People For the American Way

Disinformation, Coronavirus, and the 2020 Presidential Election: New Right Wing Watch Analysis

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 20, 2020

Contact: Laurie Kinney at People For the American Way

Email: [email protected]

Phone Number: 202.467.2307

WASHINGTON, D.C.— With the presidential election just months away amid the unprecedented circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, a new analysis by Right Wing Watch—a project of People for the American Way—analyzes and previews the various forms taken by the right’s disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Disinformation, Coronavirus and the 2020 Presidential Election” goes far beyond the known interference of Russian social media trolls and bots to show how homegrown disinformation has become an even bigger problem. As author Melissa Ryan notes in the report, “pro-Trump super PACs, right-wing media outlets, and an organized army of MAGA warriors” are now leading sources of disinformation, and have “adopted tactics deployed by Russia and other hostile actors in 2016, optimizing them for 2020.” Much of this activity is seen in the right’s efforts to spread false narratives about the coronavirus pandemic in order to portray the Trump administration as successfully managing the crisis. To further complicate matters, mainstream journalists have often become unwitting amplifiers of right-wing falsehoods and propaganda.

“We know the right is already ramping up its disinformation campaign ahead of the next election—in fact, it never stopped,” said Adele M. Stan, director of the Right Wing Watch program. “It’s critically important that journalists and voters recognize how these efforts work and what they look like—and how deliberately they target different segments of the public. For instance, we know that African Americans are favorite targets of disinformers whose aim is to disenfranchise millions of Black voters.”

“We’ve seen again and again how mainstream news organizations have been manipulated by these right-wing extremists into amplifying their propaganda,” said the study’s author, Melissa Ryan, disinformation expert and CEO of CARD Strategies. “Disinformation purveyors not only take advantage of reporters’ best intentions in terms of fairly covering ‘both sides,’ but they also know how to game technology and social media to pressure reporters into covering their messages. This report will help journalists arm themselves against these tactics.”

Conceived as an explainer, the report shows how:

  • Homegrown disinformation operations are now a much bigger problem than in 2016;
  • Republican operatives have learned and adopted disinformation tactics into their strategies, following the lead of Trump himself;
  • African American voters are a key target of disinformation campaigns, which use a variety of digital and other methods in attempts to suppress the African American vote;
  • In addition to Black Americans, other vulnerable populations—including the Jewish, Muslim, and Latinx communities—are disproportionately targeted online with disinformation, harassment, and propaganda;
  • Journalists and media outlets often become unwitting carriers of disinformation, helping viral online conspiracies, propaganda, and disinformation to go mainstream;
  • Disinformers have the infrastructure in place to exploit the fear and anxiety produced by the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic shock to manipulate voters’ perceptions.

About People For the American Way

People For the American Way is a progressive advocacy organization founded to fight right-wing extremism and build a democratic society that implements the ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity and justice for all. We encourage civic participation, defend fundamental rights, and fight to dismantle systemic barriers to equitable opportunityLearn more: http://www.pfaw.org.