Exploring the line between disinformation, attack ads, and parody
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 $15 a month it takes to start a Squarespace, 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.
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 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 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.