'Don't fuel the fire': disinformation experts on how Biden should deal with Trump's election lies

Lois Beckett
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the days since Joe Biden won the US presidential election, Donald Trump has rejected the results, spread lies about voter fraud, replaced key military leaders with loyalists, and encouraged Republicans at every level of the party to contest the vote counts showing that he lost.

Americans are now debating how Biden should respond.

Biden has called Trump’s refusal to concede an “embarrassment” and told voters that “the fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge that we won at this point is not of much consequence”.

But some have called on the president-elect to go further, and furiously sound the alarm about an American politician adopting the tactics of a dictator.

Some experts on disinformation say that Biden’s current strategy of downplaying Trump’s behavior may be the correct one at the moment, even if it can be “frustrating to watch”, said Becca Lewis, a research affiliate at Data & Society Research Institute, who studies misinformation.

Related: Trump’s election attacks sow distrust and pose US security threat, experts warn

“By not giving Trump the attention that he craves, it deflates a lot of the strength and power that Trump and his supporters have in this moment,” Lewis said.

The Biden campaign used a similar approach during the campaign in response to Republicans’ attempts to turn a story about emails from Biden’s son Hunter into a major scandal.

Rather than attempting to respond point-by-point, the Biden campaign bluntly dismissed the story as “a conspiracy theory”, said Whitney Phillips, a professor of communications at Syracuse University. “It was done in a tone of, ‘We’re responding to this because we have to. We’re not giving it very much mental energy,’ whether or not that’s how they felt behind the scenes.”

“That particular strategy really did seem to work,” she said.

Having Biden acknowledge Trump’s norm-shattering behavior since the election, rather than try to ignore it, was important, Phillips said, but his quick pivot to talking about the issues facing Americans next, and the challenges the government needed to start dealing with, was “effective rhetorically, but also emotionally”.

Biden was responding “like an adult,” she said.

For the Biden team, “directly responding to any of these allegations at this stage is just adding more oxygen to the fire”, said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Shafiqah Hudson, an author and researcher who has studied online disinformation campaigns, said she would like to see Democrats take a stronger stance and condemn Trump’s actions “in the strongest possible terms.” But Biden’s response “is the sort of answer I would expect from someone who has the job of attempting to mend a fractured nation,” she said.

In response to the competitive scrum of rightwing media outlets and activists spreading disinformation about Trump’s loss – resulting in 70% of Republicans saying they do not believe the election was free and fair, according to one recent poll – Democrats should keep explaining how the election process actually works, and what built-in checks and auditing are being done as votes are counted, said I’Nasah Crockett, a researcher and artist who has tracked manipulation and misinformation on social media.

“I think it would be great if Biden and his campaign took a very kindergarten approach to the situation that we’re in,” Crockett said. “If you’re working with little kids and you’re trying to get them to understand some basic concept, you have to keep repeating it, bringing it back to square one.”

It’s also important to acknowledge how Republicans’ sweeping claims about voter fraud are specifically targeted at delegitimizing Black voters and throwing out their votes, said Shireen Mitchell, a disinformation researcher and founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women.

Republicans have focused their baseless claims of voting fraud on majority-Black cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, where support from Black voters helped Biden win the presidency.

“They’re using coded language to say anyone other than white people are illegal voters,” Mitchell said. Trump’s attacks on voting by mail, which many Americans chose to do during a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black and brown people, is part of a long history of constantly evolving strategies to disenfranchise black Americans, she said.

Michigan’s Democratic attorney general addressed that concern explicitly this week, arguing that the Trump campaign’s election lawsuits were “baseless” and that their unifying narrative were claims suggesting, “Black people are corrupt, Black people are incompetent and Black people can’t be trusted”, the Detroit Free Press reported.

While social media users have been furiously debating whether it’s time to label Trump’s undermining of democracy as an attempt at a “coup”, disinformation experts said that framing might not be particularly useful at the moment.

Talking about a “coup” might speak to the concerns of some Americans, including those who have been following the news very closely, but it might not communicate that much to those who have been paying less attention, and it might alienate others, Phillips said.

“I think the problem is less that ‘coup’ is a strong word, than that people don’t know what a coup is,” Hudson said.

Faced with millions of Americans who already mistrust the results of the election, a more useful tactic to combat Trump’s misinformation might be to remind Americans exactly how long before the election Trump and his supporters had been advertising their plan to call the election results illegitimate, Phillips said.

“This was a communications strategy before a single vote was cast,” Phillips said. Reminding Americans of the long timeline of Trump’s claims about the election “allows people to exercise their savvy, to sniff out bullshit. If someone has been seeding a lie before an event takes place, it should give a person pause.”

But Biden and the Democratic party should not overestimate the strength of American democracy in the face of Trump’s attacks – or the number of Americans who see the current system as legitimate, Crockett said: “The thing that worries me most is there’s a fundamental faith in institutions that I think mainstream Democrats have which is, honestly, idealistic at this point.”

If Trump escalates his refusal to concede, and if powerful Republican politicians continue to stand with him, it may not be enough to keep dismissing and deflecting attention from their behavior.

“Depending on how much this snowballs, there may be a time that [Biden] has to take it seriously,” Lewis said.