Misinformation rampant, remains a key issue in Arizona as 2024 election looms

Nov 10, 2023, 4:45 AM | Updated: 9:59 am

This is the fifth in a five-part series called “Arizona Votes 2024: One Year Out,” which will examine the lead-up to the upcoming election in Arizona. Read part one here, part two here, part three here and part four here.

PHOENIX — Bill Gates is familiar with misinformation on the personal and professional level.

The Maricopa County supervisor was the board’s chairman in 2022, overseeing that year’s election. As a result, he became a target for claims of election interference and threats of violence.

With the 2024 election a year away, misinformation remains a major problem in Arizona and while solutions for the disturbing trend are present, are hard to achieve.

“It’s not accidental. There is some intent in spreading this misinformation,” Gates said. “That’s sort of what makes it misinformation.”

Gates also says it wasn’t former President Donald Trump who brought misinformation to Arizona elections, but rather actors in the last election cycle, including Republican Kari Lake.

Who falls for election misinformation?

Misinformation researchers James Weatherall and Cailin O’Connor spend their time looking into and proposing solutions to combat misinformation.

The pair, who recently wrote a book on the topic called “The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread,” say to understand misinformation and how it spreads, you have to also understand human nature.

“We’re all susceptible to misinformation. We all hold false beliefs,” Weatherall said. “I am certain that I do, of course I don’t know what they are.”

In other words, he explains that the failure to parse out truthful from false information is not an individual failure.

“People should not take away from that that smart people don’t fall for misinformation and dumb people do,” O’Connor said. “That’s way too simple.”

People having false beliefs is natural and misinformation itself isn’t new.

“Basically as far back as you go with human beliefs you find misinformation,” O’Connor said. “So, as long as people are staring information socially, they’re sometimes going to be sharing things that aren’t true.”

A more recent phenomenon, however, is the communities built around believing election lies.

That includes Lake, who fared well in her 2022 gubernatorial primary and gained national notoriety for her rhetoric but ultimately lost to Democrat Katie Hobbs.

Joe Blackbourn founded The Integrity Project in Arizona, an apolitical group of researchers and educators who investigate and propose solutions to combat the rise of misinformation.

He says that trend of strong primary numbers but not in a general election isn’t uncommon.

“I think moderation is actually quite popular, as it is in a lot of places,” Blackbourn said. “But it’s extremism that makes headlines.”

Can misinformation be a winning strategy?

Both Weatherall and O’Connor say something is different today than the past and we’re in a misinformation crisis as a result.

While Weatherall says the internet is a big factor, it’s not the only one.

“I see the crisis has really coming from a shift in the scale and speed at which people have to adapt in order to be able to make reliable decisions in light of good information,” Weatherall said.

Blackbourn agrees, saying politicians lie because it works, even if outright misinformation doesn’t turn out to be a route to winning elections.

“But they got famous and they raised a ton of money, right?” Blackbourn said.

He says money and power are core to why some politicians choose the path of spreading misinformation.

But he adds the risks are much deeper than that.

“They are playing in misinformation to achieve certain ends,” Blackbourn said.

O’Connor and Weatherall offer two “ends” politicians are aiming for by lying. The first, they say, is simple: Sometimes the things politicians want to do simply aren’t good or honest.

“There’s a clear outcome people want. They want certain elections to be overturned,” O’Connor said. “They want enough doubt in these elections so they can, you know, take them even when they’re not winning.”

Gates agrees with that. He believes misinformation is an extreme threat to democracy itself, especially as more people buy into false beliefs.

“At some point when you reach a certain critical mass of people who don’t trust the electoral system … we literally are at risk of losing our democracy,” Gates said.

There’s also a potential for violence to occur as misinformation spreads. Several high-profile election officials became targets for death threats, including Gates. He says people sometimes feel justified making these threats based on the false beliefs they hold.

“That’s why it’s so important that we push back on this misinformation and we do not normalize verbal or physical threats to elections workers or elections officials,” Gates said.

“It’s not acceptable and it’s a crime.”

What are possible solutions to misinformation?

Elections officials in Arizona have already tried to subvert, anticipate and overall prevent misinformation from taking hold in next year’s races.

The county does not want to go down the route of censorship or limiting people’s speech, according to Gates.

Instead, it’s focused on informing people and anticipating misinformation before it goes viral.

“In the 2022 election, we did 16 press conferences before and after the election and we would actually do what we call ‘pre-bunk,’” Gates said. “We would anticipate misinformation and we would pre-bunk it.”

It’s a straightforward approach: Respond to lies with the truth. They also have a website with election information.

Gates also notes that the regulations imposed by social media companies like Meta and X have a big impact on what information ends up coming down to local communities.

He adds that it’s concerning seeing some companies step away from content moderation.

The authors of “The Misinformation Age” offer one idea to get out of the misinformation crisis. They say a new federal government agency that can monitor and come up with ways to facilitate the spread of truthful information could work.

But like Gates, Blackbourn says skirting free speech right might not be very realistic.

Instead, he points to another idea: media literacy. Understanding and verifying the information they receive from news sources, social media and more is critically important, according to Blackbourn.

Researchers and educators at The Integrity Project and Arizona State University are trying to design new curriculums and lessons that focus on teaching kids how to be media literate.

“So that media literacy becomes a basic piece of our education like civics used to be,” Blackbourn said.

In the meantime, Blackbourn said misinformation is not a phase. He added education is a first step, but the community will need to face the problem and their own beliefs.

Gates agrees, saying dealing with misinformation is now a way of life in Maricopa County and beyond. He adds that the Board of Supervisors aims to make next year’s election even more transparent than before as they expect fake news to be a factor in races.

Blackbourn has questions for the community as 2024 looms.

“Why does somebody want my attention? What are they selling me?” Blackbourn said. “We’re going to have to grow up and become critical thinkers, you know, about what we’re seeing in media constructs.”

We want to hear from you.

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