Oct 28, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Right-wing misinformation could gain steam post-election

Illustration of a computer with a red screen under a box trap.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With less than a week until the 2020 election, researchers have expressed concern that the information ecosystem today is ripe for an unprecedented level of exploitation by bad actors, particularly hyper-partisan media and personalities on the right.

Why it matters: The misinformation-powered right-wing media machine that fueled Donald Trump's 2016 victory grew stronger after that win, and it's set to increase its reach as a result of the upcoming election, whether Trump wins or loses.

Driving the news: Researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School and the London School of Economics tell Axios that the economic incentives governing the internet and the information ecosystem broadly, have created a environment that actors, particularly on the right, will easily exploit with disinformation.

  • In a new paper from Dipayan Ghosh, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Nick Couldry, a media and social theory professor at the London School of Economics, the researchers argue that the information ecosystem will continue to be governed by misinformation because that's what spreads most efficiently.
  • "Right now, there's a whole lot of people on the right whose view of how to gain influence does have an unusual relationship with truth," says Couldry. "They are quite happy to spread misinformation, because it's more effective."
  • "That plays into the fact that the business models of internet companies don't differentiate between the type of actor and whether it is incentivized to tell the truth or not."

Be smart: Ghosh argues that absent sweeping regulatory reform, Big Tech companies "are not economically incentivized" under the current business structure to filter content for quality and block misinformation.

Evidence of this reality is already coming into view.

  • A new investigation from NewsGuard, a service that uses trained journalists to rate thousands of news and information sites, finds that more than three dozen Facebook groups have become "super-spreaders" of election-related misinformation, meaning they have shared false content about voting or the electoral process to their audiences of at least 100,000.
  • The vast majority of the 40 pages that NewsGuard found spewing this type of misinformation leans right or is affiliated with right-wing movements, including pages like Gateway Pundit, Viral Patriot and MAGA Revolution.

Ghosh and Couldry caution that the skewed incentives for Big Tech companies affect the entire media landscape.

To that end:

  • Fox News' "Tucker Carlson Tonight" is officially the highest-rated cable news program ever, according to new ratings out Tuesday. The right-wing opinion show has been known to echo conspiracy theories and misinformation.
  • Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed CEO of the the U.S. Agency for Global Media, posted a notice to repeal a firewall protection intended to protect the agencies it governs, including the Voice of America, from political interference.
  • Joe Rogan, a podcaster who signed an exclusive agreement to air all of his highly popular podcasts on Spotify, announced Monday that he would be hosting right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his show that reaches millions of listeners, even though Spotify already banned some of Jones' podcasts from its platform for violating its rules on hate speech.

What's next: The paper from Ghosh and Couldry will be published ahead of Wednesday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter.

  • The hearing is expected to address Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes platforms from liability for material their users post.
  • Republican leaders have bitterly criticized tech platforms for bias against conservatives when the companies try to enforce rules about spreading misinformation, for instance, about mail-in voting or the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Many GOP lawmakers say they want to limit Section 230 protections to apply only to platforms that prove they are politically "neutral."
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