Influence and Improvisation: Participatory Disinformation during the 2020 US Election

A new article in Social Media + Society uses three case studies to understand the participatory nature and dynamics of the online spread of misleading information.

The 2020 US election was accompanied by an effort to spread a false meta-narrative of widespread voter fraud. This meta-narrative took hold among a substantial portion of the US population, undermining trust in election procedures and results, and eventually motivating the events of 6 January 2021. We examine this effort as a domestic and participatory disinformation campaign in which a variety of influencers—including hyperpartisan media and political operatives—worked alongside ordinary people to produce and amplify misleading claims, often unwittingly. To better understand the nature of participatory disinformation, we examine three cases of misleading claims of voter fraud, applying an interpretive, mixed method approach to the analysis of social media data. Contrary to a prevailing view of such campaigns as coordinated and/or elite-driven efforts, this work reveals a more hybrid form, demonstrating both top-down and bottom-up dynamics that are more akin to cultivation and improvisation.