Now in your inbox: political disinformation

A few weeks ago, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, falsely claimed that the centerpiece of President Biden’s national agenda, a $ 1.75 trillion bill to fight climate change and spread the net of social security of the country, would include health insurance for all.

This is not the case, and it never has been. But few have noticed Mr Crenshaw’s lie because he hasn’t told it on Facebook or Fox News. Instead, he sent the bogus message straight to the inboxes of his constituents and supporters in a fundraising email.

Statements by lawmakers on social media and cable news are now regularly checked and reviewed. But email – one of the most powerful communication tools available to politicians, reaching hundreds of thousands of people – is rife with unfounded complaints and largely escapes attention.

The New York Times signed up in August for the campaign lists of the 390 senators and representatives running for re-election in 2022 whose websites offered this option, and read more than 2,500 emails from those campaigns to determine to how widespread false and misleading statements were. used to help fill political coffers.

Both parties delivered loads of hyperbole in their emails. A Republican, for example, said Democrats wanted to establish a “one-party socialist state,” while a Democrat suggested that the Jan. 6 party investigation was in imminent danger because the GOP “could force any way. the investigation to be completed earlier ”.

But Republicans included misinformation much more often: in about 15% of their posts, compared to Democrats around 2%. In addition, several Republicans often broadcast the same unfounded claims, while Democrats rarely repeat themselves.

At least eight Republican lawmakers have sent fundraising emails containing a cheeky distortion of a potential settlement with migrants separated from their families during the Trump administration. One of them, Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, falsely claimed that President Biden “gives $ 450,000 to every illegal immigrant who enters our country.”

The claims were based on reports that the Justice Department was negotiating payments to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of immigrant families the Trump administration had separated, some of whom have not been reunited. But the payments, which are not final and could end up being less, would be limited to this small fraction of migrants.

The relatively small number of false claims by Democrats mainly concerned abortion. For example, an email from Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York stated that Mississippi law before the Supreme Court was “almost identical to that in Texas, banning abortions after 6 weeks,” but Mississippi law prohibits l abortion after 15 weeks and does not include the self-defense law enforcement mechanism which is a defining feature of Texas law.

A spokeswoman for Ms Maloney called the inaccuracy an “honest mistake” and said the campaign would check future emails more carefully.

Campaign representatives for Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Crenshaw did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Republican House and Senate campaign committees also did not respond to a request for comment.

Politicians have been exaggerating and covering up from time immemorial, including in their email dispatches. But the volume, baldness and scope of misrepresentation has increased.

Emails the Times examined show just how pervasive disinformation has become among Republicans, fueled in large part by former President Donald J. Trump. And the misinformation doesn’t come just, or even primarily, from the handful that is drawing national attention to it.

Those behind the campaign emails “realized that the more extreme the statement, the better the response,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. “The more burning anger it arouses, the more likely people are to donate. And that only contributes to the perversion of our democratic process. This contributes to the incivility and indecency of political behavior.

The posts also highlight how, despite all efforts to force platforms like Facebook and Twitter to fight lies, many of the same claims are circulating through other powerful channels with little notice.

For fact-checkers and other watchdogs, “it’s hard to know what politicians are saying directly to individual supporters in their inboxes,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, professor at the School of Information Studies at the Syracuse University.

“And politicians know it,” she said. “The politicians and the consultancies behind them, they know that this kind of message is not watched to the same extent, so they can be more reckless with what they say.”

Email is a crucial tool in political fundraising because it costs campaigns next to nothing and can be extremely effective: when campaigns invest in it, it regularly accounts for the majority of their fundraising online. Supporters are bombarded, sometimes daily, with messages intended to anger them because strategists know anger motivates voters.

In many cases, applicants used anger-provoking misinformation directly in their donation requests. For example, after his false statement regarding immigrant payments, Mr. Kennedy – who started the email claiming to be “crazy as a murderous hornet” – included a link titled “$ 500 TO STOP ILLEGAL PAYMENTS!” “

“I watch Joe Biden pay illegals to come to our country, and everything is paid for by raising YOUR taxes,” he wrote. “We cannot let Biden distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to enter our country illegally.”

Several other Republicans, including Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, also said the payments would be made to all undocumented immigrants. Others, including Senator Todd Young of Indiana, hid the context in emails with misleading subject lines such as “BREAKING: Biden wants to pay illegal immigrants $ 450,000 each for breaking our laws.”

Of 28 emails that included the figure of $ 450,000, only eight contextualized it with precision.

Campaign representatives for Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Young did not respond to requests for comment.

Another common line was that the Justice Department was targeting parents as “domestic terrorists” to challenge the teaching of Critical Race Theory, an advanced academic framework that conservatives use as a shorthand for explaining how some programs cover race. race and racism – or, failing that, to challenge restrictions linked to the pandemic.

“Parents are just protesting a radical program in public schools, and Biden wants parents to be labeled terrorists,” read an email from Representative Jake LaTurner of Kansas. “Are you planning to donate now to help us fight this disgusting abuse of power?” “

This misinformation – echoed in emails from Mr. Crenshaw, Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Young, Representative Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota, and Representative Elise Stefanik of New York – emerged after Attorney General Merrick Garland sent a memorandum on October 4 ordering the FBI to address threats against school personnel and school board members. (Some opponents of pandemic curricula and protocols have sent death threats, vandalized homes, and acted threateningly.) The memo explicitly distinguished between dissent and threats, and called no one a national terrorist. The Republican account confuses him with a letter the National School Boards Association, an independent group, sent to the Justice Department days earlier.

Representatives for Ms Stefanik and Mr Hagedorn said the association had “coordinated” with the Biden administration on the letter, citing recent information. These reports indicate that the school board association discussed the letter with administration and, at the administration’s request, added details of the threats; they do not show that the Department of Justice endorses the “terrorist” label or criminalizes non-violent opposition to school curricula.

Campaign representatives for Mr. Crenshaw, Mr. Kennedy, Mr. LaTurner and Mr. Young did not respond to requests for comment.

Combating disinformation in emails is difficult both because of the media’s private nature and because its targets are predisposed to believe it – although Emily Thorson, a political scientist in Syracuse, noted that the fact that the recipients were probably already strong supporters has reduced the chances of disinformation reaching people whose opinions would be altered.

Professor Thorson said what worried her the most was that – unlike most of the misinformation on social media – these claims came from people in authority and were released repeatedly. This is how the lies that the 2020 elections were rigged gained ground: “not because of random videos on Facebook, but because it was a cohesive message taken up by many elites”, a- she declared. “These are the ones we need to worry about the most.”

Mr Luntz, the Republican pollster, frequently runs focus groups with voters and said they tend to accept misinformation without criticism.

“It might be a fundraising pitch, but a lot of times people think of it as a campaign pitch,” he said. “They see it as context, they see it as information – they don’t necessarily see it as fundraising, even if it is. And so misleading them in an attempt to separate them from their money is pure evil, because you are taking advantage of people who just don’t know the difference. “

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