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Misinformation in your backyard: Insights from 5 US states ahead of the 2020 election

The latest First Draft research report collects analysis from our Local News Fellows in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

This is an edited extract from First Draft’s new report on local misinformation in the United States ahead of the 2020 election. Download the full report (PDF): “Misinformation in your backyard.”

“All politics is local,” so the saying goes. The same could be said for misinformation. The 2016 elections brought stories of Macedonian teens pulling quick profits and Russian agents seeding polarization across the United States. But 2020 is teaching us that whatever the origins of a rumor, misleading meme or photo, it is the local twist and organic amplification that give it power — often leading to impact offline.

In five states that will be key in the upcoming US election — Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin — First Draft has collected dozens of examples of information disorder playing out via private Facebook Groups, text messages and other platforms.

The case studies, authored by Shana Black, Serena Maria Daniels, Sandra Fish, Howard Hardee and Damon Scott, are:

  • Colorado: Voter fraud claims about mail-in ballots
  • Florida: Viral photos misinterpreted
  • Michigan: Data mining and transparency in advertising
  • Ohio: Doxing and harassment of health officials
  • Wisconsin: Conspiracy theories about government surveillance

In an echo of national trends, local influencers and elected officials — state representatives, sheriffs and political candidates — play a key role in amplifying and spreading misleading or harmful information about the pandemic and other issues. Confusion among the public, whether about the process of mail-in voting or the efficacy of mask-wearing, proves fertile ground for creating confusion and encouraging distrust.

While local news organizations enjoy more public trust than national sources, and are well-positioned to provide information to counter information disorder, they are under increasing financial stress. Even before the economic burden of the pandemic, local newsrooms had already been contracting and shutting down, driven in part by the migration of advertising dollars to social media platforms, resulting in local news deserts. And even in their previous financially stable state, newsroom staff lacked diversity. According to recent research by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, more than two-thirds of Americans think it is important for the media to represent the diversity of the US population, but nearly 40 per cent think the media is doing a poor job with diversity efforts.

All these trends have worsened during the pandemic. The Poynter Institute is keeping a continually updated list of newsrooms that have cut services and staff in recent months. One estimate puts the number of news jobs lost at 36,000, even though the audience has increased from a public seeking answers to local questions.

First Draft has dedicated its 2020 US program to training local reporters and increasing resources for combating local information disorder. In a tour of 14 states, First Draft extended its training on responsibly tracking and countering local misinformation to more than 1,000 local reporters.

In March, First Draft launched the Local News Fellows project, supported by Democracy Fund, training and investing in five part-time reporters embedded in their communities to serve as central resources in their state. The driving concept: In today’s challenging environment, many local newsrooms lack the resources to devote staff members to tracking local information disorder. But through collaboration, they can share resources and encourage on-the-ground efforts, bringing newsrooms together. The material in this report was all sparked by their daily monitoring of local online conversations.

First Draft has prepared case studies on five examples from Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. They are small snapshots of information disorder in these particular states, but they also paint a broad picture of how the same themes and tactics cross state borders and flourish nationally.

Download the full report.

This part of First Draft’s US 2020 project was made possible by the generous donation from and vision of the Democracy Fund.

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