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Disinformation Around Trump's Health 'Very Concerning' Ahead Of Election

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump's testing positive for the novel coronavirus has inserted even more drama into what was already a tense run-up to the November vote. But another factor adding to the tension are the attacks we're hearing casting doubt on the integrity of the election - attacks that are even coming from the president himself. And we wanted to ask what effect these kinds of statements can have, so we've caught Nina Jankowicz. She is a fellow at the Wilson Center whose research focuses on disinformation.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Arie Perliger, who's director of the graduate program in security studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Arie Perliger, thank you so much for joining us as well.

ARIE PERLIGER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: So, Nina, let me start with you. As we know, the president is now at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda after testing positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. And pretty soon, after that positive test became known, there were these wild stories spreading on social media about it. And you study disinformation. Can you tell us a bit more about what you saw and are seeing? And what do you think that's about?

JANKOWICZ: Sure. Well, I think this incident is a reminder of how disinformation works. It preys on uncertainty and emotion, particularly when there are low levels of trust in our institutions. That should sound familiar to everyone. So right now, we're seeing all sorts of things. But we're seeing especially rumors that President Trump might be faking the virus. That's coming from not only people on the left but those in the QAnon conspiracy circles as well.

And then, on the right, there are some people who are claiming that this is a Democratic conspiracy. They're saying it's weird that no Democratic leaders have gotten the virus - which, of course, is false. This has to do with more of the fact that the Republican leaders weren't wearing masks and were in close quarters to one another.

So that's the sort of stuff we're seeing. I think it's really incumbent on everyone to just do their due diligence and slow down, confirm things before spreading rumors, and understand that this is a rapidly changing situation, and we aren't going to have all the information right away.

MARTIN: I want to bring in Arie Perliger now. You've studied what happens when leaders around the world and their supporters delegitimize the voting process itself. So I just want to play you a clip of an online ad featuring the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., suggesting that Democrats want to rig the election. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

DONALD TRUMP JR: Their plan is to add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election. We cannot let that happen. We need every able-bodied man and woman to join an army for Trump's election security operation at defendyourballot.com. We need you to help us watch them, not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the county boards.

MARTIN: I just - I have to say, there is no evidence to back up these claims. So, Arie Perliger, just - I just wanted to ask you, how do you respond to this?

PERLIGER: I think this is very concerning for at least two major reasons - because it sends a message to various groups that's - that are extremely supportive of the president and have an history of engaging in various illegal and violent practices. So these kind of messages such as the message that he sent to the Proud Boys during the debate basically provides them empowerment. They feel that they have an actual influence on the electoral process, on the political process.

Secondly, it provides them legitimacy. They basically enhance their sense that they represent a significant constituency, that they have actual people that stands behind them, including individuals within the political system. In the past, as we got closer to elections, we've seen rise in the level of violence. This is another element that can actually enhance this kind of contentious, toxic environment that facilitate violence.

MARTIN: What do you mean when - you say that we've seen rising levels of violence. Tell me more about that. I think Americans would be very surprised to hear that. I think that they associate violence connected to elections with a phenomenon that occurs particularly in places where widespread voting is not common, or elections are commonly understood to be directed by those in power. So tell me more about that.

PERLIGER: So when we are trying to track domestic political violence, domestic ideological violence, what we see in the last 30 years - basically, since the 1990s - is that during the election years, and in many cases, also during the primary year, we see a dramatic rise in the level of violence - violence that is being perpetrated by various white supremacy groups, militia groups - in some cases, also some more religious fundamentalist groups.

And this is something which is consistent throughout the years. We've seen that more dramatically since 2008, when the first African American president was elected. But this is a consistent pattern that we see again and again. And this is mainly a result of a growing perception that our elections are a zero-sum game. And it's because you cannot allow yourself to lose, people are willing to engage in more extreme activities in order to ensure the electoral victory.

I think it's also related to the fact that growing polarization within the political system as well as within American society - it creates more contentious environment, the dissemination of more radical messages. All these factors eventually push people to engage in more extreme acts and in more radical activism.

MARTIN: So I do want to point out here that state officials across the country, both Democrats and Republicans, seem to be doing their best to reassure people that the election will be free and fair. So, Nina Jankowicz, I want to ask you, what would a vote that has integrity look like? When you say - if you use the term election integrity, what do you mean? And do you think that this vote will have integrity under your standard?

JANKOWICZ: Yes. At the start, I think it's important to point out that as somebody who has studied democratic processes around the world, the United States is still a democracy. Everyone should have the confidence that their vote will be counted and that, you know, their voice matters. So go out and vote, No, 1.

A vote that has integrity, that is free and fair, that is democratic means that anybody can go and cast their ballot without interference. It means the processes of democracy are not interfered with by partisan politics and that the results of an election are respected, and a peaceful transition of power happens. Those are the hallmarks of a free and fair election to me. And certainly, I still think that the United States meets all of those criteria, and we should expect our leaders to uphold those criteria as well.

MARTIN: That was Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation at the Wilson Center. We also heard from Arie Perliger, director of the graduate program in security studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Thank you both so much for being with us.

JANKOWICZ: Thanks, Michel.

PERLIGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.