Misinformation and hate are trending in this election year

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Misinformation is trending now that Elon Musk, the self-described “Chief Twit,” has bought Twitter, his favorite social media platform.

Meanwhile, displays of hate are breaking out in public now that Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, has despicably fashioned himself as a folk hero for those spewing antisemitic messages, pushing his own anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

The stories dovetail not just because they are built on the wild spread of false claims, but also because West’s Twitter account – locked in early October for an antisemitic tweet in which he said he was going “death con 3 on Jewish people” – was recently reactivated. More on that below.

Musk, the world’s richest man, promised to keep Twitter from becoming “a free-for-all hellscape” and said he bought the platform to protect free speech, but over the weekend he grabbed real headlines for sharing fake news.

He responded to a tweet from Hillary Clinton in which he linked to a story with made-up accusations about the violent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul. Read more about Musk’s tweet.

Musk later deleted that tweet, but Twitter is crawling with false memes about the attack, as CNN reported Monday.

It’s impossible to wade through them. An emergency call taken out of context. An incorrect report about what the suspected attacker was wearing. It all feeds into the silly but specious conspiracy theories that are rampantly circulating, now, it seems, with Musk’s endorsement.

Rather than correct the mistake, Musk threw barbs at The New York Times, making a joke about the newspaper and accuracy.

Musk’s tweet of the false story joined in with anger from conservatives at the allegation from Clinton and others that violent rhetoric should be associated with the GOP. In her tweet, Clinton had linked to a story from the Los Angeles Times about Pelosi’s alleged attacker and wrote that Republicans should be held accountable for spreading conspiracy theories.

Read more on the partisan finger-pointing from CNN’s Stephen Collinson, who writes, “Republicans, while condemning the violence, are denying they have any culpability in fostering a poisoned political environment. Some even used it to pivot to new attempts to sow doubt on the integrity of US elections.”

This is a good place to note that pretty much anybody can be fooled by fake news on social media.

CNN previously reported on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2021 that suggested three-quarters of Americans overestimate their ability to spot something fake online.

The study involved surveys of 8,200 people and found the more confident a person was that he or she could spot false headlines, the worse that person was at it.

“In all, these results paint a worrying picture: The individuals who are least equipped to identify false news content are also the least aware of their own limitations and, therefore, more susceptible to believing it and spreading it further,” according to the researchers, led by Ben Lyons, a professor of communications at the University of Utah.

Republicans, the study noted, have less trust in the media and were more confident in their ability to spot false news than Democrats.

The need to verify what you see online is getting ever more important but also harder for users.

It’s not just news stories that can be fake. And it’s not just on Twitter.

CNN Business has reported on a different study in which researchers submitted blatantly false election-related ads to Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. TikTok approved nearly all the false ads, and Facebook approved a significant portion, according to the report. YouTube, on the other hand, was able to identify the false ads and rejected them. Read more about the experiment.

I asked CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan – who has for years covered the topic of misinformation and how it spreads online – how people can protect themselves.

“Misinformation is clearly more pronounced on the right and far-right in American life at the moment, but it doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to one side of the political spectrum,” he said.

“Often we can all be too quick to hit retweet or share on a post that seems to confirm what we want to believe to be true.”

I suppose there’s a distinction between straight misinformation and hate, but it is blurred every day.

The New York Times noted data from the Anti-Defamation League that shows that antisemitic tweets and language surged after Musk took control of Twitter.

The Washington Post also cited data from a group that analyzes social media messages that showed use of the N-word surged since Musk’s takeover – something the NBA star LeBron James called out on Twitter.

“I dont know Elon Musk and, tbh, I could care less who owns twitter. But I will say that if this is true, I hope he and his people take this very seriously because this is scary AF. So many damn unfit people saying hate speech is free speech.”

Musk responded to James by pointing to a tweet by Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, that argued most of the accounts using the N-word were “inauthentic.”

“We’ve taken action to ban the users involved in this trolling campaign — and are going to continue working to address this in the days to come to make Twitter safe and welcoming for everyone,” Roth said on the platform.

The prevalence of inauthentic Twitter accounts nearly derailed Musk’s purchase of the company.

That’s another thing to consider online. Is that viral or provocative post coming from a real person with real thoughts, or from a news organization that verified its reporting? Or is it from a Russian- or Chinese-managed bot?

The FBI warned this month that operatives affiliated with both governments are promoting misinformation about the integrity of US elections this year, according to a CNN report. There have been multiple, previous reports about Russia’s effort to exploit underlying racial divisions in the US, something we reported on most recently in June.

Musk, in an attempt to make Twitter profitable, is considering charging users for the right to have their account verified, which could actually make it more difficult to know which accounts are real.

He’s also promising a new council to review the company’s content moderation policies.

He is, however, claiming no part in the reinstatement on Twitter of West, which Musk said was undertaken before he took control of the company. West’s is one of just 124 accounts Musk follows on the platform.

While Musk will presumably be asking corporations to advertise on Twitter, West has been excommunicated from his lucrative deals with Adidas and Gap and is no longer being feted on Fox, as he was by Tucker Carlson in early October.

Instead of inspiring people to buy sneakers, he’s now inspiring people to unfurl anti-Jewish banners and make Nazi salutes over the 405 freeway in Los Angeles and to project antisemitic messages on a stadium for the Saturday game between the University of Georgia and the University of Florida.

West seems to be uncomfortable with that new role. In a long and rambling video posted to YouTube, he said he’s about love, not hate.

Per CNN’s report on those comments: “I have no association to any hate group,” West said as he closed his remarks in prayer. “If any hate happens upon any Jewish person, it is not associated (gestures to himself) because I am demanding that everyone walk in love.”

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