How Twitter Enables Political Misinformation

Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) attends a confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Capitol Hill, October 12, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/Pool via Reuters)

Julie Gammack is a former Des Moines Register columnist who came across what she believed was “an email from Audubon [County] Farm Bureau pulling away from a Joni Ernst endorsement.” She wrote a tweet declaring, “Well, this seems newsworthy.” Rachel Irwin, the communications director for Chuck Schumer’s political action committee, retweeted it, declaring, “the Iowa Farm Bureau is pulling its endorsement of Joni Ernst, telling its members not to vote for her.” Nationally known political figures, such as Jeff Greenfield, Matt Yglesias, and David Axelrod, retweeted and commented upon the breaking news . . . that was not actually true. (Greenfield deleted his tweet and apologized.)

The Iowa Farm Bureau says they never sent out any e-mail along those lines. “Recently, a fake email has been circulating through social media that Senator Ernst no longer has the support of Iowa Farm Bureau or our members. This email is fake, and any news reports that speak to its validity are false. Iowa farmers know Senator Joni Ernst understands agriculture and works tirelessly to increase the economic opportunities for Iowa farmers and rural America, and that is why the Iowa Farm Bureau was proud to designate her as a Friend of Agriculture. She continues to have our full support.”

Greenfield, Axelrod, and the rest believed that Senate Majority PAC wouldn’t get news as significant as that wrong; Senate Majority PAC either didn’t know or didn’t care that whatever Gammack saw, she was misinterpreting.

Twitter values the instantaneous reaction, and this is how information that is false can get halfway around the Twittersphere before the truth can finish tying its shoelaces. There are just too many people out there who were already primed to believe it, who wanted to believe it, and who didn’t see any harm in not checking to see if it was true. Even this morning, some people are still insisting the Iowa Farm Bureau withdrew its endorsement of Ernst. For four years, a lot of people in politics and government spent a lot of time worrying about disinformation on social media, generated by foreign governments. But good old-fashioned disinformation is being generated and spread right here in America, by Americans.

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