Disinformation and its fallout have defined 2020, the year of the infodemic. Month after month, self-serving social media companies have let corrosive manipulators out for dollars, votes, and clicks vie for attention, no matter the damage.
After an initial showing of unity as the coronavirus pandemic hit North American shores, people in the US became divided over basic scientific facts about COVID-19. Then, after a horrified country watched George Floyd take his last breaths as a police officer pushed a knee into his neck, some members of the right-wing media recast peaceful demonstrators exercising their civil rights as violent thugs. And, as the year closed out, the president and his enablers smeared the simplest, most fundamental democratic act of counting a ballot as fraud.
To understand how the disinformation flywheel can catapult fringe ideas from obscure corners of the internet into mainstream political discourse, Philadelphia offers a lesson in civic breakdown.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing right before my eyes,” said a man in a viral video who identified himself as Brian McCafferty, a Democratic poll watcher. “This has nothing to do with Joe Biden or Donald Trump. This has to do with our democracy, and I will tell you: There’s corruption at the highest level in the city of Philadelphia.”
On Nov. 5, two days after Election Day, McCafferty stood inside the Philadelphia ballot-counting center as workers behind him quietly filed paper after paper and guards circulated among them. McCafferty wore a green-and-red hat with headphones placed on top, a mask tucked under his chin, and he spoke in a conspiratorial tone that implied grave wrongdoing was happening here, just out of reach.
“This is a coup against the president of the United States of America,” McCafferty said, falsely claiming that election officials had prevented him from coming close enough to watch the ballots being counted.
There was no coup, of course. And McCafferty’s claims that he was prevented from observing the count are bogus.
McCafferty’s tweet with the video received thousands of shares, including from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who wrote, “Dem mayors are defying the law.” (It's not clear how Cruz found McCafferty.) The tweet was later deleted — but the video spread to Facebook and YouTube, where thousands more people viewed it. By the end of the day, McCafferty was telling his story to Fox News host Tucker Carlson and his audience of 5.3 million people.
On Carlson’s show, McCafferty no longer said he was Democrat nor that he had evidence of voter fraud. Instead, the two talked in broad strokes about corruption in Philadelphia, implying there was something nefarious about how the ballots were being counted. What exactly, they did not say.
“Tucker, I took a video of what I saw,” he said, “and that’s why I got thrown out.”
That part was true. According to two local officials and another observer, the people overseeing the counting asked McCafferty to leave because he was breaking one of the only rules for observers: no filming.
“He was removed from the room by security after refusing to stop taking pix in the observer area,” Kevin Feeley, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia City Commissioners, texted BuzzFeed News. “He was told several times that he had to stop, there are signs in multiple places saying no pix allowed, and he disregarded all of it.”
Lauren Vidas, an election law attorney who was there as a Democratic observer, said the ballot counters continued their work through the commotion. “They didn’t flinch. I don’t even know if they noticed it,” she told BuzzFeed News. “This was him purposely creating a scene.”
“Silicon Valley [has] come home to roost.”
Later that day, Trump held a press conference, during which he gestured toward the incident and complained about observers having to keep their distance. “They don’t want anybody there. They don’t want anybody watching as they count the ballots,” he said about Pennsylvania.
Two hours after Trump spoke, the Philadelphia Police Department arrested two men who allegedly drove a Hummer with QAnon stickers on it from Virginia to “straighten things out” at the ballot-counting facility. According to court filings, when they were intercepted, they possessed two handguns, a semiautomatic rifle, and a samurai sword.
“One of them is on Facebook Live just prior to his arrest, basically with a call to arms,” Andrew Wellbrock, the assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, told BuzzFeed News. “They described their work as being a ‘fire mission,’ which is a military term, like where you direct your artillery and firepower.”
This is the power of disinformation seeded online by opportunists.
Maria Ressa, a member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a watchdog group for the social network, and the CEO of Rappler, a news outlet, said that watching disinformation surrounding the US election was like seeing “Silicon Valley come home to roost.” In her view, “The US is the last country to have felt this.”
In April of this year, vaccine science denier Judy Mikovits had a book to sell. She had been well known in the anti-vaccination community for years; this was her second book, and she’s made regular appearances at conferences dedicated to the topic.
In 2012, her career as a scientist ended after the medical journal Science retracted a paper she coauthored on chronic fatigue syndrome because the results could not be replicated. Far from being chastised, Mikovits dug in. In 2014, she falsely claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had personally barred her from the agency’s premises. “I have no idea what she is talking about,” Fauci told Snopes in 2018.
Despite being known in anti-vax groups, Mikovits had no luck with mainstream audiences until May. That’s when she starred in a video called “Plandemic,” a slick 30-minute production that blazed across social media with breathtaking speed. Framed as if she were the subject of a prestigious television sit-down interview, Mikovits calmly and convincingly weaved new and old disinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines.
“Now, as the fate of nations hangs in the balance, Dr. Mikovits is naming names of those behind the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger,” said narrator Mikki Willis.
For conspiracy theorists, “Plandemic” became an emblem; for people on the front lines, “Plandemic” was a sucker punch.
Eric Sartori, who works as a nurse in a hospital in Arizona, named “Plandemic” as one of the most damaging pieces of disinformation he’s seen. Sartori is an ICU nurse who’s regularly stationed in his hospital's “COVID island,” which has room for 180 patients and has recently had to expand. Misinformation, he said, has put himself and his colleagues “in jeopardy.” Sartori runs a Facebook page where he attempts to fight disinformation; as a result, he and other outspoken colleagues have faced doxing and calls for their firing.
“We’re being ridiculed if we’re posting anywhere,” he said.
Sartori has been fighting vaccine disinformation since before the global pandemic was declared, but the miasma of falsehoods and anxiety swirling around COVID-19 meant that as people lost trust in medical institutions, they took it out on frontline workers.
In the spring, people who believed the virus was a hoax targeted him with death threats and anti-gay slurs, even as he cared for sick patients. Usually, the discussion on his posts will start out civil and interesting; then, two or three days later, people will drop in comments against vaccinations.
"'Sit down and shut the fuck up' isn’t science," wrote one person on Twitter. “Tik Tok dances from your fellow nurses aren’t science. You’re not helping your cause.”
Sartori lives on an urban farm with his children, whom he was cooking breakfast for as he spoke with BuzzFeed News. “I like chickens more than people these days,” he joked.
“There’s this subsection of the population that thinks we’re trying to kill everyone.”
“We are feeling like our community — at least a good section of them — have turned on us,” he said. “It’s just amazing that nurses have gone from the number one trusted profession in the United States to now realizing that there’s this subsection of the population that thinks we’re trying to kill everyone.”
Renée DiResta, the technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, thinks “Plandemic” was the defining disinformation event of the year. Through DiResta’s research into the video’s spread, she showed how vaccine science denial and groups on Facebook that were calling for society to reopen helped Mikovits flourish — and profit. After “Plandemic” came out, her latest book became a bestseller on Amazon.
Key to the spread were reopen groups, which mushroomed on Facebook in April. Those groups had a mix of people genuinely concerned about the economic impacts of the lockdowns, people confused about the measures, and those who were willing to bring their guns to anti-quarantine protests. Some of those early protests were organized by a group linked to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Others were grassroots copycats.
“When the reopen groups were founded, a lot of them were started by people who were part of the libertarian slant of the anti-vaccine movement, who found like-minded people who agreed with them about the reopening piece,” DiResta said.
The data DiResta and her team compiled showed how Facebook groups were essential to the success of “Plandemic.” The vast majority of posts promoting it were in groups supporting Trump or other right-wing causes, 125 of them reopen groups. From there, the disinformation trickled into nonpolitical groups, like ones used to trade knickknacks or gossip about the neighbors. But wherever it flowed, the disinformation undermined public health messages, basic scientific facts, and even Fauci, who has served the US for more than 50 years.
“They would seed the content into the anti-vaccine groups and then share the content into the MAGA groups,” DiResta said. “Then people in the MAGA group, who were not Q people, would share it into other communities, oftentimes in more mainstream regional groups. That was how there was this kind of chain by which something would make it from an anti-vaccine echo chamber into your local Bridgeport community Facebook group.”
Once the pandemic came to the US, conflicting messages bombarded an already confused public. Some of the people behind it had political motivations, like former White House strategist Steve Bannon and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who peddled the false claim that the Chinese government was about to confess the virus had originated in a lab. Others sought to make a profit on bogus miracle cures, like health supplements or colloidal silver. Some just wanted online clout.
In March, as regions began to lock down, over 25 different pieces of false information were circulating online. One claimed hospitals were faking the numbers of ill patients; another showed outdated photos of tanks in the streets. Messages about breathing hot air or drinking hot water to kill the virus flooded WhatsApp. The next month, conspiracy theories and medical misinformation continued to grow, including that Microsoft founder Bill Gates had a hand in creating the virus and that herd immunity was a better solution to COVID-19 than lockdowns, social distancing, and a viable vaccine. In May, as the US president touted hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure (it wasn’t), causing people who need it to live to ration their medication, “Plandemic” landed.
“[Plandemic] became kind of a case study in what not to do.”
Although social media companies made attempts to combat the false information — removing some posts, putting up warning labels, and slowing the speed at which they could be shared — DiResta said that enforcement gaps allowed “Plandemic” to amass some 8 million views in just a few days. Believing the large platforms had censored a whistleblower, the video’s audience brought it to smaller, alternative sites that chose to leave it up.
“There was first the problem of the misinformation in the video,” DiResta said. “But then, by allowing it to grow and spread so far before taking it down, they gave it kind of a second lease on life as this forbidden knowledge censorship story, which in many ways really became kind of a case study in what not to do.”
In a premonition of what was to come, armed men began to protest at local legislatures over coronavirus restrictions, beginning in April but stretching into May, after the debut of “Plandemic.” The protesters organized in reopen groups and events on Facebook. In Michigan, authorities stopped a plot to assassinate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October. (The extremists coordinated using Facebook, according to case documents.)
In November, Sartori, the nurse in Arizona, said he had become hardened to the effects of disinformation, even if the public opprobrium had not subsided.
“We’ve had people come in, probably a handful, who were refusing all of our treatments,” he said. “They’re angry with us. We've had people swear at us, spit on us. These are very rare, but it’s happened enough times that it’s troubling.”
Just as disinformation about the pandemic undermined medical workers and scientists, disinformation about the protests undermined civil rights. And it was delivered through the same pipelines.
Facebook groups that were usually made for idle chatter started to spread rumors of violent and shadowy activists infiltrating America, causing small-town residents to take up arms against antifa, or anti-fascist activists. Ressa, the CEO of Rappler, said, “Social media is like fertilizer; it lays the ground and allows the worst to flourish.”
By July, in the wake of massive protests spurred by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, some reopen groups had morphed to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, according to the Associated Press. One called “Reopen California” became “California Patriots Pro Law & Order.” In others, people claimed systemic anti-Black racism is a hoax while spewing hateful posts directed at protesters.
In the streets, Black protesters asked white people not to deface property. On social media, people opposed to the protests circulated videos of burning buildings and broken storefronts to give the false impression that activists had been violent.
“I think disinformation is playing a role in polarizing the country,” Arisha Hatch, vice president of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, told BuzzFeed News. “We’re obviously seeing a lot of organizing attempts by white supremacist groups in connection with many of the protests.”
“It felt like the narrative became about the broader Movement for Black Lives protesters — mostly peaceful protesters — being the ones being violent or looting,” Hatch said. “When, in fact, what I actually saw were right-wing militias being overtly violent and police officers being incredibly violent with respect to the protesters.”
It took less than two weeks for far-right influencers to conflate protesters with antifa, which has been the subject of Republican scare tactics for years. (In 2017, for example, Fox News warned its viewers about an “antifa apocalypse.”)
“Many people walked away with the perception that most of the protests were violent or destructive, when in fact the majority of the protests that were happening around the country — tens of millions of people — were actually peaceful protests about an injustice they witnessed on Twitter,” Hatch said.
Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, told BuzzFeed News this type of smear has a long history.
“When it comes to the Black Lives Matter protest disinformation campaigns, there are many and they are varied and they are hyperlocal,” she said. “There's a long history of narratives about outside agitators and secret funders of movements that predate social media, but nevertheless social media allows them to scale.”
Disinformation didn't just come through social media; it has been authoritatively promoted by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, which sought to tie perceived social unrest over the summer to his opponent, Joe Biden. “There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America,” Trump said on Aug. 27. During the Republican National Convention that month, he and others in the party demonized protesters, including in an ad that used footage of a fire in Spain to illustrate “Biden’s America.”
“At the core of the disinformation is the desire to undermine institutions.”
“I think this was embodied most in the way in which the Republican Party — especially Trump — represented Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as kind of spokespeople for Black Lives Matter, which is entirely untrue,” Donovan said.
That narrative emboldened not just Republican voters but also white nationalist groups who rejected the democratic system. They didn’t just undermine protesters and COVID-19 science; they tried to take law enforcement into their own hands. Throughout the summer, rumors and hoaxes of antifa invasions created rifts in communities — and worse.
Kyle Rittenhouse, who allegedly killed two people and injured one in Kenosha in August, obsessively shared Blue Lives Matter posts to Facebook. That same month, a group of residents in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, opened fire at civil rights activists marching from Milwaukee to DC, the Pittsburgh City Paper reported.
This violence translated to Election Day disinformation. One hoax falsely claimed that Black Lives Matter protesters were blocking entry to a voting station. In reality, the video showed the opposite: police in North Carolina pepper-spraying and arresting peaceful Black protesters who were marching to the polls.
“At the core of the disinformation we’re seeing across a number of different issues is the desire to undermine institutions,” Hatch said.
With dwindling trust in their scientific and civic processes, Americans tumbled into the presidential election.
“Anybody who studies this knew it was coming, right?” Donovan said. “You didn't need a crystal ball to know that Trump was going to contest the election, no matter what the results were, if he didn't win.”
That’s exactly what happened, and he used online disinformation to do it.
Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company, found that of all the swing states, Pennsylvania faced the most online disinformation both before and during the election. When told of that fact, Andrew Wellbrock, the assistant district attorney who runs the Philadelphia Election Task Force, chuckled. He was not surprised. “Good to know they all came for us,” he joked.
Wellbrock said disinformation about the election has mangled the democratic process. “It’s certainly frustrating, but I also think it’s damaging to our process and faith in the process,” he said. “Democracies only exist because people allow them to exist. We’ve put together a set of rules that Americans are supposed to follow, so when it’s actually a concerted campaign to undermine our faith in that system, it starts to scare me.”
“Democracies only exist because people allow them to exist.”
Following the election, Trump's legal team relied on such disinformation to justify lawsuits it filed to overturn the results, which the courts resoundingly rejected.
But newsfeeds aren’t a courtroom.
On Nov. 7, Trump tweeted, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” Despite the warning label Twitter stuck on it, that message garnered 1.1 million likes.
Trump has also made false claims about Dominion Voting Systems, a Canadian company that provides technology for elections. “DOMINION DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES WORLDWIDE,” he posted, citing One America News Network, a far-right cable channel.
The Dominion conspiracy has led to threats of death and violence. In an angry, impassioned speech on Dec. 1, Gabriel Sterling, a voting system official in Georgia, described how one staff member has had to deal with an image of his name on a noose.
“It has to stop,” Sterling said. “Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language.”
On the same day Sterling gave his speech, Trump again undermined medical institutions; he retweeted a post that falsely claimed Nevada was faking the number of patients who were ill and dying of the coronavirus. “Fake election results in Nevada, also!” he posted.
The president's campaign to spread distrust has touched all parts of the US government.
On Nov. 17, Trump fired Chris Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, whose job it had been to safeguard the election, including from online rumors. Donovan painted Krebs as standing apart from politics and decried the effort to bring him into it.
“Those who work in government, especially election security and integrity, now have a clear reason to worry about retaliation, simply for doing their job,” Donovan said.
Writing in the Washington Post on Dec. 1, Krebs explained how his agency had worked with states to secure the election system, and the consequences he’s faced for opposing the president.
“On Monday, a lawyer for the president’s campaign plainly stated that I should be executed,” he wrote. “I am not going to be intimidated by these threats from telling the truth to the American people.”
In Philadelphia, assistant district attorney Wellbrock is now prosecuting the men he called “internet extremists” who allegedly brought weapons to the city’s ballot-counting center. Both men cited disinformation as their motivation, he said.
“One was in a veterans’ group for one of the candidates, and the other was QAnon,” he said. “They both became susceptible to the same message that illegal activity is occurring in Philadelphia. They were self-deputized to do something about it.”
Wellbrock thinks social media companies bear some of the blame. “We’re here because of Facebook,” he said. “Or Twitter.”
Disinformation is not going away. It will dissuade people from taking the vaccine. Protesters will be lied about as police brutalize them. And the propaganda machine Trump fueled won’t grind to a halt just because there’s a new president.
Eric Sartori, the nurse in Arizona, is now thinking about how he will try to combat skepticism around the upcoming vaccines, separating real anxieties from the disinformation that’s already circulating.
“I think it’s the subtle things that chip away at reality that are the most troubling,” he said. ●