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There’s a parody Twitter account that looks like it might be an official one from the state of Maine. This fake account managed to cause some real confusion by tweeting right before National Coming Out Day that Maine was changing its state flag to a rainbow design.
It should have been clear fairly quickly that this wasn’t a real post from the state of Maine. But apparently some people saw the “@Maine_gov” handle and the state seal image and thought it was an official tweet. This once again emphasizes the importance of not taking everything you see on social media at face value, and of taking a little extra time to scrutinize and verify information you see presented online.
A brief scroll through that account’s other posts would have left little doubt that this was not the Maine government, and saved a lot of time and confusion. Instead, Gov. Janet Mills’ office actually had to clarify that this wasn’t an official state account.
This particular situation started with a parody account. But the overall wave of confusion and misinformation crashing through the U.S. is no joke, particularly relating to the presidential election.
U.S. intelligence and cybersecurity officials have made it clear: Russia is once again trying to influence the election with a preference for Republican President Donald Trump, and China and Iran are engaged in their own influence efforts with a preference for Democrat Joe Biden.
Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s critical that we all be skeptical consumers of information and be aware of the many attempts to create chaos and confusion. That includes looking closely at sources of information, and turning to multiple news outlets to see if others missed meaningful details or got something wrong.
These are important approaches, not just when trying to separate parody from real life, but when confronted with supposed bombshell reports like the recent, flawed story from the New York Post about the undoubtedly questionable overseas business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter.
It’s not as quick of a process as realizing that the state of Maine isn’t in fact switching to a rainbow flag, but it doesn’t take long to find glaring problems with the Post story.
As numerous other reports have pointed out, the story is based on unverified, potentially hacked or fabricated materials related to Hunter Biden from a computer hard drive. The chain of custody of that hard drive — which made its way from a computer repair shop owner in Delaware to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — raises serious red flags. So too does the involvement of Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser currently out on $5 million bail after pleading not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges, who first told the Post about the hard drive before Giuliani shared its contents.
Particularly glaring is Giuliani’s established connection to disinformation. Trump’s own Treasury Department has designated one of Giuliani’s past contacts as a Russian agent. There have now been multiple reports that Trump was warned last year by his national security adviser that Giuliani was the target of a Russian disinformation campaign. According to NBC News, two unnamed sources say federal authorities are now investigating whether the alleged Hunter Biden emails on the hard drive are related to a foreign intelligence operation.
We’re wondering why Giuliani and Bannon waited until just weeks before the election to take the hard drive information to the New York Post, rather than immediately presenting it to the U.S. Senate committee already investigating Hunter Biden (which has identified possible conflicts of interest but found no evidence of wrongdoing). It’s almost as if Giuliani and Bannon prioritized explosive headlines.
We tend to agree with Nina Jankowicz, an expert on Russian disinformation at the nonpartisan Wilson Center in Washington, and her assessment of the New York Post story.
“We should view it as a Trump campaign product,” Jankowicz told the New York Daily News.
The solution isn’t to limit access to a flawed story like this, as Facebook and Twitter made the mistake of doing. That only feeds claims of censorship. But its shortcomings and questionable sourcing need to be acknowledged.
Misinformation and orchestrated confusion will continue to swirl around the presidential election. At this point, one of the defenses is awareness. U.S. voters need to realize that there are active efforts to misinform them and influence their votes. They can counter that by digging deeper into who and where information is coming from, not relying on one source and by being on the lookout for inconsistencies or inaccuracies.