Fake News 2020: The Year in Review

As we come to the end of what many consider the worst year in human history (top ten, maybe, but far from the worst, no matter how it may feel), let’s take a moment to review the impact that fake news had on society. Long story short: a lot. Conspiracy theories, misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, propaganda, and outright lies dominated the public discourse to a degree previously unimaginable, with a large portion of that fake news emanating from the very top of the U.S. government. At times it seemed that almost half the American public was living in some sort of alternate reality where COVID-19 was nothing more than a hoax, Donald Trump won the election, and blood-sucking pedophiles were running the government.

For those of us living in the real world, let’s take a few moments to review the news about fake news that made news in 2020.

  • JANUARY:
    • In the last month of what we’re apparently now calling the Before Times, Chief Justice John Roberts warned about the dangers of fake news.
    • Alex Jones, of InfoWars infamy, was found found guilty of defamation and causing emotional distress for his fake news stories about the Sandy Hook school massacre.
    • The Washington Post reported on how the Republican party has been encouraging the rise of right-wing conspiracy theories.
    • A Facebook meme claimed that illegals are crossing back into Mexico because President Trump made them eligible for the World War 3 draft. (No, and World War 3 didn’t break out, either.)
    • And, surprise surprise, the first conspiracy theories regarding the then-brand-new coronavirus started making the rounds.
  • FEBRUARY:
    • Lots of conspiracy theories about the botched Iowa Democratic caucuses floated around social media..
    • A top election security official told Congress that Russia is already interfering with the 2020 presidential election with the goal of re-electing Donald J. Trump.
    • The totally whacked-out QAnon conspiracy theory began to migrate from the dark corners of the Internet into the mainstream.
    • And, of course, there were more coronavirus conspiracy theories, including White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney saying that the whole coronavirus thing is fake news designed to take down President Trump.
  • MARCH:
    • As the country went into its first lockdown, fake news about the coronavirus exploded across the Internet. The State Department reported that during the three-week period when the coronavirus started to spread outside of China, there were more than 2 million tweets peddling COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
    • Social media posts claimed that martial law was about to be declared. Other posts said the president was going to quarantine the entire country. (Chinese agents were later found to be behind the spread of these posts.)
    • The (false) rumor that drinking industrial alcohol protected against the coronavirus caused more than 300 deaths in Iran. 
    • Our pal Alex Jones peddled fake coronavirus cures — as did disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker.
    • A misleading video of Joe Biden purportedly calling for people to vote for Donald Trump received Twitter’s very first “manipulated tweet” tag.
  • APRIL:
    • Social media tried to combat all the misinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus — obviously unsuccessfully.
    • The Trump-friendly initial coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic from Fox News resulted in the networks’ viewers underestimating or even ignoring the growing threat.
    • One of the biggest social media memes (still believed by some people today) claimed that the coronavirus death toll was grossly exaggerated by including every death that wasn’t by gun shot or car accident.
    • The first rumors that 5G cellular technology somehow spread the COVID-19 coronavirus began to circulate.  
    • The evangelical Christian community spread an inordinate number of rumors and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 coronavirus — and was fooled by said rumors and conspiracy theories.
    • President Trump was spreading misinformation and false hopes about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treading COVID-19. He also suggested that bombarding COVID-19 victims with UV radiation and injecting them with disinfectants would cure them of the virus.
  • MAY:
    • The video “documentary” Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19 started floating around the Internet. This piece of propaganda was rife with conspiracy theories and dangerous misinformation, and got millions of views online.
    • Conspiracy theorists who believed that the coronavirus is somehow caused by 5G technology burned down cell phone towers in Europe.
    • Trolls and bots flooded social media with disinformation encouraging states to end their coronavirus quarantines.
    • Twitter began flagging misleading coronavirus tweets with a warning label.
    • Fake news began to spread about the upcoming coronavirus vaccine, especially among the anti-vax movement.
    • In a bit of pre-election foreshadowing, President Trump first began to tweet that mail-in voting was rife with fraud. (Twitter also flagged him on this.)
    • Viral posts began floating around social media claiming that George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police was staged. (It wasn’t.)
  • JUNE:
    • Summer was a time of much social unrest, spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Conspiracy theories and misinformation ran rampant regarding Floyd’s killing and the resultant protests and riots.
    • A tweet purporting to be from the ANTIFA movement claimed that “Tonight we say ‘Fuck the City’ and we move into the residential areas.” It was a hoax.
    • President Trump continued to spread baseless conspiracy theories about just about everything under the sun, putting pressure on Twitter to change its policies regarding false and misleading posts. For the first time, Twitter labeled a Trump tweet as “manipulated media.”
    • The QAnon conspiracy theory continued to gain adherents, among them a handful of supporters running for Congress. 
  • JULY:
    • In an interview with journalist Chris Wallace, President Trump made a bevy of false claims about the coronavirus, including that the U.S. had one of the lowest virus mortality rates in the world, the case rate was lower in other countries because we did more testing, COVID-19 was like a case of the “sniffles,” and the virus would just “disappear” as if by magic.
    • Anti-maskers claimed that they were exempt from mask wearing because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and printed out a (fake) card to prove it. 
    • Disinformative posts on Facebook claimed that nurses doing COVID-19 testing found all their tests came back (false) positive, implying that testing labs are manipulating results to rig the coronavirus statistics. 
    • Other viral posts claimed that face masks contained metal 5G antennas “made to kill everybody.”
    • Deepfakes started to be employed to spread disinformation about a number of hot-button topics, with the number of deepfake videos online doubling over the past 12 months.
    • A video from from “America’s Frontline Doctors” (distributed by Breitbart News) went viral, along with its claims that “you don’t need masks” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that studies that showed the drug hydroxychloroquine was ineffective were “fake science” promoted by “fake pharma companies.”
    • Twitter banned more than 7,000 QAnon-related accounts.
  • AUGUST:
    • Racist right-wingers falsely claimed that Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris wasn’t qualified for the post because either (a) she wasn’t born in the U.S. or (b) her parents weren’t born in the U.S., neither of which were true.
    • Both Facebook and Twitter removed a post by President Trump that linked to an interview where he claimed children are “almost immune” to COVID-19.
    • Thanks to the profusion of online disinformation, one-third of Americans said they won’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 if and when a vaccine is available.
    • A QAnon-related “documentary” titled Out of the Shadows racked up more than 20 million views on YouTube, alleging that Hollywood is run by Satanic pedophilia rings that distribute propaganda through films like Zoolander and the music videos of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
    • The QAnon conspiracy theory continued to infiltrate legitimate issues, with QAnoners hijacking the #SaveTheChildren hashtag and spreading among those protesting child sex trafficking. Not surprisingly, Russian-backed organizations were said to have played a significant role in spreading the conspiracy theory.
  • SEPTEMBER:
    • Both Facebook and Twitter removed multiple accounts linked to Russian state actors who tried to spread false stories about racial justice, the Democratic presidential campaign of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and President Trump’s policies.
    • Several freelance writers were duped into writing stories used for propaganda by the Russian-backed Peace Data fake news website.
    • Russian operators were also busy amplifying false claims that mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud, in an attempt to “sow distrust in Democratic institutions and election outcomes.”
    • Meanwhile, several leading Republicans, including Sen. Joni Ernst and President Donald J. Trump, were busy spreading misinformation that the true COVID-19 death numbers were grossly inflated.
    • Latinos in Florida were being swamped by all manner of wild conspiracy theories involving Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
    • Several legitimate media outlets reported that the government broke up a huge child trafficking ring. Unfortunately, these news stories were, at their best, extremely misleading and, at their worst, totally untrue.
  • OCTOBER:
    • President Trump was hospitalized for the coronavirus and many conspiracy theories arose claiming it was all a hoax. What wasn’t a hoax was a Cornell University study that revealed that President Trump himself had been the biggest spreader of false claims and disinformation about the COVID-19 virus.
    • Following his hospital stay, President Trump claimed that COVID-19 is less deadly than the flu. (Not true.)
    • In a town hall event, President Trump refused to admit that he knew what the QAnon conspiracy was, refused to disavow it, and said “What I do hear about it is they are strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that.”
    • Facebook banned all ads that supporting QAnon and other militarized social movements. YouTube also banned content content that targets an individual or a group using conspiracy theories that have “been used to justify real-world violence.”
    • Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe reported that Russia and Iran were using voter registration data to interfere in the upcoming election.
    • President Trump continued to spread disinformation about voting issues, especially mail-in voting, and asserted that “the only way we can lose, in my opinion, is massive fraud.”
  • NOVEMBER:
    • In the wake of Joe Biden’s commanding win over Donald Trump in the November 3rd presidential election, Trump and his allies began to spin a virtual plethora of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies about the results. Trump claimed that he “won” Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, all of which he lost. He called mail-in voting “a corrupt system,” adding that there is “tremendous corruption and fraud going on.” Critics called Trump’s post-election speech one of “historic dishonesty.”
    • Facebook and Twitter flagged numerous posts from Trump and his supporters. Trump, in response, claimed that Twitter is “out of control” — but continued to use it, multiple times daily.
    • False claims about the election results went viral online. The three biggest such claims included a misleading map of voting in Michigan, that Wisconsin counted more ballots than it had registered voters, and that ballots in Arizona marked with Sharpies don’t count.
    • Trump’s campaign of disinformation and conspiracy theories was apparently working, with 7 out of 10 Republicans claiming that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump.
    • Later in the month, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s alleged lawyer, held a blatantly ridiculous press conference in which virtually every word uttered was a complete fabrication. 
  • DECEMBER:
    • President Trump released a 46-minute propaganda video direct to Facebook in which he claimed that “corrupt forces” had stuffed ballot boxes with fraudulent votes and that the fraud was “on a scale never seen before.” He urged the Supreme Court to “do what’s right for our country,” including terminating hundreds of thousands of votes so that “I very easily win in all states.” In a related issue, the Supreme Court refused to hear two obviously baseless cases brought to it by the Trump campaign.
    • Conspiracy theories and misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine spread like wildfire. (My favorite: taking the vaccine will change your DNA.) Because of this, 37% of Americans say they are not willing to get a COVID vaccine.
    • Facebook removed a number of pages, some with tens of millions of followers, said to be part of a coordinated network driving users to five “alternative” health sites in an attempt to increase ad revenue on those sites
    • Finally, PolitiFact announced that the biggest lie of the year was coronavirus downplay and denial. Hard to argue with that, although President Trump’s “the election was stolen” comes a close second.

And that was the year that was. Here’s hoping that there’s less fake news to report on in the year to come!

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