How the “Death Star” spreads false information for political gain
Investigation by Hawkfish Research. Writing by Hawkfish Creative. Thanks to Smith & Diction for the graphics.
Donald Trump knows he won’t get reelected unless millions of voters reject facts and believe lies. His campaign strategy relies on disinformation: spreading false information deliberately to deceive people. Trump has provided a megaphone for these disinformation agents, regularly promoting inaccurate and erroneous messages. It’s a juggernaut of deception dubbed the “Death Star” by the Trump campaign’s digital strategist and former campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
At Hawkfish, we’ve been applying the latest data and analytics tools and techniques to better understand how the digital discourse is being manipulated and weaponized for political ends. Our data gives us an unprecedented ability to track where disinformation comes from, how it spreads, and the profit motives that drive it.
As a case study, we’ve been investigating how disinformation is being used by Trumpworld to manipulate sentiment about COVID-19. We have tracked and mapped 300+ individuals and entities closely tied to Trumpworld whose messages align with Trump’s campaign themes.
How disinformation spreads through the “Death Star”
Whether disinformation suggests China might have created COVID-19 as a bioweapon, raises suspicions about voting by mail, or claims hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19, its spread nearly always follows a similar pattern:
- An inciting incident frames the story.
- As the story spreads, people are incentivized to embellish it by adding false information.
- These baseless stories evolve, occasionally either becoming more extreme or gaining traction with a mass audience.
- Eventually, a mutated story reaches a major conservative influencer, who posts about it on social media or mentions it in a right-wing media outlet (as an example, Laura Ingraham has 3.6 million Twitter followers and 4 million TV viewers; Next News Network has 1.67 million YouTube subscribers).
- From sources like that, it’s likely to catch Trump’s attention.
- When Trump shares it with his ~85 million Twitter followers, the “Death Star” amplification affects media coverage, public opinion and, ultimately, government policy.
Sowing confusion and chaos around COVID-19
Conspiracy theories and the spread of false information have largely defined the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States — a massive problem that can be traced straight to the top. Donald Trump and his allies are deeply enmeshed in the spread of disinformation that continues to have a major impact on public health. We’re not talking about good faith errors, or scientists revising earlier recommendations after gaining more information.
This “infodemic,” as the World Health Organization has named it, has made battling the virus politically fraught. How many people will choose to wear masks and social distance? When will people feel comfortable traveling again? Will people trust the vaccines that are developed to treat the virus? How might election turnout in November suffer due to voters’ fears of contracting COVID-19? All of these outcomes will be shaped by the information people consume, trust, and share with others. Disinformation is also not limited to COVID-19; it serves Republican ends across the political and cultural landscape.