This has been a bad year for consensus reality in all respects.
First, there was President Trump's impeachment – a divisive and emotionally charged process that sparked a barrage of lies, exaggerations, and viral innuendos.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic – an even greater opportunity for fools, conspiracy theorists, and wishful thinkers to epistemically divide us into those who believed the experts and those who preferred to "do their own research."
The protests against Black Lives Matter this summer were insane for those who wanted to skew and recreate the narrative of police violence and racial justice.
And while election years are always busy times for fact-checkers, Mr. Trump's fusillade of falsehoods about electoral fraud, Spygate and Hunter Biden's emails this year has created a greater challenge for those charged with separating truth from fiction.
Zignal Labs, a company tracking online misinformation, analyzed which key news topics were most likely to lead to misinformation in 2020. The data that comes from sources like social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit as well as newspapers and TV transcripts are not an exact representation of all the individual misinformation. However, it is a rough measure of which topics are most commonly used as a vehicle for misinformation by those looking to add confusion and chaos to media narratives.
(Quick methodological note: These "misinformation mentions" are limited to topics related to either election or the Covid-19 pandemic, and are used by Zignal's automated system based on the number of times a particular term is mentioned along with a frequent one For example, a post in which vaccines are mentioned in connection with Covid-19 is not counted as a mention of misinformation, but a post in which vaccines are mentioned together with a hashtag like #FauciTheFraud or a name like Bill Gates a frequent target by anti-vaccine activists – would be counted even if the underlying story exposed such a false claim.)
According to Zignal, the topic most likely to misinformation this year was an old willingness: George Soros, the liberal financier who has played a prominent role in right-wing conspiracy theories for years.
Of Mr. Soros' 2.6 million media mentions that year, nearly half (1.1 million) were accompanied by terms (“Soros-funded”, “bankroll”) suggesting that he had a role in funding left agitators played. They peaked this summer when false claims that Mr. Soros funded protests against Black Lives Matter went viral following the assassination of George Floyd.
Second was Ukraine, which peaked in January and February as a misinformation subject during Mr. Trump's impeachment trial, along with keywords like "Deep State" and "WWG1WGA," an acronym used by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy movement has been. Around 34 percent of the total of 9.2 million media mentions in Ukraine were flagged as misinformation.
The third point was the postal vote, which has been the subject of a deluge of misinformation from Mr Trump and far-right media. According to Zignal's analysis, around one in five votes by email in 2020 was misinformation, with terms such as “fraud” and “fraud” frequently being red flags.
On all three topics, right-wing news sites like Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit were some of the most common spreaders of misinformation. According to Zignal, YouTube was also a major source of misinformation on these topics.
Of course, the misinformation we've seen so far this year could pale in comparison to what happened next week's post-election events, when a controversial outcome or fraud allegations lead to a new wave of false or misleading allegations. Social media platforms have signaled that they will eliminate premature claims to victory and try to de-legitimize the elections. But they have also pledged to clean up misinformation about Covid-19 and have had mixed success in the process.
Here are the topics that generated the highest percentage of misinformation narratives:
1. George Soros (45.7 percent mention misinformation)
2. Ukraine (34.2 percent)
3. Postal voting (21.8 percent)
4. Bioweapon (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)