Austin Merkel, Elizabeth Meyer, Grace Robertson, Simon Rysin, Kuro Tawil, Arthur Yong

The Bellwether team at the Global Disinformation Lab at the University of Texas is investigating the link between disinformation and U.S. presidential elections as digital media and technology have taken a prominent role in shaping public opinion and discourse. Starting with the 2004 election, the sophistication and scope of election-targeted disinformation efforts appear to increase with each subsequent campaign. This research is separated into two articles. The first will cover the years 2004-2012, while the second will address the radical shift in disinformation attitudes due to the 2016 election and that election cycle’s effect on the perception of disinformation in American politics. This article will chronologically outline the rapid growth of the threat to both democratic processes and national security posed by disinformation, and public awareness of that threat, using polling and academic data for each presidential election.

The 2004 election marked the first time that electronic voting machines were used to conduct an election on a large presidential-election level in the United States. While the evidence does not support widespread skepticism with electronic voting, there was prolonged doubt due to the confusion and uncertainty of the close margin of the 2000 presidential election. The introduction of electronic voting machines cultivated natural concerns of exploitation by malicious actors. Fears persisted that the machines could be connected to the internet, and false reports emerged of voter data being hacked. Inaccurate polling data further skewed the perception that several states had projected higher for John Kerry than in actuality. The National Election Pool acknowledged these errors by concluding that average exit poll error “was higher in 2004 than in previous years for which we have data”. For example, the “Within Precinct Error”, the estimates of polling within precincts prior to the election versus the actual results, differed by 6.5 points from the actual vote for the 2004 election. This is a significantly larger variation than results for either the 2000 election or the 1996 election, which had WPEs of 1.8 points and 2.2 points respectively.

Tabloid media and comedic journalism amplified the distrust in the government and the election process. Publications such as the Daily Show, the Onion, and other satiric faux-news humorists blur the lines between news reporting and parody to generate laughs and jab at the absurdist nature of government. Their candid and entertaining nature brought in large audiences who found these comedians more credible and digestible than conventional news sources. Despite the lack of social media and its ability to disseminate sensationalism, citizens could still find traditional outlets that echoed and intensified their feelings of doubt about the government and its processes.

 This distrust of the election process and its results were not limited to the electorate. The Democratic House Judiciary Committee Staff published a status report claiming that they “found numerous, serious election irregularities in the Ohio presidential election, which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters”. This marked the first instance of a direct challenge to the integrity of the democratic process by a part of Congress since 1877, showing the early signs of what would come in subsequent election cycles.

While the 2004 Presidential Election was not a close result, this did not stop the rise in skepticism stemming from growing distrust in the government. This issue was only amplified by the developing digital media sphere, sensationalist headlines, and even echoes of mistrust from the opposition party. Technology and social media were in their infancy, but the seeds of doubt in the election process were embedded in American political culture.

That same year, in a brief gap between one of Connecticut native Andy Martin’s 18 unsuccessful runs for office, he issued a press release and blog post immediately following then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In it, he claimed he felt “sad having to expose Barack Obama, but the man is a complete fraud. The truth is going to surprise, and disappoint, and outrage many people who were drawn to him. He has lied to the American people, and he has sought to misrepresent his own heritage.” Martin was planning to launch a bid for Illinois senate against Obama, and claimed he “picked the story up as a sideline” in an attempt to learn “how to harness the Internet” for political purposes. Although his run was unsuccessful, the story didn’t die. Martin emailed the content of the blog post to a host of conservative bloggers, who circulated the story amidst an isolated collection of conservative opinion sites (most frequently, the Free Republic website) for years before Obama took center stage as a promising 2008 presidential candidate. Various versions of the story floated around: that Obama was educated in an Indonesian “madrassa,” or that he was born in Kenya and secretly a Muslim.

The rumors circulated at an unprecedented speed. 2008 was the first year that over half of the voting-age population used the internet as a source of political connection and information during an election cycle. Online readership continued to grow, and with it, the dominance of the internet as a primary source of information relative to other news sources. The 2008 election cycle revealed the pitfalls of the internet as a source of discourse and political news – that information doesn’t necessarily need to be accurate to take hold of the national consciousness and widely circulate.

As Obama’s political prominence rose, so did the rumors. The biggest distributor of the theory came from a series of chain emails that rapidly spread – in both circulation size and intensity. A Washington Post journalist picked up the story in 2008 when a Harvard-educated political theorist received a chain email claiming Obama was “concealing a radical Islamic background.” In the Post article, then-president of the Internet Crimes Group Jeff Bedsor detailed how difficult it is to sow the seeds of a rumor through mass email: “Lighting that fire, getting something to have momentum, takes work.”

Although the movement started organically – even accidentally, according to Andy Martin in 2016, the rumors gained enough traction for a woman to yell at a John McCain rally that Obama was an ‘Arab.’ By 2011, over half of Republican voters believed that Obama was foreign-born. Despite the fact that the rumors were obviously false (the Obama campaign released his birth certificate in 2008, and a long-form version in 2011), the Internet created a space for them to thrive, first on niche corners of conservative rumor-mill machines, but then on a national stage.

The 2008 Birther conspiracy was unprecedented amongst intentional misinformation campaigns in its reach and salience in American political discourse.Its appearance on the campaign stage (at a 2012 rally, Mitt Romney paid a tribute to Birtherism, to cheers) showed the damaging power that disinformation holds and how outsized latent spread can shape the tone of political messaging. The rumors took root without factual basis – and they didn’t need one. It demonstrates how a fundamental falsehood, through consistent repetition, gains legitimacy and is near impossible to retract. The rumor persisted, even after Obama was elected President.

Despite the prevalence of the birther movement, there is little to suggest that domestic efforts at spreading disinformation to influence the 2012 presidential election were pervasive. However, foreign disinformation campaigns grew increasingly active during the 2010s. Of note was a marked increase in Russian involvement in developing narratives to fuel discontent with the American government leading up to the 2012 election. According to a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Russian efforts mainly focused on using RT America, a Kremlin-funded news channel, on questioning the democratic integrity of the 2012 presidential election.

Throughout 2012, RT America pushed rhetoric that was increasingly critical of the United States government, attacking its economic and political systems. In several of its programs, RT America averred that a violent revolution was required to change the US political landscape. Additionally, the news organization reported that the election would be the product of fraud, and, as such, its results should not be trusted regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Despite a lack of data to suggest concerted domestic efforts at discrediting candidates in the 2012 election, it is interesting to note that 2012 represented a turning point in terms of prominent sources of political news. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center, examining social media use and its relation to voting, revealed that approximately 40% of Americans who used social media did so for political purposes. It is disconcerting to see people turn toward social media as their primary source of political news, as platforms like Facebook and Twitter have the potential to become conduits for political falsehoods given the lowered scrutiny their users face in comparison to news outlets like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

The increasing use of the Internet as the public’s primary source of election-related news only continued to grow after 2012. The 2016 election, which was extraordinary for several reasons, heralded the rise of public outrage concerning increasingly unreliable news sources – especially on social media.