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Why we’re posting about misinformation more than ever

Neither the media nor fact-checkers controlled the online conversation surrounding “misinformation” this year.

A man wearing a face mask walks past a Twitter logo on the side of a building.
There were more searches for terms like “misinformation” and “disinformation” in 2020 than in years past.
John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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It was hard to avoid misinformation online in 2020. A pandemic and a polarized presidential election had the internet swirling with everything from false cures for Covid-19 to misleading claims of election fraud. But another reason you kept encountering misinformation is that people have been talking about it a lot more than they were last year.

It’s become common for people across the political spectrum — and even noted spreaders of misinformation — to invoke the term “misinformation” to try to discredit facts and narratives they don’t like. The term has become a shorthand for dismissing political opponents in the polarized war over truth that’s being fought online.

According to the misinformation-tracking firm Zignal Labs, the number of misinformation-related terms posted on Twitter has surged more than 200 percent this year compared to 2019, from just over 8 million mentions last year to more than 26 million in 2020 — and the year isn’t over yet. On Facebook, just under 43,000 posts from public Facebook pages based in the US mentioned misinformation in 2019, but more than 117,000 have mentioned the term this year, according to a Facebook-owned tool called CrowdTangle.

“Part of what we’re seeing is an increase in attention to the central problems that are related to misinformation, particularly false claims of voter and election fraud and misinformation about Covid-19 pandemic,” Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College, told Recode. “On the other hand, people are more likely to invoke misinformation as a way to dismiss uncomfortable facts or as a cause of various problems that they find challenging or unfortunate.”

All these discussions about misinformation are racking up interest and engagement on social media platforms. Google Trends shows that people are searching “misinformation” and “disinformation” at a much higher volume in 2020 than in years earlier. At the same time, data from NewsWhip shows that engagement on links that use “misinformation” has also grown substantially in the past year. Engagement — which is online interactions such as likes, comments, and shares — on links mentioning misinformation has jumped from 12 million in 2019 to more than 70 million in 2020. The number of links mentioning the term jumped from about 34,000 last year to more than 90,000 this year, which also boosted engagement.

But the online conversation surrounding misinformation often isn’t being driven by fact-checkers or media outlets reporting false claims.

Zignal Labs found that online discussion of misinformation came from a range of sources. Some mentions were from mainstream media like the New York Times reporting on Trump’s role in spreading misinformation; others came from conservative outlets and commentators, like Breitbart amplifying the America’s Frontline Doctors group that pushed hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid-19 over the summer, as well as a Fox News contributor accusing Twitter of serving as an “open sewer of misinformation” regarding accusations that Trump colluded with Russia.

Other posts were shared by politicians, like Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who mentioned the term to criticize Trump. President Donald Trump — who frequently shares misinformation himself — has also shared several viral posts accusing Democrats and the media of spreading disinformation. And sometimes the same posts that have complained about the problem of misinformation have pushed misinformation themselves. One tweet promoting hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid-19 that was retweeted more than 18,000 times accused the media of “misinformation.”

“People will use terms like misinformation to talk about things that they perceive to be biased or negative,” said Sam Rhodes, who studies political communications at Utah Valley University. “When they use these terms, like ‘fake’ or ‘misinformation,’ what I think they’re trying to say is that their opponents are not calm ... that they are perhaps saying something that is considered out of bounds, that is perhaps beyond the pale.”

Posts on Facebook also show how accounts on all sides have taken up the term “misinformation.” This year, the most-engaged post from a public page based in the US containing the term “misinformation” came from UNICEF, about a young woman raising awareness about Covid-19 safety measures in a displacement camp in Mali. But the second-most popular post using the term came from a popular conservative account known as the Hodgetwins, accusing President Barack Obama of spreading misinformation during the late Congressman John Lewis’s funeral, along with a video that was viewed close to 6 million times.

“The danger is the term becomes meaningless or overused in the way that ‘fake news’ has been, that essentially people just use ‘misinformation’ [and] ‘disinformation’ so inaccurately or indiscriminately that it starts to lack an objective reference,” said Nyhan, adding that it’s not clear that overall increased discussion of misinformation is necessarily a good thing. He points to research that’s found that warning people about misinformation generally can make them less likely to believe misinformation, but also less likely to believe credible sources.

The impact of misinformation can be difficult to fully understand because social media companies don’t usually release data about what is viewed most on their platforms. (While the number of posts mentioning “misinformation” went up this year, the total number of posts overall may have gone up as well.) So research tends to focus on engagement (likes, shares, and comments) and the frequency of posts themselves. Still, the numbers we do have indicate that fact-checkers and misinformation outlets are far from the only ones posting about misinformation and that intense online conversation focused on misinformation is unlikely to go away.

Rhodes, of Utah Valley University, said that Trump’s online megaphone is unlikely to disappear when he leaves office. Trump has now amassed nearly 90 million followers on his personal Twitter account, making him one of the most-followed accounts in the world. “The long-term structural problems that got us in this mess aren’t going away anytime soon,” Rhodes said, pointing to the public’s eroded trust in both the media and public health professionals. Asked whether “misinformation” could become the new “fake news,” he replied quickly: “We’re already there.”

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