U.S. Senator Bill Nelson wasted no time broadcasting his insider’s knowledge about three hot-button issues earlier this year.
In a trio of tweets and viral comments rifled off within the past six months, Nelson — one of Florida’s longest-serving federal officials — distributed details about a high school shooting, the type of weapon used in a separate shooting in a Miami-Dade community and a now widely rebuffed charge about the cybersecurity of Florida’s election system.
But Nelson’s efforts to spread breaking news failed. His information was wrong. Still, social media’s echo chamber distributed Nelson’s false information far and wide on the internet. Three of the tweets containing false information remain posted, accessible to continue sharing and spreading, without correction.
Ironically, the most recent of Nelson’s suspect tweets — that Russian entities have hacked into Florida’s election system — caught the attention of two online conservative news outlets on Twitter. They have now targeted Nelson with their own misleading tweet, falsely claiming Nelson admitted to fabricating the Russian hack in a video embedded in the tweet.
That video has been viewed 283,000 times and remains on the sites.
Since the 2016 election, political discussion platforms on social media have served as gateways for new techniques of creating and spreading false and misleading information about candidates and issues. Russian hackers, bots and dark web trolls are not the only offenders and candidates for the U.S. House and Senate seats are not the only targets.
Like Nelson, users of social media themselves often inadvertently spread misleading and false information when they retweet, like and share information they believe to be true but in fact is false and misleading.
Information pollution on social media has become so prevalent in politics that experts say it threatens to unhinge democracy.
“Democracy runs on trust,” said Kevin Lanning, professor of psychology at the Wilkes Honor college at Florida Atlantic University. “Without a common notion of truth, you can’t have trust.”
Claire Wardle, co-founder and leader of First Draft, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, has dubbed the phenomenon “information disorder” and broken it down into three types:
- Malinformation, content that is based on reality but deliberately created to inflict harm, such as hate speech, leaked documents and revenge porn.
- Disinformation, false, misleading information - sometimes created by imposters - deliberately created to harm a person, organization or country.
- Misinformation, false information created without harmful intent, including rumors and unverified information, sometimes spread by people caught up in the moment, trying to be helpful.
Misinformation, one of the most common and troubling seen on social media, is what Nelson spread after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and another shooting in Liberty City in April.
Just hours after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Nelson went on MSNBC: “Let me give you some new information. He wore a gas mask.” Nelson said about the shooter. Nelson then posted the clip to his Twitter account.
Sandy Hook, Pulse nightclub, Ft. Lauderdale airport, Las Vegas and now Parkland, Florida - when is this going to stop? It’s not going to stop until the American people say: enough is enough! What is it going to take for enough to be enough? pic.twitter.com/SVJzvlJzsR— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) February 15, 2018
A day later, during a speech on the Senate floor, Nelson again said the gunman was wearing a gas mask and tossed smoke grenades. Nelson also posted that clip with a tweet calling for a ban on assault weapons.
At some point we've got to say enough is enough. At some point we as a society have got to come together and put a stop to this. I’m a hunter, I’ve owned guns all my life. An AR-15 is not for hunting. It's for killing. Let’s get these assault weapons off our streets. pic.twitter.com/ck6svgSmtN— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) February 15, 2018
The gunman did not wear a gas mask or use smoke grenades. Nelson did not remove the tweets.
On April 8, amid rumors that Gov. Rick Scott would challenge Nelson for his Senate seat, Nelson tweeted about a shooting in Liberty City: “Apparently assault weapons used.”
The next morning, police said assault weapons were not used in the shooting. Asked to explain why he spread the false information, Nelson told the Miami Herald he had received bad information from a state representative.
Just got off the phone with State Rep. Kionne McGhee. Several people dead in Liberty City. Apparently assault weapons used.— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) April 9, 2018
Nelson’s third run-in with the truth came on August 8, when he told the Tampa Bay Times that Russian hackers had penetrated Florida elections systems during the current mid-term campaign. Nelson’s comments ignited a frenzy among voters, reporters and election officials — all demanding to know details of the alleged hack. Nelson declined to release details, saying the information came from two senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said the information was classified and could not be made public.
The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and top election officials have said subsequently stated there is no evidence that Russia has accessed voter rolls in Florida. The Washington Post’s fact-checker found there was no evidence to support Nelson’s claim and gave it a four-Pinocchio rating — it’s highest “whopper” rank.
In response, Nelson tweeted an NBC report that claimed he was not “making things up.”
But two conservative online news sources on Twitter, @RNCResearch and @WiredSources, pounced on Nelson.They targeted him with their own disinformation campaign, claiming Nelson admitted to fabricating the Russian hacking story. Other tweets from high-volume conservative accounts followed — although Nelson did not recant or back off his assertions.
Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to challenge Nelson in this fall’s general election, sought to capitalize on Nelson’s apparent error. Scott’s campaign released a 2:21 minute video on YouTube on Aug. 23 claiming Nelson “can’t back up his wild claims.”
In an email response from Nelson’s campaign about his factual faux pas this year, spokesman Dan McLaughlin wrote: “Obviously this is all political nonsense pushed by the same individual who couldn’t remember how he led a company into perpetrating one of the largest Medicare fraud schemes ever,” referring to a federal billing fraud investigation of Columbia/HCA, a company headed by Scott, that resulted in the company pleading guilty and agreeing to pay nation’s largest Medicare fraud settlement, a $1.7 billion.
While Nelson is the highest profile Florida politician to have been ensnared in the social media “fake” information quagmire, other political figures have been singled out as targets.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy hasn’t been in office since he was defeated by Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped a bot from posting anti-Murphy tweets with a link to one story so old it is no longer online.
“How many more Patrick Murphy lies before he drops out?” asked a tweet posted on Aug. 22 with a link to a 2016 video news report.
Murphy said he did not know about the bot, with the Twitter handle @OrlandoTribune, or who set it up. The bot was created in July 2016, in the thick of Murphy’s U.S. Senate campaign against Rubio. A digital media marketing executive in North Carolina, who was followed by and followed @OrlandoTribune, also used his personal account to post pro-Rubio tweets.
Shortly after the Post attempted to contact, via Twitter and phone, the individual believed to be behind @OrlandoTribune, the account was taken down. The individual then blocked the reporter from his Twitter account.
Murphy, a former member of the House Intelligence Committee and among the first millenials elected to Congress, said Congress “needs to step up and do more,” about information manipulation on social media. The number of bots on social media has been estimated at more than 50 million. But Murphy believes there are far more than social media executives are willing to admit.
Murphy said he has heard both liberals and conservatives say traditional news sources have become so biased that they prefer to get their news from social media — where there is little oversight or verification of news.
“Often they think they are getting non-partisan news and often times they are not,” said Murphy. “The question is, are social media platforms news agencies or not?”
“When we see multiple messages about the same topic, our brains use that as a short-cut to credibility,” First Draft’s Wardle wrote in an article in February 2017. “And as information overload exhausts our brains, we’re much easier to influence.”
Types of information pollution on social media
Misinformation: False information created without harmful intent, including rumors unwittingly spread by people caught up in the moment, trying to be helpful.
Disinformation: False, manipulated and imposter content deliberately created to harm a person, organization or country. Includes conspiracy theories and rumors.
Malinformation: Information based on reality, deliberately created to inflict harm. Includes leaks, hate speech, revenge porn.
Source: firstdraftnews.org, a project of the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School
How to tell if you’ve been in contact with Russian accounts on Facebook or Instagram
Last year, Facebook announced that nearly 150 million users may have viewed more than 80,000 pieces of content posted by Russian-backed actors between 2015 and 2017. Facebook took down thousands of pages and provided that information to Congress and to the Special Counsel investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In December, Facebook released a tool enabling users to see if they liked or followed any of the content. Clicking the tool displays any of the Russian accounts that you may have liked or followed. Similar information is displayed on Instagram accounts. https://www.facebook.com/help/817246628445509