Lies and Presidential Debates: How Political Misinformation Spread Across Media Streams during the 2020 Election


We studied how the 2020 presidential debates created and reinforced misinformation themes, which spread through multiple media streams?social media, newspapers, and cable TV. We compared how misinformation is advanced by political candidates (Biden vs. Trump) during the 929 and 1022 debates and then reproduced across media formats and conventional media organizations. Myths around Joe Biden?s personal life skyrocketed in September and October?especially during and right after presidential debates. Misinformation about the 2020 presidential election also peaked, almost entirely due to Trump?s lies (pushed during the debates) that the election was ?rigged?. These myths repeated across media streams, especially on Twitter and by right-leaning newspapers and TV channels. Following the first debate, conversation on Twitter narrowed to personal attacks on the Biden family. These myths resurfaced in random, open-ended surveys capturing what the general public remembers about each candidate. Recollections of the election integrity and Hunter Biden myths increased around first and second debates, respectively. This suggests that a subset of lies put forward by presidential candidates echo through media discourses and finally ?stick? in public memory, risking distortion of the democratic process. Our findings echo calls for accountability across domains: for elites pushing false narratives, for media repeating politicians? lies, and for users? inflammatory digital speech.


Under second review at Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.