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Disinformation fueled 2021, and 2022 will likely see the same

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

Fuelling the riot at the Capitol on January 6 was, of course, the verifiably false claim that former President Trump won the election. And 2021 went on to be a year defined by disinformation, not just about politics, but also about vaccines, which led tens of millions of Americans to resist public health guidance about their effectiveness. Well, we're still in the middle of a pandemic, and another election is right around the corner. So joining me now to talk about what to expect when it comes to disinformation this year are two reporters who have spent a lot of time covering it. Geoff Brumfiel is a senior correspondent on NPR's Science Desk. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Eyder.

PERALTA: And Miles Parks covers voting for NPR's Washington Desk. Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

PERALTA: Geoff, let's start with you. The U.S. is in the midst of another COVID surge now. What sort of false information are you seeing emerge around omicron?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. Well, misinformation really thrives in uncertainty, and the omicron wave has created a lot of uncertainty. So I see a lot of anti-vaccine activists capitalizing on confusing messaging out of official sources, whether it's about how well the vaccines protect people or how long they need to quarantine. But really, the core message of the anti-vaccine movement hasn't changed. Generally, they say COVID is milder than the government wants you to believe and that COVID vaccines are dangerous. Obviously, both of these statements are false.

PERALTA: You've spent much of this year looking at the overlap between the anti-vaccine community and the far-right section of the Republican Party. Many of those Republicans are aligned or connected in some way to former President Trump, who recently - he gave a pretty full-throated endorsement of the vaccine. Let's listen to a bit of his comment to The Daily Wire's Candace Owens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don't take their vaccine. But it's still their choice. And if you take the vaccine, you're protected. Look; the results of the vaccine are very good. And if you do get it, it's a very minor form.

PERALTA: How is the anti-vaccine community reacting to that?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, it's really interesting. Candace Owens herself tried to downplay Trump's position after he gave that interview and made those comments. There have been other videos circulating on social media where people are very angry, actually, with the former president there. I think this is a rare issue that splits Trump and his base. Many Trump supporters remain staunchly anti-vaccine, but the vaccines are arguably one of the biggest accomplishments of the Trump presidency. And I think, you know, former President Trump wants some credit for it.

PERALTA: Miles, let's turn to you. Lies about the election led to the attack on January 6. How has disinformation shaped the political landscape since then?

PARKS: Well, I think the fallout post-January 6 has been really representative of the entire political environment right now. Shortly after the attack, there was a fairly bipartisan response condemning it. But then over the course of this year, the misinformation machine online has kind of churned. Some conservative commentators have argued that the riot at the Capitol on January 6 was actually peaceful. Some have argued that it wasn't Trump supporters there at all. And we've seen Republicans nationally really change how they feel about what happened that day.

PERALTA: So let's talk solutions. It feels like we've been talking about this problem consistently, at least since 2016 and the Russian influence campaign that went along with that presidential race. What's being done to address the issue?

PARKS: There are kind of two parts to that answer. The first is the social media platforms. It's pretty clear that they are taking this problem - the misinformation problem - more seriously this year than they ever have before. But experts still point out that the broad issue where polarizing or misleading content is rewarded online - that hasn't fully been addressed. I talked to Whitney Phillips, who's a professor at Syracuse University, who's written a number of books about what she calls the hellscape online. Here's what she told me.

WHITNEY PHILLIPS: You still have the incentivization of certain kinds of false, misleading, harmful information on social platforms. You still have politicians who have built a brand around actively, unapologetically misleading citizens.

PARKS: The other part of the solution aspect of this is what the government can do to fix this problem. The Biden administration made a big deal of calling out Facebook in July of this year for allowing misinformation about vaccines to spread online. And Congress also held a bunch of hearings about different issues with social media this year. But at the end of the day, it was another year where Congress did not pass any meaningful regulation around the social media industry.

PERALTA: Looking to the coming year, Geoff, I mean, do you think misinformation is going to continue to affect how the pandemic unfolds?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the roughly 40 million Americans who haven't been vaccinated yet are pretty much the hard-nosed that believe a lot of this bad information around vaccines. And, you know, with the omicron wave coming, many of them are going to get sick. So I do think that there is going to be a way in which misinformation continues to shape the course of the pandemic, at least for a while.

PERALTA: And, Miles, we're entering another election year. What are we in for when it comes to misinformation about voting in the 2022 midterms?

PARKS: Well, one big difference this election cycle is there's no former President Trump on mainstream social media. But that does not mean that, you know, all of the mistrust around voting in the U.S. has just gone away. Something to watch, I would say, is that there are a number of Republicans in swing states who have pushed lies about the 2020 election results, and they're running for races like secretary of state, which would have a direct role in how voting is administered in those places. So it will be really telling to see whether voters hold those false beliefs against them in those races.

PERALTA: NPR's Miles Parks and Geoff Brumfiel, thanks to you both.

PARKS: Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER AND LEON PARKER'S "MEAN STREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.