AL: What topics have driven this year’s midterm elections?
What trends and narratives have you observed ahead of the midterms?
JC: Targeting identity (gender, sexual, race) and so-called family values; crime rates, inflation, the economy; reproductive rights and abortion, and election denying candidates and conspiracies rooted in 2020 results.
What role do disinformation campaigns play in these elections? Is meddling or foreign influence from other political actors - be it China or Russia - to be expected & to what extent?
It’s not expected, it’s confirmed. Election disinformation is flooding American newsfeeds constantly, and has been for months and years. Candidates are basing their campaigns on denying 2020 election results, and it is unclear whether several candidates will accept the results of elections if they do not win. Disinformation is salient on radio, TV, and social media. Americans get their information from such different sources that it is not just one vector of disinformation driving the problem.
Disinformation is breaking down trust in candidates, policies, systems, and election processes among voters, radicalizing them to more intense activism or in a worst-case scenario to violent or aggressive behaviour, and distracting from real issues impacting voters.
Disinformation is so successful in large part due to platform policy failures and product features systematically fuelling narratives and bad actors to more prominence.
In what ways do you see Trumps “reappearance” and “sympathy” towards QAnon influence the election campaign?
It’s not so much his reappearance and sympathy toward QAnon, but more the decision to use the audience built up around the QAnon conspiracy to benefit the Trump-centric conspiracy around the 2020 election results. ISD’s Jared Holt wrote about this in September.
The two worlds – Trump and QAnon – are now nearly one and the same. Mainstream actors failed to successfully dissuade folks away from QAnon. If they’ve left, it’s because of fatigue or disappointment with the now full-time focus on Trump over the focuses in the past, which put keeping children safe more at the centre of the conspiracy. Trump embracing the QAnon more fully just shows he wants to take a hyper engaged audience and use it for whatever power he and those repeating his talking points up for election this year are seeking.
How are platforms handling dis- & misinformation challenges differently than 2020 - what are the “lessons learned”?
Social media election policy promises are unfortunately not something society can rely on. We know they have policies they’ve used in the past that work (such as meta/Facebook’s “break glass” plan in 2020) that they’ve since turned off despite positive results. That’s especially unfortunate because we also know bad actors start attempting to influence voters and elections long, long before the month before voting starts. Between tech companies recently reducing access to data for researchers and their repeated failure to enforce their own policies when good ones do exist, we all have to hope something changes over night that inspires them to do the right thing this time. Platforms also pushed out new features to keep up with the market (short form video, for example) without proper risk assessment. As a result, these new features, built to prioritize growth, are hurting the election information ecosystems and misleading voters.
What are your key-takeaways from this midterm-election campaign?
What do we need to look out for in the future - also in other countries?
1. Video, especially short-form video, will continue to prove an effective vehicle for disinformation and a particularly challenging format for researchers to track and mitigate. ISD research highlights this trend here.
2. If platforms continue to cut resources dedicated to trust and safety and digital policy continues to lag behind in the US, we will need to carefully watch the threat landscape on and offline as it is worsened by platform product features and goes mostly unchecked.
3. Candidates using disinformation claims like election denial as their primary platform, particularly those seeking state level positions with significant control over elections, will continue to be dangerous. Depending on the outcome for candidates like that in this race, we could see more or less of it in the future.
4. Foreign actors may no longer be the focus of the conversation around disinformation, and for good reason in terms of the volume of domestic generated disinformation, but they continue to effectively target elections and voters across channels using a range of tactics, platforms, messengers and narratives.