editorial

Factually: How the story lends itself to misinformation

By HARRISON MANTAS
Posted 8/26/20

{Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The Poynter Institute and The International Fact-Checking Network and is republished here with permission. We offer this to readers as …

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editorial

Factually: How the story lends itself to misinformation

Posted

{Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The Poynter Institute and The International Fact-Checking Network and is republished here with permission. We offer this to readers as it reveals insight into what industry writers are advocating that journalists pay attention to. Understanding a way to categorize the plethora of news and opinion coming our way is essential to our well being and knowledge at this time of misinformation and mendacity. — LS]

The current conversation about the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and whether it’s prepared to handle mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect case study in how mis- and disinformation take hold in social and conventional media.

The story contains many of the elements we commonly see in topics that are ripe for misinformation. But there are three that stand out in particular.

  1. It’s a fast-moving story

As we’ve written before, stories that are quickly changing are ripe for manipulation. The USPS is no exception. Here’s a good example. In June, FactCheck.org debunked a “baseless election conspiracy” from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that President Donald Trump would “cut off money from the post office, so they cannot deliver mail-in ballots.” At the time, FactCheck.org director Eugene Kiely correctly pointed out there was no evidence for this.

That changed last week after the president’s admission on Fox Business that his opposition to post office relief funding was tied to his opposition to mail-in voting. So what was once not true then became true—and FactCheck.org updated its fact-check, adding additional information to the headline to reflect that the reality had changed.

Responding to a reader comment, Kiely wrote he chose not to completely rewrite the fact-check’s headline because it was accurate at the time, however, “we did add an update to the original headline to give the new information more prominence.”

  1. There are grains of truth

The USPS does have well-documented financial and service problems. In July, CBS performed a vote-by-mail experiment that showed the potential for delays and lost ballots due to the expected increased volume of mail-in voting. On Aug. 7, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy reorganized leadership at the USPS, which led to speculation that this would exacerbate already documented delays.

Experts say that effective disinformation campaigns often contain a kernel of truth. Indeed, reports that the USPS was removing mail sorting machines and mailboxes led to a viral photo claiming to show stacks of mailboxes removed from neighborhoods in Wisconsin. PolitiFact correctly noted this was a photo from a Wisconsin company that refurbishes old mailboxes.

  1. There is a confusing torrent of information

There has been a flurry of coverage about mail-in voting and the USPS in light of states’ efforts to encourage people to use mail-in ballots to stem the spread of COVID-19. As this torrent has grown, so have opportunities for misinformers to do their handiwork. As a May 2020 report from the Digital Future Society noted, “information overload” overwhelms the public and exacerbates confirmation biases.

New York Times opinion columnist Charlie Warzel suggested this may be the aim of the president’s messaging on mail-in voting. Referring to a Vox piece from February, Warzel suggested the president was implementing 2016 campaign CEO Steve Bannon’s strategy of “flooding the zone.”

“It’s exhausting and deliberate,” Warzel wrote, cautioning journalists to be mindful of this tactic, and deliberate in their reporting so as not to exacerbate its effects.

(www.bit.ly/uspsmisinfo)

Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering fact-checking and misinformation. Reach him at hmantas@poynter.org or on Twitter at @HarrisonMantas.

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