Has fake news hijacked the 2020 presidential election?

“Inside this echo chamber you are only exposed to your own opinions and that is very unhealthy for democracy."

Supporters of US President Donald Trump, wearing t-shirts reading "Do You Care Fake News?" wave to passing drivers during a roadside sign waving rally in the Pinellas County city of Clearwater, Florida, US, May 15, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
Supporters of US President Donald Trump, wearing t-shirts reading "Do You Care Fake News?" wave to passing drivers during a roadside sign waving rally in the Pinellas County city of Clearwater, Florida, US, May 15, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
Fake news and disinformation are the winners of this election no matter who declares victory when all the results are in.
Falsehoods about both candidates have filled the social networks, trolls have provoked and inflamed discourse, and technology has allowed political parties to control the actions - and maybe even the minds - of their potential voters. The American public was therefore robbed of the ability to make an educated decision about who should be their next leader.
A good “media diet” is increasingly hard to obtain in the US, according to Israel Waismel-Manor, an expert on American politics in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa.
“It is as if you can get only Burger King or McDonald’s, but there are no broccoli or spouts in your diet,” he quipped, meaning that people no longer have access to a breadth of viewpoints in their media consumption. Local media has largely shuttered leaving readers to consume national media owned by major chains. At the same time, with the surge of partisan media outlets, such as Fox on the one hand or MSNBC on the other, viewers can select to consume only one side of the story.
Moreover, cable news and opinion programs have entangled news and editorial content, confusing viewers who might understand commentator Sean Hannity, for example, to be news when it is really an opinion program.
One could try to compensate through the breadth available on social media. However, social media algorithms quickly center readers on the stories and ads that will keep them clicking by serving them up only those items they “like.”
“Inside this echo chamber you are only exposed to your own opinions and that is very unhealthy for democracy,” Waismel-Manor said.
“The universe you see on Facebook is fake,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of the institute's Media Reform Program. She said that the “objective reality” is skewed by “what Facebook wants you to see.” A phenomenon that is exacerbated by a second level of fantasy created by fake accounts, avatars and bots, who themselves are “trying to manipulate the Facebook algorithm, too.”
The ease of creating fake news today through digital tools only compounds the challenge.
Take the video shared on Twitter last month in which Biden was made to appear like he forgot what state he was in while on the campaign trail.
In the video, Biden addresses a crowd, saying, “Hello, Minnesota!” - the event took place in St. Paul, Minnesota.
However, a video editor deceptively changed signs shown in the film that originally read “Text MN to 30330” to say “Text FL to 30330” so that it appeared as if Biden did not know where he was.
The video was viewed more than 1 million times before Twitter labeled it “manipulated media” and it was eventually deleted by the user.
“Technology made it so much easier for these things to be the norm,” Waismel-Manor said.
Social media giants like Twitter and Facebook are making new and valiant efforts to take action after staying silent during the 2016 presidential election.
During that election, online “proxies,” as they are known – such as avatars, bots and trolls – supported the flow of fake information on social media platforms, made even more possible by social media’s relatively low cost and the ability to operate on social networks with complete anonymity.
Avatars are fictional digital characters that appear on the net and pretend to be real. Bots are software applications designed to perform actions online by mimicking normal users. Trolls are users whose entire purpose is to provoke and inflame discourse.
Studies in 2017 revealed that some 50 million Twitter accounts are actually automatically run by bot software, according to Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at University of Haifa who spoke to The Jerusalem Post about the same subject in April when Israel was in the midst of an election.
A public revelation from Facebook exposed that a Russian “troll farm” with close ties to the Kremlin spent around $100,000 on ads ahead of the 2016 US election and produced thousands of organic posts that spread across Facebook and Instagram. These posts were aimed at influencing the election results.
“Russian agents exploited all possible social networks, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to influence the online discourse surrounding Donald Trump’s candidacy,” Weimann said. “The goal of the Russians... was to confuse, distract and influence voters.”
Posts were centered on ideas ranging from race to immigration and weapons in order to create disputes and divisions among American voters.
Ahead of this election, the largest social networks - Facebook and Twitter - announced that they would take action to help ensure a similar phenomenon did not result this time around.
In October, for example, Facebook banned all accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory movement from its platforms.
Earlier, it said that it would work to better identify and slow the spread of or even block false news through its community and third-party fact-checking organizations. Facebook has started punishing those who share fake news by disrupting their monetization capabilities.
The company also updated its hate speech policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, as part of its effort to stop fake news.
The networks’ initiatives peaked last month when Facebook and Twitter limited the distribution of a story by the New York Post about an email between Hunter Biden and an adviser to a Ukrainian energy company, which was unverified.
“This is something we could not have imagined in 2016,” Shwartz Altshuler said.
Others are saying it may just be too little, too late.
The problem may simply have moved underground. Users are still able to disseminate false information in closed Facebook groups uninhibited and on private messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
Furthermore, use of new technologies and applications are giving candidates the ability to speak directly to voters and potential voters - bypassing media and social networks.
Shwartz Altshuler recalled the brutal attack by Trump on institutionalized media in the 2016 election campaign and his use of social platforms to bypass the press.
“Four years later, Trump has chosen to focus on attacking social media, hoping it will create a similar effect on voters,” Shwartz Altshuler said.
The president has accused social networks of being anti-Trump and even anti-Republican.
To bypass social networks, Trump has been using a sophisticated election application that provides news and engagement and, at the same time, collects loads of private information about users.  The app was developed by Phunware, a targeted marketing company headquartered in southern America.
Shwartz Altshuler described the app in an article published by The Marker. She said that the app includes tabs of news and posts reminiscent of Facebook, YouTube-like videos, Instagram-style photos, and includes space for closed groups of like-minded individuals, such as women, Blacks or Hispanics.
The app also has a social media-like feed, full of attacks against Biden and others, without specifying who wrote the content or where it came from.
“This is a transparent attempt to keep voters within the ‘universe the alternative facts of the Trump campaign,’” Shwartz Altshuler wrote, “without having to dwell at all on checking the facts, community rules and removing the content of social networks.”
Furthermore, the app asks installers for their full name, cell phone number, email address and zip code. It also requests access to all the contacts of the device owner, which produces an exponential increase in the amount of information collected. It then uses that data to predict the behaviors and actions of its users and their friends, creating a significant under-the-radar influence on voters.
Trumps’ app is reminiscent of the “Elector” application used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the last election, but is even more scaled-up.
“In 2016, Silicon Valley replaced New York and Washington. In 2020, Alabama replaces Silicon Valley,” Shwartz Altshuler said that while many democracies are engaged in discussions about how to monitor political advertisements on social networks and over how transparent these ads need to be, the campaigns themselves are already in a completely different sphere.
In 2020, what used to be known as facts can be called into question by alternate facts, opening up a Pandora’s box and calling into question whether there are any facts at all.
The public sphere is a crucial part of democracy, which makes the information that flows into the public square of crucial importance, said Prof. Michael Dahan of the Department of Communications and Public Administration and Policy at Sapir College.
Infusing fake news into the public sphere is exactly like poisoning wells, he continued, because it affects public ability to reach conclusions on the basis of factual information.