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Will the real Joe Biden site please stand up?

Exploring the line between disinformation, attack ads, and parody

Grade Level: Secondary 

Background

It used to be that a well-done website was a sign of credibility. Criteria around professionalism have appeared on source-evaluation checklists for years (‘free of typos,’ and similar). But in an era when sophisticated website templates are available to anyone with the few dollars a month, the way a site looks doesn’t tell you much about its reliability. 

 

Over the summer, the New York Times reported on the appearance of JoeBiden.info, a devious twin to the former U.S. vice-president’s official site, JoeBiden.com. 

 

With a busload of candidates vying for the top spot in the American Democratic Presidential Primary, selecting a single preferred candidate based on accurate information and credible sources can be a tough task for potential voters. 

 

 At first glance, the website JoeBiden.info presents a slick, official appearance featuring a smiling, suited Biden beside the words “Biden2020.” Upon scrolling further, however, the reader encounters some peculiar content.

 

The webpage features numerous pictures and animated GIFs of Biden on camera touching and kissing women and young girls, a video titled “Joe Biden’s racist slip,” and a list of “legislative accomplishments” describing Biden as “AGAINST Gay Marriage, FOR Mass Incarceration, AGAINST Abortion Rights, AGAINST School Busing, FOR Iraq War, and FOR Death Penalty & Harsh Drug Sentences.”

 

The fact-checking site >Snopes confirms that JoeBiden.info is a fake site, noting the small type at the bottom of the page that informs readers that the site is “political commentary and parody of Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign website” and “not Joe Biden’s actual website.” Despite this, the site has been climbing in popularity over the last few months, by some >accounts eclipsing Biden’s official campaign site.

 

Though the site’s disclaimer does not identify who is behind the webpage, The New York Times revealed the site creator is Patrick Mauldin. Mauldin is a Republican political consultant who creates videos and digital content for President Trump’s re-election campaign. He has also created similar fake sites for other Democratic candidates.

 

Election experts and national security officials say the site demonstrates a new type of political strategy: anonymous, hard-to-trace messaging spread on the Internet in order to “sow chaos” amongst supporters. In short, this is trolling as a political strategy.

 

When asked by reporters if he thought his actions were deceptive, Mauldin said people should be “examining the facts themselves.” Creating JoeBiden.info was not spreading disinformation, but rather — Mauldin said — helping Democrats see the “full facts” about their candidates. 

 

This case study displays the complexities of disinformation online and provides a concrete example of how online actors are shaping political discourse in 2019.

 

Activities

  • Watch >CIVIX Explains: Disinformation and initiate a class discussion about how disinformation can be used to influence voters during an election campaign. 

 

  • Review and compare elements of JoeBiden.com and JoeBiden.info. [Teacher note, JoeBiden.info contains sexual innuendo — you may not wish to present the site itself to students.] Which site looks more credible, and why?

Guiding Questions:

  • Disinformation can be created by foreign governments, individuals or groups looking to make money or sow confusion. It can also be created by domestic governments.  
    • Where is the line between disinformation and political campaigning? 
    • How does the fact that the site’s creator is concealed affect how audiences understand the content?  
    • JoeBiden.info is intended to be funny. Sometimes humour can be used to promote/excuse certain messages as ‘just a joke,’ when it’s more than just a joke. Where is the line between funny and harmful? 
    • The site’s creator describes the site as a parody. Do you agree? Do you think there is a difference between parody and disinformation? 

Additional Discussion Questions

  • While the creator of the site does not actually claim to be representing Joe Biden, the webpage is intended to influence potential voters. Do you think there should be guidelines in place to prevent similar imposter sites? Or is it the individual’s responsibility to ensure they are viewing credible information?
  • Imagine you are the voter: even if you know the site is not an official campaign website, do you think it could still influence how you cast your ballot?

 

Glossary

Disinformation

False information that is deliberately created and shared to cause harm. It has the goal of confusing people about what is true and influencing how they think and act.

Parody/Satire

Parody and satire are art forms that uses mockery, exaggeration, and humour to comment on society. While parody and satire have the potential to deceive, they never intend to trick audiences. Sometimes, creators of fabricated or imposter content try to defend their work by claiming that it is parody/satire.

Imposter Content

Imposter content tries to fool people by imitating real news sources. In some cases, the URL or logo of a reputable site may be changed just a little so people believe they are looking at the real thing. The goal of imposter content is to mislead people into trusting and sharing false information.

 

Lesson Links 

Information & Democracy

Verification Skills

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