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A few rightwing 'super-spreaders' fueled bulk of election falsehoods, study says

Tackling the most powerful social media accounts – such as Donald Trump’s – could be key to halting false narratives, researchers say

The attack on the US Capitol on 6 January was fueled by a handful of rightwing social media figures, the study found

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MEDIA PRESS GROUP

A handful of rightwing “super-spreaders” on social media were responsible for the bulk of election misinformation in the run-up to the Capitol attack, according to a new study that also sheds light on the staggering reach of falsehoods pushed by Donald Trump. A report from the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), a group that includes Stanford and the University of Washington, analyzed social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok during several months before and after the 2020 elections.

It found that “super-spreaders” – responsible for the most frequent and most impactful misinformation campaigns – included Trump and his two elder sons, as well as other members of the Trump administration and the rightwing media.

The study’s authors and other researchers say the findings underscore the need to disable such accounts to stop the spread of misinformation.

“If there is a limit to how much content moderators can tackle, have them focus on reducing harm by eliminating the most effective spreaders of misinformation,” said said Lisa Fazio, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies the psychology of fake news but was not involved EIP report. “Rather than trying to enforce the rules equally across all users, focus enforcement on the most powerful accounts.”

The report analyzed social media posts featuring words like “election” and “voting” to track key misinformation narratives related to the the 2020 election, including claims of mail carriers throwing away ballots, legitimate ballots strategically not being counted, and other false or unproven stories.

The report studied how these narratives developed and the effect they had. It found during this time period, popular rightwing Twitter accounts “transformed one-off stories, sometimes based on honest voter concerns or genuine misunderstandings, into cohesive narratives of systemic election fraud”.

Ultimately, the “false claims and narratives coalesced into the meta-narrative of a ‘stolen election’, which later propelled the January 6 insurrection”, the report said.

“The 2020 election demonstrated that actors – both foreign and domestic – remain committed to weaponizing viral false and misleading narratives to undermine confidence in the US electoral system and erode Americans’ faith in our democracy,” the authors concluded.

In monitoring Twitter, the researchers analyzed more than more than 22 million tweets sent between 15 August and 12 December. The study determined which accounts were most influential by the size and speed with which they spread misinformation.

“Influential accounts on the political right rarely engaged in factchecking behavior, and were responsible for the most widely spread incidents of false or misleading information in our dataset,” the report said.

Out of the 21 top offenders, 15 were verified Twitter accounts – which are particularly dangerous when it comes to election misinformation, the study said. The “repeat spreaders” responsible for the most widely spread misinformation included Eric Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and influencers like James O’Keefe, Tim Pool, Elijah Riot, and Sidney Powell. All 21 of the top accounts for misinformation leaned rightwing, the study showed.

“Top-down mis- and disinformation is dangerous because of the speed at which it can spread,” the report said. “If a social media influencer with millions of followers shares a narrative, it can garner hundreds of thousands of engagements and shares before a social media platform or factchecker has time to review its content.”

On nearly all the platforms analyzed in the study – including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – Donald Trump played a massive role.

It pinpointed 21 incidents in which a tweet from Trump’s official @realDonaldTrump account jumpstarted the spread of a false narrative across Twitter. For example, Trump’s tweets baselessly claiming that the voting equipment manufacturer Dominion Voting Systems was responsible for election fraud played a large role in amplifying the conspiracy theory to a wider audience. False or baseless tweets sent by Trump’s account – which had 88.9m followers at the time – garnered more than 460,000 retweets.

Meanwhile, Trump’s YouTube channel was linked to six distinct waves of misinformation that, combined, were the most viewed of any other repeat-spreader’s videos. His Facebook account had the most engagement of all those studied.

The Election Integrity Partnership study is not the first to show the massive influence Trump’s social media accounts have had on the spread of misinformation. In one year – between 1 January 2020 and 6 January 2021 – Donald Trump pushed disinformation in more than 1,400 Facebook posts, a report from Media Matters for America released in February found. Trump was ultimately suspended from the platform in January, and Facebook is debating whether he will ever be allowed back.

Specifically, 516 of his posts contained disinformation about Covid-19, 368 contained election disinformation, and 683 contained harmful rhetoric attacking his political enemies. Allegations of election fraud earned over 149.4 million interactions, or an average of 412,000 interactions per post, and accounted for 16% of interactions on his posts in 2020. Trump had a unique ability to amplify news stories that would have otherwise remained contained in smaller outlets and subgroups, said Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America.

“What Trump did was take misinformation from the rightwing ecosystem and turn it into a mainstream news event that affected everyone,” he said. “He was able to take these absurd lies and conspiracy theories and turn them into national news. And if you do that, and inflame people often enough, you will end up with what we saw on January 6.”

“Super-spreader” accounts were ultimately very successful in undermining voters’ trust in the democratic system, the report found. Citing a poll by the Pew Research Center, the study said that, of the 54% of people who voted in person, approximately half had cited concerns about voting by mail, and only 30% of respondents were “very confident” that absentee or mail-in ballots had been counted as intended.

The report outlined a number of recommendations, including removing “super-spreader” accounts entirely.

Outside experts agree that tech companies should more closely scrutinize top accounts and repeat offenders.

Researchers said the refusal to take action or establish clear rules for when action should be taken helped to fuel the prevalence of misinformation. For example, only YouTube had a publicly stated “three-strike” system for offenses related to the election. Platforms like Facebook reportedly had three-strike rules as well but did not make the system publicly known.

Only four of the top 20 Twitter accounts cited as top spreaders were actually removed, the study showed – including Donald Trump’s in January.

Twitter has maintained that its ban of the former president is permanent. YouTube’s chief executive officer stated this week that Trump would be reinstated on the platform once the “risk of violence” from his posts passes. Facebook’s independent oversight board is now considering whether to allow Trump to return.

“We have seen that he uses his accounts as a way to weaponize disinformation. It has already led to riots at the US Capitol; I don’t know why you would give him the opportunity to do that again,” Gertz said.

“It would be a huge mistake to allow Trump to return.”

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