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November 8, 2022updated 16 Nov 2022 6:02pm

Misinformation and the US midterms: Reuters on the frontline of US democracy

By Bron Maher

*Partner content. Reuters editors say some misinformation has become so entrenched it has changed the shape of their election coverage.

Far from ebbing away, the fact-checkers that combat misinformation have grown bigger than ever as demand for their services has swelled.

Heading into the 2022 midterms, Press Gazette sat down with the wire agency’s politics and digital verification editors, as well as its director of emerging products and special events.

They told us about zany claims breaching into the mainstream, what goes into running multi-state election coverage and what the business case is for investing in fact-checking.

How Reuters is covering the US midterm elections

In the US midterm elections all seats in the country’s lower chamber, the House of Representatives, are up for re-election, along with 35 seats in the Senate and a spread of governor’s houses and state-level roles across the country.

What does day-to-day work look like for the team under Reuters’ politics editor Scott Malone?

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He said: “It runs the gamut from covering debates between critical candidates, looking at polling – both our own and and others’ – tracking fundraising and ad spending, and really kind of looking at everything that seems to be influencing American voters’ opinions ahead of November 8.”

For digital verification editor Stephanie Burnett, it’s more about watching the web. She said: “We’re monitoring mis- and disinformation that’s happening in the lead into the midterms – and also beyond. What we consistently find is that, after the midterms or certain elections, there’s even more mis- and disinformation.

“So what we do is essentially monitor the narratives, identify posts that are spreading disinformation, potentially flag these posts to media partners, so that people become aware of [which stories are] misinformation.”

That tracking, Burnett said, involves “a combination of algorithms to help us find the best way of identifying posts that have become amplified.

“One of the things that we have to watch out for is that we’re not amplifying posts that have not reached everyday people’s feeds just yet – but it’s important that we monitor that and not let it go to a level of virality where that could be really impactful, especially if the content is harmful.

“And the other way is just old-fashioned lists and building up sources and digging that way. Nothing too crazy.”

Rob Schack, Reuters’ director of emerging products and special events, said that the sort of reporting Burnett and Malone were doing “gets supplemented for our news agency customers with the raw data that’s collected on election night…

“We’re able to syndicate that content to our customers along with their reporting, to help everyone have access to true, fair, unbiased results and news as everyone’s seeing it on TV that night in real time.”

Misinformation and disinformation in the US midterms

Asked to explain the difference between mis- and disinformation, Burnett said: “Misinformation is the umbrella term for dealing with false content, whereas disinformation suggests that there’s the intent to harm. It can potentially have real world consequences if it [involves] propaganda and getting certain people to get on board with a certain agenda, and you may be none the wiser.”

Much misinformation in the 2022 midterms centred, she said, on “a sense of ‘protecting’ traditional family values. This is particularly with regard to LGBTQ groups, or when it comes to abortion in particular, it’s a very hot topic in the United States.”

Earlier this year the US Supreme Court overturned its 1973 ruling which had made abortion legal federally. It is now up to individual states to decide whether abortion is legal, thereby raising the stakes in 2022’s midterms.

Outside of abortion, Burnett said Reuters was seeing regular false stories about drag queens.

“In Idaho, there was a video of a drag queen performing, and the video went online. But what it was edited to show was that a certain area was pixelated to suggest that they had exposed certain regions in front of children – when that wasn’t the case at all.

“The police said they found no evidence of this, the prosecution said they found no evidence of this. Yet this narrative persists consistently.”.

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Has the election result denialism that followed the 2020 presidential election been a theme for journalists covering the 2022 midterms? 

 “Oh, oh absolutely. Yeah. I mean, very, very clearly,” said Malone.

“The former president, Trump, he’s out all the time repeating these false claims, which have been resoundingly rejected by courts, by state reviews, by his own former Attorney General, Bill Barr.

“But nonetheless, all of our polling shows that this is something that’s really gained traction. And it’s an area that actually changed some of the focus of election coverage.”

The significance was such that Reuters had needed to start covering races that would previously have gotten scant attention, Malone said.

“In years past, we really would have given very little coverage to secretary of state races – they tended to be quite staid, people often stayed in those jobs for a really long time. They were very technocratic – just election management jobs.”

Secretaries of state generally have the job of administering elections in a given state, and so may have powers over, for example, voter eligibility requirements.

Malone said: “This year, we see candidates in Arizona and Michigan and Nevada who are proponents of Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud, who are now running for secretary of state rolls… here are people on the ballot in 2022, who, if they do succeed and are elected, will have real power to influence the presidential election in 2024.”

Schack commented that: “I get a chance to talk to our international news publishing customers, who increasingly are asking me about secretary of state races – which is very unusual in a midterm election, to have very large news publishers outside the US with a domestic interest that’s completely, different, to be following our secretary of state races.

“Because really all eyes are on 2024, and whether or not we’re going to have – really, frankly, whether Trump will run.”

The business case for investing in fact-checking

Fact-checking has become a growth industry in recent years.

Fact-checking charity Full Fact, whose editor Press Gazette interviewed last month, receives annual funding of £2.5m a year. 

The fact-checking team Burnett leads at Reuters was set up in February 2020.

Burnett said: “While it’s discouraging that there’s a lot of mis- and disinformation running rampant, what is encouraging is that there’s now a lot of demand for action.

“And so you have different sectors who are now interested, and there’s not just news organisations wanting to partner with other news organisations to make sure certain facts are right and narratives.

“There’s also tech companies that want help with identifying what is misinformation… They rarely want to be seen as the arbiter of truth, right? So they will pass that back off to another organisation. So there’s potential there.”

She also noted that it wasn’t just tech, journalism and politics that are concerned with misinformation.

“Sometimes that manifests in certain ways when it comes to reputational risks – so it’s not just misinformation, dealing with politics, it’s also misinformation that can impact anyone in any sector.” 

Tips from the front line of the truth war

Now we’re years into what was once dubbed the post-truth world, what tips did the Reuters team have for journalists?

Burnett said: “While it’s good to monitor misinformation, make sure you take care with that balance of identifying at what point are you amplifying niche voices to the wider audience, and what kind of risk does that pose – especially if it’s harmful content.”

She also said that when pursuing comment on false claims: “don’t allow for room for obfuscation, and hold people to account with certain misinformation that’s going wrong.”

Malone echoed Burnett’s point, saying: “the same standard applies when it’s not niche voices. We’ve started to see people who hold and have held prominent offices say things which we know not to be true, and which, in some cases, there’s evidence that they know not to be true.

“And one of the things that we need to do when that happens is – it’s a discussion of, do we need to report this at all? If we do, then we need to point out that it isn’t true, and what evidence that we have to show that it isn’t true. I mean, it all comes back to evidence and facts.”

Schack emphasised the value of data in combating misinformation.

“We cover many elections around the world – whenever we can bring in the actual government data, the actual official source data into the mix is really important as well. So we spend a lot of extra time trying to make sure that we can present not just our reporting, but the actual raw data that goes with it, whenever we can to show our work.”

*This article was published in association with Press Gazette sponsor, Reuters News Agency.

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