Election year puts misinformation fight in high gear

President Donald Trump holds up a map showing the United States as No. 1 in preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic at a press briefing at the White House on February 26, 2020. Trump said the United States had 15 COVID-19 cases, and the number "within a couple of days is going to down to close to zero." Two days later, he called the coronavirus a "hoax." File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
1 of 4 | President Donald Trump holds up a map showing the United States as No. 1 in preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic at a press briefing at the White House on February 26, 2020. Trump said the United States had 15 COVID-19 cases, and the number "within a couple of days is going to down to close to zero." Two days later, he called the coronavirus a "hoax." File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 31 (UPI) -- As this presidential election year ramps up, so do misinformation and disinformation efforts aimed at influencing votes that can also divide America, undermine democratic institutions and even jeopardize people's health.

The assaults come from Russia, China and North Korea, but also from American extremists, special interests, faux experts and groups seeking to sow chaos and confusion among the public.


Then there's the everyday political messaging heard on the campaign trail, which can include misleading information or lack important context.

Peter Adams, senior vice president of research and design for the News Literacy Project, told UPI that he and other disinformation researchers are bracing for the harm that could be done in the coming months.

"Most disinformation researchers and experts agree that misinformation and disinformation pose a real threat in 2024 to the public's confidence in the integrity of our elections and the peaceful transfer of power, hallmarks of our democracy," Adams said.


Their message for voters: Be careful about where you get information. Be aware of propaganda coming from both political parties. And be open to information that challenges your beliefs.

Misinformation in politics

Disinformation is false information that is deliberately meant to influence or mislead. Misinformation is also false information but it is not necessarily delivered with the intent to mislead.

It is difficult to prove that someone is sharing false information intentionally.

U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed in the fall that Russia is attempting to step up its election interference and disinformation campaigns in the United States and 16 more countries. Russian ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov denied the allegations.

Dozens of organizations focus on fact checking and championing media literacy to combat the spread and harm of disinformation. The News Literacy Project,, Politifact, Centers for Media Literacy and Media Bias Fact Check are among some of the most prominent organizations in the field.

The mission of such organizations is not to play "gotcha," Eugene Kiely, director of, told UPI. Instead they seek to ensure the public receives not only correct information but important context. Kiely said his staff will follow what political candidates are saying from speech to speech and note if they shared false information as a one-off, or if they continue to share the same false information repeatedly.


"If they got it right previously then they slip up and get it wrong -- we're not going to do anything about that," he said. "If it's repeated, that's something we will write about. It's not a slip-up." publishes an annual roundup of "Whoppers," reviewing some of the biggest unproven or false claims shared by political figures. In 2023, "Whoppers" included independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy's claim that vaccines are not tested for safety in clinical trials. Also making the list was former President Donald Trump's statements that countries are sending inmates and people with mental illnesses to the United States illegally, a claim he has repeated without evidence since his 2016 campaign.

President Joe Biden has continually touted reducing the federal deficit, leaving out important context, Kiely said.

"The fact is one of the reasons the deficit went down is because COVID relief funds made available through various legislation started to expire," he said. "It's still at a very high level of over $1 trillion a year in deficit spending.

"Is he repeating that for disinformation purposes or because it's a good talking point and it's factually correct? The deficit has gone down," Kiely said.


Biden's claims about cutting deficit spending continued from 2022 into 2023, making it no longer factually true. The annual deficit increased from about $1.38 trillion in 2022 to $1.7 trillion in 2023, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

False information, real harm

The harm of false information goes beyond just believing it. Several prominent examples show how false information can have dangerous consequences, Kiely said.

In the weeks after the coronavirus spread to the United States in 2020, an Arizona couple ingested the drug chloroquine phosphate in an attempt to protect themselves from the virus. The husband died and the wife was hospitalized.

The wife said they took the drug because Trump touted it as a potential therapeutic for COVID-19 during a March 2020 press briefing and on social media.

The COVID-19 pandemic was central to many cases of disinformation and correlated with some loss of public confidence in institutions like the government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other healthcare and research organizations.

Some were willing to take drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin based on false claims by Trump, social media personalities and pseudo-scientists. Meanwhile, a hesitancy to take federally approved COVID-19 vaccines persists more than two years later.


Some measure of this hesitancy is tied to misinformation and conspiracy theories that claim the vaccines are part of some larger government scheme. Public figures have lent credence to distrusting the CDC, as well, with Twitter owner Elon Musk, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and NFL player Aaron Rodgers among the notable critics.

"It's very dangerous from a personal health standpoint when people make decisions about themselves and family on whether they get vaccinated based on misinformation," Kiely said.

In some cases, disinformation can lead to threats to public safety.

The 2016 "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory spread across social media, presented as a news story. In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch went to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington -- where the disinformation campaign purported an underground sex-trafficking ring was centered -- armed with an AR-15, handgun and knife.

Welch was arrested and nobody was harmed. He was sentenced in 2017 to four years in federal prison and released in 2021.

Kiely called the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol "the most visible display of misguided people taking action" based on misinformation about the 2020 presidential election.

"Whether you believe these things or not, to show up to a pizzeria with a gun or to break the windows of the Capitol building, that's not what a civilized democracy does," he said.


Combating misinformation

Combating the spread in misinformation is approached in many ways, including fact checking and supporting media literacy. However, there are inherent challenges, one being consumers' resistance to information that challenges their beliefs.

"It's really the same challenges we've always faced," Kiely said. "Certainly there's a more vocal group of people who seem to be immune to or unwilling to keep an open mind, which is all we ask."

In October Gallup reported that only 32% of Americans say they trust the mass media either "a great deal" or "a fair amount." This represents the lowest response in support of trusting the media since 2016, which was historically the worst reading recorded by the research organization.

"The trust issue is one we talk about a lot as a staff," Adams said. "We talk about how to help people think through that and acknowledge a slice of trust issues is earned probably across the industry. But there is a lot of the trust problem with institutions that is unearned. And that is the result of political, ideological rhetoric and bad actors trying to sow distrust and build support for themselves."

Kiely added that he knows his organization's services will not reach everyone, especially because it is something consumers must actively seek. There are several ways to do so, including following's social media channels, visiting its website and signing up for its newsletter.


The distrust that a large number of people have in various key institutions, including media organizations, also creates a hurdle. There are some who simply will not trust that what they are reading or hearing through certain channels is true, regardless of evidence and appropriate sourcing.

"All we're doing is presenting information," Kiely said. "If somebody doesn't like what we're saying, what they're really taking issue with are the facts."

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