When it comes to elections, disinformation is not just a problem online.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin argue in a new report that disinformation targeting communities of color in three battleground states circulated as often through traditional sources of information, complicating efforts to fight it.
The misleading information was included in mailings and campaign advertisements in newspapers, radio, television and even billboards. Those efforts are more likely to reach voters in those communities than targeted disinformation campaigns on the internet.
“Online disinformation is just one small piece of the puzzle,” said Rachel Goodman of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan organization that commissioned the report. “There are many other failures in the information ecosystem that allow disinformation about elections to thrive.”
False or misleading information about registering and voting is so pervasive, the researchers said, that it amounts to what they call “structural disinformation.” It affects not only elections but also other issues, like health care, creating information gaps that those propagating disinformation can exploit.
The report argued that poor dissemination of changes in voting rules “creates openings for targeted disinformation and innocent misunderstandings which will keep members of that community from exercising their rights.”
The report, based on surveys of election activists in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, also cited direct mailings sent to Black voters in Milwaukee containing false information about voting, though they were made to look like official documents.
Billboards in Wisconsin wrongly warned that people with felony convictions could not vote after completing their sentences. In rural parts of Arizona, Native American voters had trouble providing proof of residence because they lived in places without United States Postal Service addresses.
Changes to state election laws, like the one in Georgia that Republican lawmakers enacted after Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential victory in 2020, are likely to compound the problem.
“Structural disinformation, particularly structural disinformation related to the right to vote, has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and other historically marginalized communities,” the report said.
The findings suggested that efforts to rebut disinformation should not be limited to online services. The researchers said the most effective measures involved direct contact with prospective voters — in person, at events or through direct mailings. Those efforts are expensive and labor intensive, however.
The cumulative effect of disinformation and partisan controversy over elections has been to create distrust and demoralization, dampening turnout and eroding confidence in the government more broadly.
“The low turnout rates and things that we see happening now in their states and their communities are at least in large part due to the ways in which over the course of time disinformation has made their communities skeptical of the American democratic system,” said one of the researchers, Samuel Woolley, the program director of propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.