50 Resources and five editions later (US2020 Disinformation news, ed. 5)

Mathew Lowry
5 min readNov 16, 2020

What did I learn from Hubbing 50 resources and writing five editions on disinformation during the US elections?

A couple of months ago I introduced an enewsletter into my personal content strategy to explore how Zettelkasten-powered idea and knowledge management could improve my personal productivity and creativity. I chose a specific subject — “disinformation in the US 2020 elections”- both because it interests me and to ensure I’d have plenty of material.

In this 5th edition — the last with that specific editorial focus — I’ll set out what I learnt about the topic itself, while in a companion post I’m sharing what I learnt about how Zettelkasten helped me learn it.

Domestic disinformation & delegitimisation

Since the last edition, of course, the election has been and gone. The resources I’ve Hubbed since then reinforced the trends identified and explored in previous editions.

Edition 1 first revisited predictions for the 2020 elections made as far back as 2016. It’s easy to forget, today, how back then we were all focused on foreign disinformation (and cutting-edge tech).

America has mainstreamed disinformation against itself

That was not a major theme this time around, at least for me. Instead, a theme running through all editions was how America has mainstreamed disinformation against itself since 2016. Two aspects of American responsibility were explored further in edition 2:

  • how America’s domestic flashpoints make it vulnerable to foreign disinformation
  • the much greater impact of #domestic sources of disinformation.

TL:DR; in the final analysis, ‘foreign meddling’ can only exploit and exacerbate a society’s existing flashpoints.

‘foreign meddling’ can only exploit and exacerbate a society’s existing flashpoints

However, another key theme from the first two editions was that while the actual impact of foreign meddling might be low, the fear of foreign meddling, often magnified by the media, can be much worse. Just as an immune system’s over-response can do more damage than the virus it’s fighting, the knowledge that disinformation exists can convince people that truth is unknowable, driving them into identity politics.

the knowledge that disinformation exists can convince people that truth is unknowable

While for edition 2 I needed to introduce the #domestic tag, for edition 3 I had to introduce another to describe the primary focus of Trump’s domestic disinformation campaign: to #delegitimise the election results.

It seems to have worked:

The fear of foreign meddling story did return in edition 4, a fortnight before the election, when the polls had Biden well ahead. Just Security had suggested that anyone wanting to mess with America, realising Trump would lose, would focus on the post-election period, which offers a “better chance to push more Americans to extremes than ever before”.

post-election period offers a “better chance to push more Americans to extremes than ever before”

If someone did make such a calculation, they may be regretting it today - the polls were wrong (again): 70 million Americans voted for Trump despite his appallingly callous failure to tackle the pandemic. While there is yet no strong evidence of a post-election foreign disinformation push, the delegitimisation campaign drama is still evolving, so it may be too early to call.

How did mainstream media cope?

When it comes to tackling foreign interference, an interesting DFRLab analysis recently showed the #media still play a major role:

Traditional media plays an agenda-setting role on foreign interference allegations, with claims that were endorsed by institutional outlets receiving higher impact scores — Evaluating contradictory foreign interference allegations in the 2020 U.S. election.

The media’s main challenge was tackling #domestic disinformation. Following four years of painful debate, they (even Fox!) seem now prepared to call a lie a lie, albeit sometimes too often (some notes on this thread). However, as editions 2 & 4 summarise, that’s not nearly enough:

Social media and Censorship

The approach taken by #social media platforms evolved quickly in the few weeks covered by my enewsletter.

This has continued since. Hubbed recently:

Not that I’m applauding the platforms’ attempts to define the truth: I’ve been bothered by the idea of trusting algorithms and/or profit-driven tech giants to distinguish fake news from real since 2016, and edition 4 includes plenty of downside examples.

Next stop: Fediverse?

The most interesting consequence of the whole #censorship story, however, has been the conservatives’ flight to alternatives, where posts about MAGA, #QAnon and anti-semitic theories rein free, unhampered by factchecking:

This is the first resource mentioned in this newsletter tagged #Fediverse: a collection of interoperable social networks built on Open Web standards. As explained in the companion post, this led me to a new editorial focus for the next few months:

Hopefully it will be a more optimistic topic. I’ve curated (so far) almost 250 resources about disinformation, and published overview/summaries before (see I read almost 50 articles on Fake News so you don’t have to, December 2016). This year, however, was the first time I found it such a depressing grind. Although, as the above survey shows, both mainstream and social media have evolved to meet the threat, the sheer awfulness of American politics right now is heartbreaking.

Hopefully it will be a more optimistic topic… the sheer awfulness of American politics right now is heartbreaking

As I wrote a few years ago, there’s only one thing that could be worse:

My overwhelming memory from France’s regional elections were the manicured middle class voters on my nightly news, explaining that they no longer felt ashamed of telling friends and family that they support the National Front. They achieved a New Normal.

And that, to be frank, scares the hell out of me. American Nazis are, like Trump, a bit of a joke. European fascists are far more intellectual, far more professional, and No Laughing Matter At All. Plus: I live here.
Prepping for the AfterTrump, March 2016

There’s been a lot written about how the next Trump might be a smarter, greater danger to US democracy. But budding American populists are not the only ones taking notes.

That’s it for this edition. As always, all resources are tagged #us2020 and #disinformation on my Hub, where you can also get the RSS of individual resources, browse and subscribe to my newsletter, and explore everything else I Like, Think and Do. This newsletter is underpinned by a Zettelkasten Overview as part of my enhanced Personal Content Strategy. I am @mathewlowry on Twitter.