As the 2020 election approaches, concerns over misinformation about candidates and propositions at all levels of government are running high amongst voters and media professionals.
Despite reforms made after the 2016 election, social media has continued to be a hotbed of fake news and edited photos, spreading misinformation that can influence voters’ decisions.
According to a PBS NewsHour survey, 59% of Americans say they struggle with identifying false information on social media, while 37% disagreed saying it is easy to spot.
It is an issue that Anthony Fellow, a communications professor at Cal State Fullerton, takes very seriously. He said that people need to be careful and check their sources when they are browsing social media to ensure the information is coming from an unbiased source.
“It’s instantaneous today. You know it’s social media and Facebook and all this other stuff, it's instantaneous, people don’t check,” Fellow said.
His concerns are shared by Carolina Mendez, a CSUF vice president for College Democrats, who argues that misleading information can be dangerous as false narratives spread online very quickly and can drive a larger divide among voters.
“Within moments false narratives can be perpetuated at an alarming rate and I think that this misinformation and sort of false way of thinking about the other side, so to speak definitely contributes to more of a partisan divide,” Mendez said. “We start to view each other not as fellow neighbors, but as members of a sort of opposition where we cannot collaborate and have a free exchange of ideas.”
The club is taking steps to educate student voters about election information through the utilization of social media and virtual meetings, Mendez said.
“It’s extremely important that voters are educated on not only what’s on the ballot, but what those consequences of the ballots are,” Mendez said.
Mendez said that voters can refer to websites such as Ballotpedia to help them with their voting decisions, by researching accurate information about ballot measures and a candidate’s political history.
Kenneth Gonzalez, the CSUF Republicans club president also voiced his thoughts about online misinformation surrounding the election, largely agreeing with Mendez.
“People don't actually look into the story or the information for themselves. They’ll just read if it's a news article, they'll read the headline, it's the same thing with these posts of misinformation. They'll just look at this meme or this infographic that has all sorts of misleading information and they won't investigate it for themselves, they'll just take it at face value,” Gonzalez said.
The Republicans club has also been utilizing online tools to reach out to members and voters during the pandemic, including weekly meetings.
Laura Barrón-López, a national political reporter for Politico and CSUF alum, encouraged the public to watch out for misinformation in the media during this election cycle at a virtual symposium hosted by the university last month.
“It's something that I think reporters and the public should be paying attention to and they should be very wary of what they're seeing on Facebook, on Instagram and skeptical and do the due diligence and not believe these memes or these videos without experts or primary sources,” Barrón-López said.
Companies including Google, Twitter and Facebook are in the process of making plans to constrict the flow of misinformation on social media. They are taking measures including labeling and removing election-related tweets that are inaccurate and screening more autocomplete search results to avoid misleading voters.
But many critics have asked why tech companies didn’t start flagging misinformation sooner, and what their rationale is for which posts are taken down.
Fellow said political misinformation needs to be eliminated by honest reporting from media professionals.
“It’s amazing what we can do today, but we just have to have journalists who perhaps have more depth in politics and the history of this country and who have great values,” Fellow said. “We have to have respect for the public to report the news objectively and fairly, balanced.”