The Year in Misinformation, So Far

This has been, by any measure, a bad year for consensus reality.

First, there was President Trump’s impeachment — a divisive and emotionally charged proceeding that unleashed a torrent of lies, exaggerations and viral innuendo.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic — an even bigger opportunity for cranks, conspiracy theorists and wishful thinkers to divide us along epistemic lines, into those who believed the experts and those who preferred to “do their own research.”

The Black Lives Matter protests this summer were a feeding frenzy for those looking to distort and reframe the narrative about police violence and racial justice.

And while election years are always busy times for fact-checkers, Mr. Trump’s fusillade of falsehoods about voter fraud, Spygate and Hunter Biden’s emails this year has resulted in a bigger challenge for those charged with separating truth from fiction.

Zignal Labs, a firm that tracks online misinformation, analyzed which major news topics in 2020 were most likely to generate misinformation. Its data, which draws from sources including social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, as well as newspapers and broadcast TV transcripts, isn’t an exact accounting of every single piece of misinformation out there. But it’s a rough gauge of which topics are most frequently used as vehicles for misinformation, by those looking to inject confusion and chaos into media narratives.

(Quick methodological note: These “misinformation mentions” are limited to topics related to either the election or the Covid-19 pandemic, and are calculated by Zignal’s automated system based on the number of mentions of a given term along with a term that is frequently associated with misinformation. So, for example, a post that mentions vaccines in the context of Covid-19 would not be counted as a misinformation mention, but a post that mentions vaccines along with a hashtag like #FauciTheFraud or a name like Bill Gates — a frequent target of anti-vaccine activists — would be counted, even if the underlying story was debunking such a false claim.)

The topic most likely to generate misinformation this year, according to Zignal, was an old standby: George Soros, the liberal financier who has featured prominently in right-wing conspiracy theories for years.

Out of 2.6 million total media mentions of Mr. Soros so far this year, nearly half (1.1 million) were accompanied by terms (“Soros-funded,” “bankroll”) that suggested that he played a role in funding left-wing agitators. They peaked this summer, as false claims that Mr. Soros had funded Black Lives Matter protests went viral following the killing of George Floyd.

Second on the list was Ukraine, which peaked as a misinformation topic in January and February, during Mr. Trump’s impeachment proceedings along with keywords like “deep state” and “WWG1WGA,” a shorthand used by followers of the QAnon conspiracy movement. About 34 percent of Ukraine’s 9.2 million total media mentions were flagged as misinformation-related.

Third was vote-by-mail, which has been the subject of a torrent of misinformation by Mr. Trump and right-wing media outlets. Roughly one out of every five vote-by-mail stories in 2020 has been misinformation, according to Zignal’s analysis, with terms like “fraud” and “scam” being common red flags.

With all three subjects, some of the most common spreaders of misinformation were right-wing news sites like Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit. YouTube also served as a major source of misinformation about these topics, according to Zignal.

Of course, the misinformation we’ve seen so far this year might pale in comparison to what happens after next week’s election, if a contested result or allegations of fraud result in a new wave of false or misleading claims. Social media platforms have signaled that they will remove premature claims of victory, and attempts to delegitimize the election. But they also pledged to take down misinformation about Covid-19, and have had only mixed success in doing so.

Here are the topics that generated the highest percentage of misinformation narratives:

1. George Soros (45.7 percent misinformation mentions)

2. Ukraine (34.2 percent)

3. Vote by Mail (21.8 percent)

4. Bio Weapon (24.2 percent)

5. Antifa (19.4 percent)

6. Biden and Defund the Police (14.2 percent)

7. Hydroxychloroquine (9.2 percent)

8. Vaccine (8.2 percent)

9. Anthony Fauci (3.2 percent)

10. Masks (0.8 percent)