White House Press Briefing
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At Wednesday’s debate, Mike Pence was asked what he would do if Joe Biden won the election, and Donald Trump refused a peaceful transfer of power. The vice president packaged several lies into one grand evasion of the question. Pence even repeated the right-wing trope that mail-in voting creates “a massive opportunity for voter fraud.” In doing so, he anticipated the lie Trump will likely use to create chaos on November 3.

While fact-checkers have debunked that lie about mail-in voting over and over again, polling shows that nearly half of Republicans believe it is a “major problem.” If Trump can convince a large share of his supporters that mail-in ballots amount to a stolen election, massive civil unrest could follow.

According to a report published earlier this month by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, those poll results stem from Trump himself, his campaign, and the Republican National Committee engaging in a strategic disinformation campaign about mail-in voting. That’s not entirely surprising, but what is alarming is the degree to which the poisonous accusations have been “elite-driven and mass-media led.” 

Our findings here suggest that Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign by using three core standard practices of professional journalism. These three are: elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and ​balance​, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side.

The report assessed how the issue of mail-in ballot “fraud” was being dealt with by mainstream media outlets, right-wing news sites, and social media from late March through August 2020. In just one example, Trump told reporters on April 3 that “a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting.” That tapped into the first and second core standard practices of professional journalism identified in the report: the president publicly said something explosive. 

The Associated Press reflexively demonstrated observed neutrality with its next-day headline that read: “Trump, Dems clash on boosting mail-in voting during the pandemic.” Instead of saying the president was lying, the dispatch framed the issue as a “clash” between Republicans and Democrats over how to vote during a pandemic. It was a classic case of bothsiderism, and being the AP, it was carried pretty much everywhere.

The Berkman Klein Center found that every piece of disinformation about mail-in ballot fraud during that time period originated with the president, his campaign, or the Republican National Committee—with one exception. On April 24, RealClearPolitics published an article by Mark Hemingway, “29 Million Mail-In Ballots Went Missing in Last Four Elections,” which I wrote about at the time. Hemingway based his piece on data from the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), a conservative advocacy organization that has led or joined efforts to purge voter rolls and spread false claims of voter fraud. Hemmingway’s story was picked up by conservative outlets like the New York Post and Gateway Pundit. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote a similar piece that was syndicated at several right-wing sites. On April 30, Hemingway’s article was tweeted by his wife, Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist. Her tweet was then retweeted by Trump the next day.

While news sites like RealClearPolitics and The Federalist were previously considered to be reputable center-right publications, they now engage in the kind of conspiracy-mongering that has infected so much of conservative media during the Trump presidency. 

Here is how the Berkman Klein Center report concludes:

When President Trump concluded his performance in the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020, he reiterated the false claim that mail-in ballots were subject to mass election fraud, and cited this concern to justify his refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election should he be defeated. This assertion capped a six months long disinformation campaign waged by the president and his party against expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic of 2020. ​There is no disinformation campaign more likely to affect voter participation in the 2020 U.S. election and perceptions of the election’s legitimacy than the repeated false assertion that mail-in voting is fraught with the risk of voter fraud.

Will this strategy work? It only can if the media continue to inject these ideas into the body politic. (Kudos to those like Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post and our own Eric Cortellessa at The Washington Monthly who are getting the truth out.) It’s little wonder, then, that the report ends with advice for the mass media not to be conned by Trump.

In the coming months, it will be critical for editors of these national and local media…not to fall for the strategy that the president has used so skillfully in the past six months, not to capitulate to the inevitable charges of partisanship that will befall any journalists and editors who call the disinformation campaign by its name, and not to add confusion and uncertainty to their readers, viewers, and listeners by emphasizing false equivalents…

This is a lesson that some, but hardly all, members of the media have learned. In the case of Trump’s disinformation campaign about mail-in ballots, the stakes are too high for journalists to get this one wrong.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.