The 2020 United States presidential election with Democrat Joe Biden running against Republican Donald Trump was a turning point in American politics. This election was full of political games with the whole nation on the edge of their seats and one thing that stood out was the widespread disinformation. This blog post will look at the role of disinformation in the 2020 US election using democratic erosion scholarship materials and make the argument that disinformation poses a threat to democracy.
Disinformation is false information deliberately and often covertly spread to influence public opinion or obscure the truth. Disinformation is not a new concept and has grown rampant within the new digital age and the rise of social media. Disinformation can be spread in many ways whether it be through news stories or posts on social media. From the electoral process to candidates and other issues, the spread of disinformation in the 2020 US election skyrocketed and ran rampant. Disinformation during the election sought to achieve the undermining of confidence in the election, polarization, and suppressing voter turnout. Undermining confidence in the election involved false claims about election fraud and rigged results, disinformation doubled down existing political division, and it deterred some demographics from voting by broadcasting misleading information about the voting process.
Confidence in the 2020 US election was undermined through a spread of disinformation about election fraud and rigged results through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. According to a peer review article in the Misinformation Review at Harvard Kennedy School many social media users believed false claims that former President Donald Trump had been snubbed and was the true winner of the election. Former President Trump himself was also responsible for spreading false and misleading claims about election fraud. A particularly crucial factor in the spread of this disinformation was the actions of foreign actors who were involved in spreading false narratives during the election to create conflict and erode trust in the democratic process. This factor is discussed in a classified report by the National Intelligence Council addressing the involvement of foreign actors’ intentions to influence or interfere with the 2020 US federal elections. Russian president Putin and the Russian government pushed narratives on social media to influence US voters against President Biden’s candidacy.
Disinformation also set out to increase polarization during the 2020 US election doubling down existing political division. The rapid spread of disinformation during this time was facilitated by the rapid spread of false narratives through social media platforms. Platforms were exploited to feed misleading information, creating echo chambers where individuals from both parties were exposed to content that reinforced their existing beliefs. False claims about election fraud and biased reporting created further distrust in the electoral process. This disinformation reinforced partisan divides and also led to challenges for people with different political perspectives to engage in constructive dialogue. The result of this erosion of trust in traditional media fueled polarization. A Pew Research Center article explores this difference in reporting during the election and explains how different parties get their information from different sources. This evidence shows partisan polarization has grown with the use and distrust of media sources due to disinformation.
Disinformation targeted specific demographics with false narratives about the voting process. This caused confusion and mistrust during the election, for example, there were false claims about mail/in votes being fraudulent which disproportionately affected older voters who were more likely to use this method. There were also efforts to suppress minority votes through disinformation about polling locations and voting procedures. Disinformation aimed to create doubt and discourage certain demographics from participating in the electoral process. There was a plethora of social media posts aimed at discouraging voters from casting their ballots, according to an NPR article this disinformation is dangerous because they’re widespread and tapped into voters worries.
All these things disinformation set out to do during the 2020 U.S. election: undermine constituents’ confidence in elections, cause more polarization, and deter some demographics from voting are all things that are dangerous to democracy. Disinformation during the 2020 U.S. election was so powerful it caused the storming of the capitol on January 6, 2021, with Republican partisans truly believing fake stories spread throughout social media. The furtherance of polarization created by disinformation during this time can also prove to be dangerous to democracy as both sides become more radicalized and unwilling to compromise. Finally, the impact disinformation had on the electoral process should be frightening to any democracy that prides itself on the right to choose. For these reasons the U.S. 2020 election exemplified how disinformation is dangerous to democracy.
Bond, Shannon. “Black and Latino Voters Flooded with DisinformationIn Elections Final Days.” NPR. 30 October 2020.
Jurkowitz, Mark. Mitchell, Amy. Shearer, Elisa. Walker, Mason. “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided. Pew Research Center. 24 January 2020.
National Intelligence Council. Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections. 10 March 2021
Pennycook, Gordon and Rand, David. “Research note: Examining false beliefs about voter fraud in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election.” Harvard Kennedy School. 11 January 2021.