2020 election: Trump and allies accused of ramping up efforts to spread disinformation and fake news

'He's able to muddy the waters so thoroughly that democracy wilts on the vine,' says professor

Kamala Harris says Trump and Barr are living in 'different reality' when they deny systemic racism exists

Since the end of last month, Donald Trump and his allies have been vigorously spreading doctored and misleading videos.

On 30 August, the president retweeted footage of a black man violently pushing a white woman on a subway platform under the caption “Black Lives Matter/Antifa” - but the man was not affiliated with either group and the video was shot in October. White House social media director Dan Scavino shared a manipulated video that falsely showed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seeming to fall asleep during a television interview, complete with a fake TV headline.

And representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking House Republican, released a video splicing together quotes from activist Ady Barkan - who has Lou Gehrig's disease and uses computer voice assistance - to falsely make it sound as if he had persuaded Mr Biden to defund police departments.

For the president and his top supporters, it was a campaign push brimming with disinformation - disseminating falsehoods and trafficking in obfuscation at a rapid clip through the use of selectively edited videos, deceptive retweets and false statements.

The slew of false and misleading tweets and videos stood in contrast to the approach taken by Mr Biden who in 2019 took a pledge promising not to participate in the spread of disinformation over social media, including rejecting the use of “deep fake” videos.

Mr Trump has built a political career around falsehoods, issuing more than 20,000 false or misleading statements during the first three-plus years of his presidency. But many experts said the sheer onslaught of the disinformation efforts by Mr Trump and his team in the late weeks of the campaign make the deception particularly difficult to combat, not to mention dangerous to the country's democratic institutions.

“When you have this disinformation and it's introduced to one side of the forest, for example, it can travel so quickly through so many different communities and does so many unintentional things before you can even do a fact check,” said Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. “He's able to muddy the waters so thoroughly that democracy wilts on the vine.”

By late August, the deceptions came in quick succession. In addition to the misleading subway video, Mr Trump repeated a false claim that 6 per cent of the nation's death toll in the pandemic was actually caused by the novel coronavirus itself - part of his ongoing effort to portray the virus as less deadly or pervasive than it actually is.

Mr Trump's campaign shared a short video on Monday of Mr Biden saying: “You won't be safe in Joe Biden's America.” But the video did not include the full context of Mr Biden's remarks, which he used to argue the opposite - that Americans are experiencing violence and unrest in Mr Trump's America.

Later that day, in an interview with Fox News's Laura Ingraham, the president pushed hazy conspiracy theories claiming - again, with no evidence - that Mr Biden is controlled by people in the “dark shadows” and that a plane full of uniformed “thugs” was descending on cities with the intent of creating violence and discord.

During a Tuesday visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, which has been the site of unrest after the police shooting of a black man, Mr Trump held a photo op that was muddier than he made it appear. He met with the former owner of Rode's Camera Shop, which was destroyed in the riots and fires there, while claiming that the man was the current owner of the shop. In fact, he is the owner of the building and not the shop.

The photo store's current owner, meanwhile, had refused to meet with Mr Trump - characterising the visit as a divisive “circus”.

Later on Thursday, Mr Trump sent tweets seeming to encourage people to vote twice - and prompting Twitter to place a public-interest notice on the missives for violating the site's “civic integrity policy”. The same day, in response to an Atlantic story detailing Mr Trump repeatedly denigrating the military and those who served, Mr Trump falsely claimed on Twitter that he had never called senator John McCain a “loser”. He called him that publicly in 2015, shortly after announcing his candidacy for president.

In the case of the Barkan video, Mr Scalise eventually updated the clip after a public uproar. In an opinion article in The Washington Post, Mr Barkan warned of the “ominous lessons” he gleaned from the experience: “the ability to use technology not only for good but to mislead and manipulate; the willingness of those with political agendas to resort to such disinformation and propaganda; and the way in which America has cleaved into two separate information universes, with a conservative media ecosystem amplifying falsehoods that then take root.”

Some social media platforms, including Twitter, removed some of the misleading and manipulated content or labeled it as such. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, claimed that its out-of-context video saying voters wouldn't be safe in “Joe Biden's America” was simply in jest, lambasting “all the triggered journalists who can't take a joke about their candidate”.

White House spokesman Judd Deere dismissed the idea that the president is actively promoting disinformation, saying: “The American people never have to wonder what the president is thinking or how he feels about a particular topic.”

“The media routinely manipulates the president's words and takes him totally out of context, but that will never stop him from unapologetically calling out their biased reporting, raising important questions, or suggesting common sense ideas to solve problems,” Mr Deere said in an emailed statement.

Democrats, however, argue that the messages spread by Mr Trump and his allies go beyond mere political trickery.

“Spin has been something that folks in politics have come to expect, but this is the invention of a totally new reality,” said Lily Adams, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee's Trump response team. “Because they can't run on the reality that every American is seeing, they're inventing a new one.”

Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard University Kennedy School's Shorenstein Centre, described Mr Trump's strategy as “terminal incoherence,” a deliberate effort to “flood the zone” with misleading information that “it really makes it hard for people to understand what the stakes are of life and death information, like what's going on with the coronavirus”.

Mr Trump has repeatedly retweeted false, misleading and controversial videos and content, with his aides sometimes claiming that he never watched the videos or did not fully understand what he was sharing. His team has declined to put in place any system to prevent the president from blasting out disinformation.

“Retweeting is now his plausible deniability strategy. He now says: 'I didn't watch the video, I just retweeted,'” Ms Phillips said. “If it's not an active strategy that they sat down to work through, it is still what is communicating the most pernicious elements of his communications strategy in 2020.”

There were several prominent examples of deceptive videos presented at the Republican National Convention last month, when Mr Trump formally accepted his party's nomination. In one instance, event organisers created a video featuring four tenants of federal housing programmes in New York talking about Mr Trump's record on public housing - but three of the four people interviewed for the video later said they did not support Mr Trump and were misled about the purpose of the production.

The president also hosted a naturalisation ceremony at the White House that was used in another convention video - but again, several of the participants said they were not aware that their ceremony would be featured prominently at the convention.

Daniel Effron, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School, said that from a psychological perspective, repeating a false claim is an effective strategy because it makes the falsehood more familiar.

“The concern is not just that we're post-truth in the sense that you can say anything and people will believe it,” Mr Effron said. “It's that we're post-truth in the sense that people won't believe anything that anyone says and, worse, they won't care. It's that we become morally numb to all the falsehoods swirling around.”

Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo said in a statement that Mr Trump's misinformation is intended to obscure his poor leadership.

“The coordinated effort by Donald Trump's campaign to promote conspiracy theories, manipulate media to mislead Americans and lie about Joe Biden is the clearest signal yet they know they're losing,” Mr Ducklo said.

For some like Mr Barkan, the actions of Mr Scalise and others in Mr Trump's orbit are not missteps. They are deliberate “disinformation test balloons that should put every single one of us on alert”.

“If they can without consequence make it seem as though I said something I didn't, what else can they do?” he wrote in the opinion article. “What else will they do?”

The Washington Post 

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