• on September 29, 2020

Debate night prep: How to deal with misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories during the first presidential debate, and contribute to a better information environment

Evaluating current information operations: The 2020 information environment is challenging, riddled with cascading disinformation campaigns that grow more targeted and complex over time, and which are increasingly tied to offline events and advanced via new techniques. It is vital that we have a clear perspective on events relating to the elections, coronavirus, and now protests and civil unrest, but we know that disinformation and malign influence campaigns seek to distort those perceptions. Now is when it’s most vital to be a better information citizen in a highly connected world, and to be vigilant about the new campaigns that seek to influence us.


Tuesday, September 29 will be the first of three presidential campaign debates between President Trump and former Vice President Biden. By now — given the tone from the White House in the past few months, and given the high stakes of the parallel crises facing the country — we can safely assume there will be an overload of misinformation, disinformation, and references to conspiracy theories leveraged by the president to deflect the discussion from criticism of his leadership on the COVID response, on economic relief, on election integrity issues, and on demonstrations, unrest, and violence.

Candidate Biden’s priorities will likely be to: maintain a rational, presidential tone while standing up to bullying; deflect personal attacks from Trump with criticisms of how Trump has failed to lead and sought to divide the nation; offer policy responses about how to solve those problems; and reinforce the importance of voting and confidence in the overall integrity of the election process. Shorter version: use reality to cut through the noise, but be concise. 

President Trump’s priorities will likely be to: erode confidence in the election and build a sense of dread that the aftermath of the election will be chaotic and maybe violent; levy personal attacks against Biden on his health and fitness, and against his family for alleged corruption; normalize/dismiss current crises by citing dubious claims, saying nothing else could have been done, saying “Biden’s America will be worse;” attack, attack, attack to activate his base and demoralize Democratic turnout. Shorter version: make Democrats think their vote doesn’t matter through a variety of means, reinforce memetic responses in Republicans that excuse all failings. 

The debate commission has made it clear that they do not view it as the job of the debate moderators to factcheck the candidates or correct false statements. They argue it is the job of the other candidate to respond to false and misleading statements as part of the debate. So, we can expect things to stay lively. 

If you choose to watch the debate and plan to engage on social media during and after the debate, I’d like to give some basic advice for how you can help make the overall information environment better rather than more toxic. Some of this rehashes themes we’ve already discussed, but they are worth revisiting. And yes — this advice assumes the vast majority of misleading information will come from the president. But I think recent history defends this assumption. 

Do not elevate false or misleading information or conspiracies from the president by reposting them in outrage. I know — it’s easy to get mad and want to call someone a bully or a doofus. But that just adds toxic sludge to the landslide. Don’t. 

The best thing would be simply not to post or engage videos or content of the president saying asinine things that you know are meant to manipulate perceptions of Biden or the election. Plenty of other people will — do you really need to? Don’t be part of the onslaught. Don’t repost them. Don’t comment on them. When you do, you elevate them in algorithms/trending topics and help them reach more people. This also builds pressure for traditional media outlets to cover these claims. So mostly, don’t post any such content unless you are willing to do the work of explaining why it is false and misleading. Don’t drown-out efforts at factchecking and accountability with your retweets of the garbage. 

If you want to rebut a claim made by the president or debunk false, misleading, and manipulative claims, here are some tips to do it the right way. 

  • When relevant, always offer the truth or a factual claim before and after presenting the false statement. Something along the lines of: “Woodward recorded the president saying he knew how bad coronavirus would be and downplayed it on purpose. The president says nothing else could have been done, but even his own CDC Director disagrees with him.” People remember what they see first, so lead with the truth, close with the truth. 
  • Just post the truth without the false claim, or post an issue/fact that you think is more important than the diversion offered. Maybe the president is issuing a personal attack on Biden; you can counter by posting a positive past story about Biden without referencing the personal attack, or by posting information about the real challenges you see Americans facing that the president has chosen not to address. Change the tone and content of the online discussion, and offer content you think is more important than schoolyard bullying. Have an arsenal of stories or facts handy for such a purpose. 
  • Wait for a professional factchecker to post the facts, and post the factcheck instead of the naked claim. 

Know the narratives and deflections that are likely to be used in advance, and be ready to respond or ignore them in an appropriate manner. By now, the likely conspiracies and false claims from the president have all been debuted and road-tested in tweets and press conferences and via presidential defenders over the past weeks. The attacks and feints that Candidate Biden is likely to use have also been tested in the public domain, in ads and public comments. 

Expect to see, on one side, “Hunter Biden Ukraine Burisma” (a narrative which US intelligence has warned is being pushed by Russian agents to denigrate Biden in the election, but which the president and his supporters nonetheless repeat), China corruption, “Biden’s America will be crime-ridden,” “Joe is controlled by the radical left socialists who want to bring crime and low-income housing to the suburbs,” “the election is rigged”/other narratives about ballots and voting, “China wants Joe Biden to win,” “nothing else could be done on COVID/only old people are dying/it’s not so bad for kids/we might have a vaccine tomorrow,” and various of versions of attacks on Biden’s health and age and the idea that he has “done nothing” in his long career in government.  

The response to these will include the threat to US healthcare, Trump’s sketchy taxes and personal/family/cabinet-level corruption, the failed coronavirus response in the US and the ensuing crisis in the economy and in housing, dissenting opinions on the response to coronavirus from within the president’s own team, the rights of protestors to demonstrate, voting rights/election integrity, the need to address racial inequality, and reminders about the appalling and outrageous things that Trump has said about US troops/veterans, women, minorities, and other groups. 

Understand the inherent tension of this call-and-response style narrative warfare. Don’t mimic the reflexive response that is expected or conditioned, because often whatever that is is designed to amplify the perception of an irreconcilably divided America on the brink of collapse — a narrative our adversaries enjoy, particularly when we push it ourselves. So don’t. Find a different way to participate in the discussions of crucial themes. If you understand the history of how these narratives have been used — Trump’s past attacks on the health of Hillary Clinton, his calls for “drug tests” before his debates with her — you can reference those as context. Otherwise, stay focused on what is important to you in the election instead, and offer those perspectives on social media. 

Know what is important to you and your community, and offer posts from those perspectives. This is a very powerful way to rebut/counter something you disagree with during the debates, for statements made by either candidate. If the president is downplaying the death toll from coronavirus, for example, offer a personal fact or story — someone you lost, or how it has impacted your life, job, school, or family. If Biden is downplaying an issue that is important to you to focus on other things, explain why it is important to you. 

More likely than not, this debate will not focus on policy differences and a discussion of ideas but be more of a raw brawl about what is true or not. Posting content that reminds people that we, our families, and our communities face real challenges, and this is what these debates should mean to us, is really important. This helps to defuse some of the silliest rhetoric and get back to the discussion of the problems facing Americans. This can include topics you don’t think are getting enough coverage in the debate. 

* * * * * 

These are just a few simple strategies, but ones that I think will serve you well instead of just amplifying the expected noise. Overall, if you want to contribute during the debates or to discussions afterward: take time to think about what the real issue is; consider what kinds of positive, fact-driven, authentic content you can offer beyond the standard outrage tweets or cheers at point-scoring; and avoid behaving and responding to narratives in the ways your adversaries — be they foreign or domestic — will cheer. This is not the time to inflame divisions, but to remind that real leadership is needed to address the issues that face us and bridge those divisions. (We’ll discuss this further in our next post!) 

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