Remain wary of political misinformation during this election cycle

With the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and others in the rearview mirror, the 2024 election cycle is officially underway.

March 5 marks Super Tuesday when voters in 16 states will cast their primary ballots for the individuals they want to represent their parties in the Nov. 5 General Election.

Kansans participate on March 19 as part of a presidential preference primary, which replaces the caucus system typically used. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, “The presidential preference primary transfers responsibility for candidate selection from political parties to the state. [The results] will be given to each party, which will then allocate delegates to go to the national convention in the summer.”

This means the voters aren’t actually selecting the candidate. They are just letting the party know who they would like to be the candidate, but the party can decide to select anyone they want. 

If this sounds unfamiliar, you likely aren’t alone. This is only the third time Kansas has implemented a preference primary. Previously, this process was used in 1980 and 1992

Compounding possible confusion is the fact that Kansas will then have its normal primary election on Aug. 6. During this round of voting, as explained by the Capital-Journal, people will be selecting their choices of party candidates for U.S. House races, state House races, state Senate races, and local positions.

Of course, grappling with the election process nuance is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to navigating this election cycle. Misinformation landmines threaten to blow up democracy as we know it.

Misinformation Permeates Daily Life

Misleading and false information abound, especially in the age of social media and when political interests are involved. Researchers writing for Scientific American suggest that partisan actors, whether politicians themselves or biased purveyors of alleged news, often originate misinformation. 

On some level, this makes sense. Everyone wants their candidate or party to win, and this desire for victory can lead people to believe what they want to believe. 

Even when faced with evidence to the contrary, personal opinions shape our thoughts because, if something confirms our previously held beliefs, we aren’t prone to overthinking it. We just accept it as fact.

This allows misinformation to spread, and it infects the political discourse, weakening democracy and driving a wedge between neighbors.

I conduct research on the topic of misinformation, and after talking with and surveying hundreds of individuals, it is clear people know misinformation exists and is a problem for society. However, knowing when a piece of information is true or not is a different story.

Largely, this stems from two issues. 

First, we lack a universally accepted use of the term “misinformation.” The majority of the time the term describes false, inaccurate, incorrect, or misleading information that gets spread by accident or simple oversight. Confusion happens when discussing rumors, conspiracy theories, parody, and satire. By definition, these are all forms of misinformation. However, something like parody or satire isn’t meant to be understood as true. 

Additionally, my research reveals rural community members often dismiss rumors as just part of small-town living. Such acceptance of false information is problematic as it allows incorrect information to seep into the local news ecosystem and begin to erode truth. 

This means intent matters, and that brings in another subset of false information — disinformation. This is false information maliciously created and shared with the intention of misleading or harming others, such as hoaxes and propaganda.

Personally, I use “misinformation” as an umbrella term for all forms of misleading and inaccurate information, but other scholars argue that doing so results in the word losing all meaning.

Second, people believe others are more gullible and susceptible to misinformation than they are. This is the essence of The Third-Person Effect. It is a psychological phenomenon in which people, as Magda Osman explained in a piece for Nieman Lab, “assume they are immune, but that anyone else, such as supporters of the opposing political party, are not.” In short, it gives people a false sense of confidence as news consumers.

Regardless of the confusion, my research and the work of others reveal that misinformation primarily spreads via social media, partisan cable news networks, and talk radio, and it’s becoming more prevalent on these platforms, especially social media, as artificial intelligence (AI) is used to create deceptive content. 

Since these three avenues to information are also the primary pathways to news for individuals, it means exposure to misinformation can reach dangerous levels. This is compounded by the fact that we live in a digitally connected world and spend a lot of our time consuming content via these platforms.

Misinformation Destroys Democratic Decision-Making

Misinformation cultivates polarization, and it tears at the fabric of our social capital, driving people apart as they seek the comfort of their biases and begin to view people with different beliefs as the enemy instead of as neighbors. 

During an election cycle, this is more prevalent as people are inundated with misinformation, and the democratic consequences border on catastrophic. 

As misinformation fills the public discourse, voters will not be responsibly informed about candidates or ballot initiatives. They can’t achieve the ideal of being an informed citizenry if they don’t consume quality news and information. This could lead them to cast votes that go against their best interests, ultimately degrading their quality of life.

Don’t let that happen. Push back against misinformation with a healthy dose of skepticism. If something doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t.

There is a push to use AI to support journalism and create quality news, but such efforts are still in their early stages. Besides, common sense is a great place to start. In fact, research suggests that three out of four adults can spot fake headlines.

Hopefully you aren’t that one person who gets tricked by clever lies propagated by partisan political players.

But whether you are or not, stay vigilant. Consume news and information from a variety of sources. 

Even if you have a preferred outlet you turn to, see if others are reporting the same information. If they are, you’re probably on pretty solid footing. If other outlets are saying something different from your go-to source, though, that should give you pause concerning whether your news outlet is reliable or not.

Above all, though, don’t get distracted by the clown show. Despite what pundits and other “truthtellers” might say, Taylor Swift is not a psy-op, and it’s ridiculous to think the NFL scripted the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl win. 

If you believe those things, I have some ocean-front property in Kansas I would like to tell you about.  

Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.

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About toddvogts 843 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.