As election fraud narratives persist, misinformation research shows sources of ‘toxic feedback loops’

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Kate Starbird, faculty director of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, speaks at the 2021 GeekWire summit. (Geekwire Photo/Kevin Lisota)

It’s been almost a year since the 2020 US presidential election, but baseless allegation that President Biden didn’t win the vote: more a third of americans Think Donald Trump won. This is despite the fact that investigations and trials from across the country claiming electoral fraud have all failed. And the narratives propelling the propaganda will certainly continue in the 2022 elections and beyond.

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So how did we end up here? University of Washington Kate Starbird There are some answers.

Starbird, UW’s faculty director Center for an Informed Public (CIP), at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle to share some of the research he called “participatory disinformation” on stage Tuesday.


After months of posting on Twitter, Starbird and her allies found that big-name aides to then-President Trump were spreading the wrong message about the election, adding in the flow were tweets from ordinary citizens that were picked up and amplified.

The narrative began with prominent voices – including Trump himself, his sons, conservative media members, right-wing figures, QAnon supporters and others – laying the groundwork for misinformation and more malicious disinformation. Starbird shared a tweet from Trump on June 22, 2020 that claimed without evidence that foreign governments may present postal ballots against him. With this tweet and others, Trump and his allies continue to reinforce “the narrative of a rigged election,” Starbird said.

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As a result, some conservative voters began to see fraud where it did not exist. He shared misinformation about ballots being tossed in GOP-leaning areas that were filled with Sharpie pens — leading to SharpieGate — and wrongly discarded official information about ballots when they weren’t.

These false allegations were retweeted until they reached Twitter users with megaphone-sized followings, who greatly exaggerated the lies.

The movement gathered under the Stop the Steel slogan and its patriotic-colored call to action featuring eagles and American flags. Trump supporters continue to recycle what Starbird calls “toxic feedback loops” to fuel voting fraud propaganda and anger.

“I used to think of these accounts – it was naive to me – as caricatures of political parties. And yet, on January 6, we saw them alive in this physical and violent protest in the capital,” Starbird said.

That was the date that Congress certified Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race, an important step in the peaceful transfer of power that some opponents had hoped to derail. Five people died in connection with the riots, which also caused a loss of $1.5 million to the US Capitol.

Starbird was one of several researchers who studied the role of social media in real time during last year’s election. electoral integrity partnership. The alliance included UW, Stanford University, the Digital Forensic Research Lab and Graphica.

Last week, right-wing activist group Project Veritas filed a defamation suit against UW and Stanford in partnership over a blog post alleging that Project Veritas promoted election propaganda. In response, UW said the claims were without merit and that it was prepared to take that matter to court.

Starbird is looking ahead to the 2020 vote and considering the bigger picture. She wants to know how to crack down on the machinery that breeds misinformation that incites violence and threatens democracy. Starbird suggested that government regulation of social media and programs providing citizen media literacy are some of the answers.

“How do we stop this?” He asked. “How do we step back from this quagmire and come back to some way of having a conversation based on reality and working through difficult problems together?”

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