November 2, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 53—Politician misinformation, and election anxiety

The 2020 presidential election is just a day away, and Americans have been inundated for months with information about candidates, both true and false. Social media scholars have known for some time that politicians are among the most prolific spreaders of misinformation on social media, and a new study from Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media shows the impact of that behavior on the election. In fact, the IU researchers say following politicians on social media is associated with higher rates of exposure and vulnerability to misinformation. People who do follow politicians are about 26% more likely to be aware of false stories, and about 16% more likely to believe those stories. Betsi Grabe, a professor in The Media School at IU, says it is unsettling to find that the people we elect to represent us are responsible for polluting social media with disinformation. She says these findings illustrate the importance of media literacy efforts to help people recognize disinformation and adds weight to the urgency for debate on how to regulate disinformation. In the study, participants were asked about five untrue narratives related to the presidential nominees. Researchers found that about 55% of respondents thought the FBI might have spied on the Trump campaign, making that narrative the most believed of all false narratives shared across the series of studies on unsupported narratives before the election. About 50% of participants believed the narrative that the president might terminate Social Security and Medicare, and about 42% believed he might have made up his COVID-19 illness to help win reelection. The researchers found that participant responses aligned with their political beliefs, with Biden supporters more likely to believe Trump would terminate Medicaid and social security and that he faked his illness. Trump supporters, on the other hand, were more likely to believe stories that cast Biden in an unfavorable light.

While presidential elections are often a source of stress, the 2020 election has become particularly emotional for some individuals. Ed Hirt, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at IU Bloomington, says there are several ways people can control their election-related fear and anxiety. First, adjust your expectations and be prepared that results will not be available on Election Day. Second, have a support system. Hirt says to find a trusted person or group you can lean on when feeling nervous or distressed and make a plan for how you’ll stay in touch on Election Day and the weeks that follow. Third, do something that makes you happy. When you start to feel anxious, give yourself a break and focus on something you really want to do. He says going for a walk, reading a book or playing a game may temporarily take your mind off the election. Fourth, log off social media. Hirt says to ask yourself whether monitoring social media is benefiting you, and if not, log off. And if you want to be online, it’s okay to be a silent observer. Take a step back, try not to get upset with what others are saying, and come back to it later. Finally, know when to get help. If your anxiety starts to affect your everyday life and behaviors – you find you’re not sleeping well, you lash out at others or feel out of control -- Hirt says it’s important to seek professional help.