying that, Oh, well, they're doing this or that because of COVID. That's happening, or, you know, these five polling places have been closed because of COVID or whatever. We absolutely think there's a possibility that these kinds of things could swirl around the election and possibly affect it.

SR: One fact-checking organization aiming to decrease misinformation and disinformation around the election is a group called PolitiFact, which is based from The Poynter Institute. You might know Politifact as one of the groups that was conducting live fact-checking of last Tuesday’s presidential debate, but their work centers around fact-checking a lot of election and political content past debates. 

I talked to Josie Hollingworth, Politifact’s audience engagement editor and a UNC alum, about what tips she has for college students to stay media literate for the upcoming election. 

Josie Hollingsworth: I'm Josie Hollingsworth. I work at PolitiFact. I'm the audience engagement editor there. 

SR: Hollingsworth said that in the 2018 midterm election, the main goal of misinformation and disinformation was to undermine public trust in elections and polling. 

She said COVID-19 has accentuated this. 

JH: I think a lot of what we've been seeing with how COVID-19 has affected misinformation, is just gets more people involved. You know, I think that that's like a big thing is like, not every we know that not all Americans vote and not all Americans are politically engaged. But in the United States being the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone is affected by this virus and its effects. And so, whereas PolitiFact was fact checking a lot of political misinformation that folks who are interested in the election would be sharing. The reality is anyone and everyone should and could be sharing stories and articles true or fake about Coronavirus because it affects them. 

SR: She pointed to specific examples of what she thinks election-based misinformation will look like. 

JH: So I think that would be the big effect of COVID-19. I think, as we get closer to the election, and I think this probably could have been predicted is there will be a lot of misinformation about voting when it comes to voting with you know, masks on or you know, what, how will this affect voter id like How will will you have to hand your driver's license in North Carolina to up to a percent of voting? polling place? Will you have to hand your license to someone in North Carolina at a polling place? You know, is that is there more contact there? Yeah, I wonder if those systems will they will have to fundamentally change because of the disease? And if there will be misinformation about that? 

SR: I asked Hollingsworth what tips she has for college students who want to be more media literate. 

JH: I would say I'm connecting with fact checkers, whether it's through newsletters, whether it's through our Instagram accounts, whether it's through just like checking our websites every now and then is a great idea. 

SR: She also said that keeping up local news sources is a good way to stay informed.

JH: Reading your local news is essential, especially in the pandemic, especially with local elections coming up, especially with national elections coming up, because local news outlets will tell you about how national policy will affect your local area. And, some ways I stay connected is I have Chrome notifications on for the Tampa Bay Times. And then if that's not your thing, like your local newspaper or public radio station probably has a great morning newsletter that just helped helps you understand what might be you know, a conversation what might what might come up on social media that potentially need some fact checking because those local news organizations do wonderful verifying in their store. Those local news organizations do wonderful verification in their, in their stories. And that's a great start to getting informed.

SR: Hollingsworth also recommended reading history to understand how events in the past have affected how things are today. She said she recently ordered a book called Fragile Democracy, which is a book by UNC American Studies professor Jim LeLoudis and Research Robert Korestead, about The Struggle over Race and Voting Rights in North Carolina. 

JH: I just want to understand a little deeper about what a lot of history books glance over and that the right to vote is complicated. And it's fraught with many times racial injustice. And at this moment, as we're going into the election, conservatives talk about voter fraud. It's so widespread that it threatens public trust in elections. And progressives say that fraud is rare, and they call for reforms to voter ID. And so anyway, that's a big geek out moment, but I think it really could help to read more about elections and voting and like local histories to better enrich your, your need your media diet, if that makes sense. 

SR: Ultimately, Hollingsworth said that if you have instincts about something that sounds false, it’s a good idea to do some more research into the topic. 

JH: I think this season, of the pandemic of the election cycle, is PolitiFact is found there is a lot that we don't know, both about a brand new virus, but also about, of course, predicting what a pandemic election will look like. And that uncertainty, while uncomfortable, is a huge opportunity for voters to read up and get really knowledgeable and media literate going into the voting cycle.

SR: There are three days left to register to vote in North Carolina. There are nine days left until early voting starts. There are 21 days left to request an absentee ballot. And there are 28 days left until election day. 

We want you to tell us what to cover this election cycle. Take five minutes to fill out our survey by texting DTHELECTIONS to 73-224. 

For more election coverage, visit www.dailytarheel.com/section/voting, and follow us on Twitter at @DTHCityState

If you have any questions about voting you’d like us to answer, you can send us an email at city@dailytarheel.com

Tune in next Tuesday to listen to us break down the candidates on the ballot. 

This episode was produced by Meredith Radford.

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