Pulse Newsletter: Beware Social Media Disinformation

Sep 4, 2020

With 60 days remaining until the election, this week’s Pulse begins with an important public service announcement.

The purveyors of disinformation are not just foreign, they’re also domestic.

In just the past week, there were several high-profile examples of viral social media posts on Facebook and Twitter that turned out to be manipulated or outright fabricated:

— White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted a doctored video that purported to show Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden falling asleep during a TV interview. The video is actually two videos spliced together, one of Biden looking down — and very much awake — during a virtual town hall event with Hillary Clinton earlier this year, and another from a 2011 TV interview with actor Harry Belafonte. In the doctored video, the interviewer appears to be trying to wake a sleeping Biden. But in reality, the interviewer was attempting to connect with Belafonte, who was experiencing technical difficulties.

— A meme on Facebook purported to quote Boston Celtics legend and famously politics-averse Larry Bird admonishing current NBA players for participating in racial justice demonstrations. The quote is not real, Bird never said it.

— Republican Congressman Steve Scalise shared a video that purported to show progressive activist Ady Barkan questioning Biden about defunding the police. It added words that Barkan never said, a task made easier for the manipulators because Barkan, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, speaks with the assistance of a computerized voice. Barkan has demanded an apology and received what apparently passes for one in today’s politics.

— A social media post showed what it claimed were four police officers injured in protests in Portland and Seattle. The officers are actually from Australia and were injured in separate incidents dating back to 2006.

— A viral tweet by someone calling themselves Paulus V attributed a quote to Sen. Susan Collins about Donald Trump that doesn’t exist. “Paulus” cited the quote while sharing a month-old story that doesn’t even contain the fabricated quote. Nevertheless, the tweet was shared 8,000 times, while generating an avalanche of responses.

Much has been made of attempts to influence our elections by foreign governments like China and Russia. We know that it happened in 2016 and we know it’s happening in 2020.

Just this week Facebook and Twitter announced that it removed accounts linked to Russian state actors who are attempting to disillusion and depress turnout among progressive voters by spreading fabricated stories about Biden and running mate Kamala Harris.

It’s unclear how many of the aforementioned examples of bogus videos, quotes or photos were originally perpetrated by foreign actors or U.S. citizens. Regardless, not much can be done to stop purposeful attempts to mislead the public. But the accidental dissemination by U.S. citizens? That can be mitigated. It’s going to take far more vigilance than what we’re currently witnessing.

Wither split-ticketers?

The Pew Research Center this week released an interesting, if not unsurprising, analysis that found elections for the U.S. Senate are increasingly following states’ party preferences in presidential elections.

Pew found that in elections and special elections held since 2012, 122 of 139 were won by candidates who belonged to or were aligned with the party that won that state’s most recent presidential race. That’s a big change from 2006, when about a third of Senate contests were won by candidates of different parties than their respective state’s presidential preference.

The trend suggests alignment with another: the declining number of ticket-splitters. That is, people who might choose a Democrat for president, but still pick a Republican congressional candidate.

On its face, the trend might seem ominous for Collins, whose reelection bid runs concurrent with Biden, who currently has a big polling lead over Trump statewide. But Maine has been slow to join this movement and it’s one of just nine states that have senators from different parties — independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, and Collins.

Collins in particular has proven less susceptible to the weak performances by her party’s presidential nominee. In 2008, she won reelection in a landslide despite a massive Democratic wave election in which Barack Obama became president and Democrats took full control of Congress.

But this is a different election, especially for Collins, whose once enviable favorability has tumbled during the Trump presidency.

Debate me!

Collins last week re-upped her near-instant debate challenge to Democratic challenger Sara Gideon while the two candidates were campaigning in Caribou.

Again, it’s not clear how one would execute the logistics of a debate on such short notice (Who moderates? Where will it be? Will it be televised?). But it’s worth noting that all the candidates, including independents Max Linn and Lisa Savage, have agreed to participate in several debates this month and in October, including one with Maine Public.

So, what’s the motivation here?

It’s certainly possible that Collins feels she has better command of issues before Congress than Gideon, who is currently the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

But her challenge is not unique to her race. It’s been replicated by other Republican incumbent senators facing very tough reelection bids. This week, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and North Carolina Sen. Thom Thillis issued a joint statement challenging their Democratic challengers to debates.

Collins was not on the joint release.

It’s an interesting tactic, especially considering that it’s usually challengers who are eager to debate incumbents because it’s a way to elevate their profile. In July 2014, Democrat Shenna Bellows challenged Collins to 10 debates. The response from Collins’ campaign was to wait until fall.

But woven throughout these current GOP debate challenges is a narrative advanced by Republican incumbents and aligned interest groups that Democratic candidates are essentially empty vessels for Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s “tax-raising,” “job-killing” agenda and that each of them are hiding in a windowless basement awaiting his orders (Google “windowless basement, Democrats” and see the results). McSally even calls challenger Mark Kelly “missing Mark.”

It’s also possible that this effort to portray Democratic senate candidates as Schumer’s foot soldiers has some synergy with Trump’s claims that Biden is a Trojan horse for liberal radicals.

The messaging cohesion is similar on the Democratic side. Each of the Democratic challengers, including Gideon, are running as moderate unifiers, not partisan warriors — just like their presidential nominee, Biden.

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