By Brent Korson
When we read about “spreading misinformation”, the connotation typically defaults to bad actors. But most of us who’ve ever had a social media account has likely, unknowingly, shared misinformation. While disinformation is the ill-intent kind, (false information deliberately and often covertly in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth), misinformation, on the other hand, (incorrect or misleading information), is something nearly all of us have inadvertently partaken in.
This year, between COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests and all things election / vote-related, many of our friends, family, colleagues and public figures have shared unsourced or unverified photos, anecdotes and posts. Even amongst the most highly social-media literate, no one is immune to the nuanced ways we might be spreading false information. The biggest giveaway? When there’s no link to an article for context or attribution to the original source. Twitter even recently added a feature designed to give its users pause before posting in light of Election-related tweets: “Headlines don’t tell the full story. You can read the article on Twitter before Retweeting. Learn more.”
In this 1-week run-up to Election Day, now is the time to brush up on our social media hygiene habits because the amount of disinformation mixed in with misinformation is well on its way to hitting a fever pitch unlike any we’ve ever seen. What’s different is how this President and too many elected GOP officials to count, from Congressmen to Senators, have been witting assets in sowing doubt about the Election results well before the count has begun. The last thing we need is to inadvertently aid and abet the confusion. With this near four-year long test run, here are two flip-side stories about a single example: the right way and wrong way to share / post pictures of blue mailboxes that, at first glance, look like a casualty of the Trump-DeJoy war on voting by mail (VBM).
One Mailbox Tampering-Focused Social Media Post Gone Wrong
On August 14th, during the crescendo of shocking USPS-related investigative reports and headlines (remember delayed deliveries resulting in chicks arriving at farms DOA?), one photo that seemed to perfectly encapsulate just how awry things could go went viral. The picture, posted by Twitter user Thomas Kennedy (@tomaskenn), showed dozens of blue mailboxes stacked on top of one another in an outdoor fenced off location, leaving the impression of a dumping ground. If a single image could sum up the sickening Trump-Dejoy malevolence toward the beloved national treasure that is the United States Postal Service, this would be the one.
The caption read, “Photo taken in Wisconsin. This is happening right before our eyes. They are sabotaging USPS to sabotage vote by mail. This is massive voter suppression and part of their plan to steal the election.” Each of those sentences were and remain accurate.
“Photo taken in Wisconsin” Check.
“This is happening right before our eyes” Check.
“They are sabotaging USPS to sabotage vote by mail” Check.
“This is massive voter suppression and part of their plan to steal the election” Check.
However, upon a same-day fact-check, the unstated but implied context of the photo’s sinister tone was proven baseless. It turned out that the picture, originating on Reddit, was taken at the property of Hartford Finishing, a contractor that the USPS outsources to refurbish and re-paint mailboxes. Multiple outlets did the work and verified the veracity, or lack thereof.
Aside from the inherent problematic nature of spreading misinformation, there’s the other way it bites back; giving fodder to those defending the Trump-Dejoy wholesale corruption of VBM and the USPS. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasted no time to gloat-post on Facebook, “Actually, I believe the left is stiring [sic] up a fake postal controversy in hopes that worried people will vote by mail before first debate. They don’t want voters to see Joe Biden [sic] have to defend radical positions nor see how bad his responses are now,” alongside a screenshot of the PolitiFact “Truth-O-Meter” and its red “False” categorization.
The next day, on August 15th, Twitter user @UsHadrons created a tweet thread that fact-checked the photo and several more of mailboxes which, upon first glance, appear to have been removed for less than well-intentioned reasons, “We are seeing a lot of mail boxes on Twitter this weekend, and although it is true that the USPS is being attacked from within by Trump’s appointee and yes man, Louis DeJoy, it doesn’t give license to Twitter users to post unattributed photos and assign nefarious motives to them.”
Despite the copious fact-checks, Kennedy’s tweet remains posted and has accrued 73,000 retweets, 7,800 quote tweets and 127,000 likes. The re-tweets by several celebrities (some with millions of followers) – including one extremely bright progressive figure who would typically never make this kind of mistake – also remain up. Kennedy declined to speak on the record.
One Mailbox Tampering-Focused Social Media Post: The Right Way
Conversely, I recently had a direct experience of the best case scenario for a social media post about blue collection mailboxes appearing to be tampered with. On October 12th, musician Rebecca Gates, former singer-guitarist for beloved duo The Spinanes, posted a series of four pictures of two damaged Portland, Oregon mailboxes on Instagram. The caption read, “I guess the takeaway is to use official ballot drop off boxes or post offices if possible. First mailbox (images 1,2) is at SE 33rd and Gilsan, 2nd (images 3,4) is at SE 33rd and Gilsan. 2nd how recently it happened. #savetheusps #votetosavethevote.”
The first photo was taken a few feet away from mailbox #1 showing the bottom section of the mailbox fully broke open.
The second photo was a close-up of mailbox #1 where the metal appears to have been pried apart.
The third picture was of mailbox #2, also photographed a few away, where the bottom half of the mailbox had curved metal appearing to show a less successful attempt to pry it open. It remained intact and still locked, unlike mailbox #1.
The fourth picture was a close-up of mailbox #2’s bent metal.
I left a comment on the post thanking Gates for sharing and then asked if she had taken the photos herself before I would share with others. Sure enough she had and even reported the incident to her local Election office which she later noted was both responsive and grateful for the civic duty.
Speaking with Gates by phone a few days later, she explained how her music career informed her mindfulness towards sourcing, “A lot of the ways that I think about it are coming from early days of people posting their own content with music not attributed. That was the thing that hit musicians really early, so that’s always been on my radar. And then also being involved in net neutrality advocacy.”
Gates went on to articulate the straightforward need to credit “original source links when you’re sharing information that can be tracked and attribution for someone’s work…Also just gratitude for someone who’s done the work, like acknowledging that there’s been work that’s happened beforehand.” She also described having a, “common space civics attitude about it, so I think that’s something that I bring. How do you actually say, ‘this is what I’m seeing’…That’s just front of mind for me.”
Two of the thought leaders Gates credits on the course correction front include Creative Commons, the nonprofit organization dedicated to “overcoming legal obstacles to the sharing of knowledge and creativity to address the world’s pressing challenges” and NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen.
While Rosen is a self-described media critic, he typically provides solutions as opposed to solely critiques. Few other public figures are as consistent and adept at pointing to (and correcting) news headlines and sentences that equivocate, twist into both-sides-ing or take what he describes as “the view from nowhere”.
He’s been sounding the alarm, for some time now, on the need for the media to switch to
“emergency setting” (since upgraded to active threat mode in August) when covering Trump and his administration. In September, with the election looming, Rosen made the case for why “The big national news providers need threat modeling teams”. There are any number of Rosen tweets that deftly express how our fractured ecosystem has allowed one political party to peddle in lies with the other one steeped in reality. This was posted from a Vox interview just this week,
“[Executive Editor] Dean Baquet wants the [New York] Times to be a paper that serves the entire country, Republicans and Democrats. What’s actually achievable, however, is a newsroom that serves everyone in the country — Democrats and Republican — who shares with Times journalists a certain baseline reality and evidentiary standard.”
Baseline reality. The fight for baseline reality is what the last four years keeps coming back to: the degradation of truth and facts by one political party that has contorted itself into a cult dedicated solely to retain power and appeasing its leader. Baseline reality is what’s on the ballot this year and the vote will manifest in the difference between a Trump administration and a Biden administration. Over the next 8 days (and the months ahead), let’s do everything in our collective power to make sure that any information we share is aiding the right cause.