Consumers May Hold the Key to Confronting Election Misinformation

NewsGuard is a company created by a team of journalists who assess the credibility and transparency of news and information, including whether a website repeatedly publishes false content.

Recently, it found that 113 websites out of 7,000 reviewed were spreading election misinformation in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential vote and are still active in doing so.  Of these, 81% have continued to spread false claims about the election and its aftermath, including about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Further, according to NewsGuard, “the vast majority of the sites spreading election misinformation a year ago have continued to promote the narrative that the election was not legitimate, while defending, downplaying or redirecting blame for the riot.”

Under the First Amendment, there is little that government can – or should – do to intervene in limiting this damaging information, however false and repugnant it may be.  Moreover, as NewsGuard concluded, the problem is global in scope.  Half of the European websites, well outside the legal reach of United States law, also were identified as spreading election disinformation and are still active in sharing U.S.-focused misinformation with their audiences.

This does not mean that there is an intractable problem.  As former FBI associate director Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) advised journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein when they were unraveling the details of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, the most direct path may be to “follow the money.”  Data from Moat Pro, an advertising intelligence firm, revealed to NewsGuard that 892 major brands financed the websites that published election or Jan. 6 misinformation through the purchase of digital advertising that sustained the operations of these sites.  The use of programmatic advertising explains this.  Here, software is used to buy ads, thus making the advertising buying system cheaper and presumably more efficient.  In the aggregate, these brands send billions of dollars annually to these misinformation sites.

What if consumers knew the names of the brands that were helping propagate proven falsities, and in doing so, continue to undermine confidence in our American democratic system?  Media organizations of all sizes and types should be on the front lines letting people know about this critical linkage, which can lead to more informed consumer choices about which brands deserve ongoing loyalty.  And journalists should be vigilant in asking the CEOs of these companies – on the record – the simple direct question: “Why are you continuing to financially support this massive public deception?”

The 2020 election and its aftermath may be over now, but the threat of a repeat performance in upcoming election cycles, including the 2024 presidential race, should not be underestimated.  But if Americans become more knowledgeable and willing to address this problem in the marketplace with their wallets, an effective way may emerge to generate a measurable decline in news website misinformation.  The enormous power of consumers may well be the most potent approach to stem a tide that otherwise will not reverse itself.

Stuart N. Brotman is the author of the forthcoming book The First Amendment Lives On.  He is a Distinguished Fellow at The Media Institute and is a member of the Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.  This article appeared in The Tennessean.