Recent polls have found that 70 per cent of Republican supporters in the United States believe that President Donald Trump was defeated in an unfair or fraudulent election, echoing claims made by both foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns.
Numerous legal challenges by the Trump campaign have been defeated in courts across the country, and rumours about election fraud have been repeatedly debunked. That includes by some journalists on Fox News and Republican state officials, such as Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state. But it’s apparently not enough for elections to be free from fraud — they must be perceived as such.
Even after Joe Biden takes office, millions of Republican supporters will continue to believe the election was illegitimate. This is not just a problem for a smooth transition to a Biden administration. Rather, it’s the latest symptom of a dysfunctional public sphere.
Democratic societies need to include citizens in political processes, incorporate high-quality information into decision-making and ensure a baseline of mutual respect. While any particular political discussion may fall short of these ideals, the system as a whole must promote these three basic democratic functions.
The dangers of disinformation
In our recent article for Political Research Quarterly, we show how disinformation campaigns attack these functions. Individual instances of harmful communication can be successfully challenged, but their volume and persistence, and their concerted attacks on institutions and norms that enable productive political discourse, suggest more serious and lasting damage.
Disinformation is communication that intentionally promotes misunderstanding, through lies, misrepresentations, deceptive sourcing or other tactics. Disinformation campaigns are organized efforts that use disinformation to achieve political or economic aims.
Russia has been seen as the primary source of disinformation campaigns in the 2016 election, and Russia and other foreign states continue to target the U.S., but American partisan elites and citizens are primarily responsible for disinformation in the 2020 election.
While disinformation campaigns may be initiated by a small number of people, they have much greater impact when their claims are amplified by high-profile influencers and ordinary members of the public.
Three harmful forms of disinformation
We identify three forms of disinformation that can contribute to long-lasting harms.
The first is corrosive falsehood, which is not garden-variety lying so much as an attempt to undermine institutions that typically provide high-quality information or correct false beliefs, such as professional news media and government information agencies. Russian propagandists, conservative commentators and Trump have consistently attacked the credibility of professional journalists, accused news organizations of spreading “fake news” and created actual fake news organizations to push partisan messages.
The repeated harms of corrosive falsehoods can culminate in what we refer to as “epistemic cynicism,” which might lead citizens to distrust accurate sources of information, regularly dismiss claims as the result of partisan commitments, or cease to believe in any shared reality.
The second harm is moral denigration. Disinformation campaigns regularly make false or misleading claims to vilify individuals or misrepresent their beliefs. For instance, Trump and his allies have spent months promoting conspiracy theories about Joe Biden under the #BidenCrimeFamily hashtag — or intentional misspellings of the hashtag, once social media companies began to try to slow the spread of falsehoods.
More broadly, leading Democrats have been portrayed as supporters of shadowy globalist cabals, violent antifa factions or child-trafficking and pedophilia rings. Such claims provoke antipathy and disgust, and if believed they justify a total disregard for anything the accused individuals say.
Online campaigns of these types of moral denigration contribute to what we call “techno-affective polarization.” While partisans have become increasingly hostile to their political opponents for some time, social media appear to amplify these tensions.
Despite the fact that Biden received more votes in key states like Arizona and Georgia, as well as in the national popular vote, so-called Stop the Steal campaigns emerged on social media and in various right-wing media outlets.
These disinformation campaigns reflect the same rhetoric as the baseless #BidenCrimeFamily hashtags, wrongly implying that political opponents are so undesirable that they could only win by cheating, which they are willing to do because they are corrupt.
Fake accounts, fake voters
The third harm is unjustified inclusion, when people without rights to participate in a democratic process do so at the expense of legitimate participants.
Most obviously, foreign disinformation campaigns achieve this by using fake accounts or bots claiming to be American citizens. Domestic and foreign agitators have also used fake accounts to pretend to be members of particular groups, such as antifa or Black Lives Matter activists, to misrepresent their views and widen societal divisions.
Unjustified inclusion often leads to unjustified exclusion, such as when the voices of real citizens are drowned out, or when real individuals are labelled as fake. This, too, is a common strategy of disinformation campaigns.
There have also been widespread, false accusations that anti-racism protesters or victims of gun violence are actually paid actors, or that millions of fake people are voting by mail. Over time, such allegations can produce a situation of pervasive inauthenticity, when people believe that fake or illegal participation in their democracy is widespread.
While elections and the peaceful transfer of power are seen as the minimal conditions for democracy, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a healthy, knowledgeable public sphere is actually fundamental to the proper functioning of elections.
If citizens disbelieve the institutions that count ballots and the organizations that accurately and credibly report on those results, if they see political opponents as unworthy of being heard, if they dismiss the voices and votes of other citizens as fake or illegal, then it will be impossible to agree on what a legitimate election looks like.
Without being able to talk to each other, who gets the most votes may not matter.