How 'fake news' evolved in the 2018 midterm elections

In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, “fake news” was more widespread but also more subtle than during the 2016 presidential election, an expert on social media disinformation told the Yahoo News podcast “Bots & Ballots.”

While there were fewer easily disprovable hoax stories — along the lines of the infamous “Pope endorses Trump” — than in 2016, the election cycle saw a rise in propaganda posing as credible news, according to Jonathan Morgan, CEO of New Knowledge, a tech firm that helps companies fend off social media disinformation attacks.

“What was different about 2018 was how much influence actual attributed state propaganda had and how much adoption there was, often by actual Americans, of that content and those messages, in addition to kind of full-on domestic disinformation campaigns,” said Morgan, who is also the founder of the nonprofit group Data for Democracy.

Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

Examples of Russian state-run propaganda outlets include Russia Today and Sputnik, but Morgan noted a proliferation of smaller outfits that used social media platforms to echo and spread messages approved by the Kremlin.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these publications existing,” Morgan said, “but ideas that typically we’ve associated with Russian propaganda outlets are becoming part of mainstream American political discourse, which is more success on this overt political propaganda side than I think most Americans would have expected from a hostile foreign country like Russia.”

Perhaps the prime example of a story that epitomizes the evolution of “fake news” was the Central American migrant caravan that has begun arriving at the U.S. border. The story was based on actual events, but “most of the reporting on the so-called migrant caravan was driven from conspiratorial corners of the internet,” Morgan told Yahoo News.

“George Soros funding the migrant caravan was kind of a ridiculous conspiracy theory in the same way that George Soros funding protesters around the country is kind of a ridiculous conspiracy theory. I think at one point it became George Soros partnering with the Clintons to somehow drive the migrant caravan up through Mexico and across the border so that they could vote illegally in the midterm elections. That whole news cycle was dominated by this type of conspiratorial fear-mongering. What makes that one important to focus on and a little bit emblematic is, I think, some of those conspiracy theories were outright restated by public officials, members of Congress and sometimes even by the administration, from the president and his staff. I think that’s where the real change is and ultimately the real danger.”

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