During his 2004 challenge to incumbent George W. Bush for the presidency, then-Sen. John Kerry inadvertently sparked some of the most notorious political spin of the 21st century.
The clearest case might be Kerry’s comments about a military spending bill, when he said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” In a matter of seconds, the groundwork was laid for opposition researchers to paint him as a flip-flopper — a narrative that stuck.
It was a textbook example of successful political spin. While Kerry did utter those words, the context tells a different story: He supported a prior version of the legislation but ultimately opposed the final text.
That blurry line helps campaigns go after opponents and spread their message, said Katie Harbath, an expert on tech and elections and a former Republican strategist with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Republican National Committee.
“Campaigns and parties would have tons of researchers that would be scouring through a candidate’s background to try to find contradictions,” she said, “things that they could really harp on, that, put into broader context, aren’t as big of a deal, but if you isolate them can seem like a much bigger deal to voters.”
“It gets us to the point where more candidates are willing to tip over into that area of, ‘The 2020 election was fraudulent,’” Harbath said.
In the ensuing 20 years, that line has gotten blurrier — and the scale and speed at which the most pernicious narratives can travel has only grown. Trolls and bad actors use the internet to undermine faith in the integrity of the voting process and target election administrators for harassment. Offline, the enduring “Big Lie” — which posits, without evidence, that massive fraud stole the 2020 election from the campaign of Donald Trump — has motivated the passage of dozens of laws that restrict voting access.
And believing in myths of an unjust system makes it easier for people to accept violence, said Leticia Bode, a political communications expert at Georgetown University.
“The concern,” she added, “is that we are not that far away from people saying, ‘Our system is so bad and so corrupt and so untrustworthy that the only solution is to take things into our own hands.’”
Misinformation as an American tradition
“Misinformation in elections generally is a long-standing problem,” said Mekela Panditharatne, counsel in the democracy program at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, “particularly misinformation that is intended to trick people out of voting or intended to intimidate them.”
That’s something distinct from political spin, but the line between traditional campaign methods — like sharing only partial information about a given candidate or their opponent — and misinformation can be blurry, said Emily Vraga, a political communication expert at University of Minnesota.
“Misinformation is commonly defined as information that is not aligned with the best available evidence from the relevant experts at the time,” Vraga said. “But politics doesn’t always offer a clear expert consensus; evidence emerges and shifts, and data can be interpreted in different ways.”
Sometimes, however, the lines are black and white. There have been clear attempts at manipulation through false information in recent years: Voters in Virginia received flyers with the wrong election date; voters in Maryland received robocalls telling them their governor’s race had already been decided. In the last two years, two men, including the far-right conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl, have been indicted in Michigan and Ohio state courts, and sued by the New York attorney general, for targeting voters across the country with robocalls telling them their personal information would be leaked if they voted.
The covid-19 pandemic made the whole process messier. As rules and expectations shifted rapidly, voters were confused about rules. This presented an opportunity for the losing side of the 2020 election — the Trump campaign — to leverage the chaos and push an enduring myth of election fraud.
“Inadequate public knowledge about processes, about voting by mail, allowed space for purveyors of misinformation to spread baseless claims about that particular voting process,” said Panditharatne.
Broadly speaking, election misinformation typically falls into a few categories. It may pertain to the actual casting of ballots, like spreading incorrect information about the date of an election or ID requirements. It may aim to intimidate voters, like by suggesting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will patrol polling sites.
And it may seek to delegitimize the election as a whole — by suggesting that wide-scale fraud has taken place, that poll workers or political elites or mail carriers are in cahoots to carry it out, or that the infrastructure of voting, like ballot machines, has been corrupted.
That’s the Big Lie — or the “umbrella narrative” — that has managed to absorb and affect the other elements of misinformation, said Jiore Craig, who oversees election research at Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that researches disinformation and extremism.
“Disinformation about elections and voting has always been a stand-alone category even before 2020,” said Craig. “But having the offline champions that exist in Donald Trump and other candidates for office and election officials has really made this have staying power.”
Now is an especially fertile time for the American informational landscape to grow feral, because of the intensity of polarization in our politics. Researchers have found that people spread information as an expression of their partisan identity.
“The sharing of false news has less to do with ignorance than with partisan political affiliation and the news available to partisans for use in denigrating their opponents,” as researchers with the Brookings Institution have written.
That, coupled with targeted delegitimization of the voter process — and sincere belief on the part of some voters that they are disadvantaged by a corrupt election process — has “important trickledown affects,” said Bode, of Georgetown.
“Increasingly, people are willing to say that violence is OK when it comes to politics because they’re so bought into these identities and these narratives,” she added.
And all of this undermines trust in democracy, which requires everyone to sign on to the same set of rules and commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
“We’ve seen for a long time people trying to undermine voting processes by spreading misinformation, including misinformation about the manner of voting,” said Panditharatne, of the Brennan Center. “But this level of undermining the integrity of the vote itself is unprecedented in modern history.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.