If you want to understand who disinformation serves, look to discursive constructions of identity and morality.
While our understandings of disinformation have long been dominated by a focus on factual information, it is vital that we engage with what, how, and why moral claims are embedded in these narratives. For instance, my research examining the partisan language and history surrounding “stealing” the 2020 U.S. election shows that this discourse is not about its factual claims but about its moral meanings around what, and whose, votes are deemed legitimate on civic terms (Eddy, 2021). Here, I briefly outline what moral political communication is, consider its key implications for disinformation studies, and discuss how centering identity and morality in disinformation research might move forward our understandings of media, politics, and power.
Over the past few years, some scholars have introduced powerful arguments for the study of the identity-based nature of political communication and disinformation campaigns, centering analyses of social differentiation in the power and spread of online and offline misinformation, disinformation, and manipulation (e.g., Freelon et al., 2020; Kuo & Marwick, 2021; Nkonde et al., 2021). I build upon Rachel Kuo and Alice Marwick’s (2021: 1) compelling argument that we expand “what ‘counts’ as disinformation” to include identity-based hierarchies by proposing that we must also engage with what moral claims are embedded in these narratives. As this field slowly begins to turn toward questions of identity and power, morality still often remains missing as an object of analysis in its own right, leading researchers to understand the concept and its relationship to political communication and disinformation in narrow ways.
In my research, I offer a framework for understanding moral political communication—evaluations of right versus wrong, generated by religious, social, or civic values or norms—as a strategic, identity-based, communicative tool (Eddy, 2021). This framework merges Lilliana Mason’s (2018) argument that partisan identities are increasingly constructed socially along boundaries of race, class, geography, and religion with Daniel Kreiss and colleagues’ (2021) argument that they are constituted in and through political communication. I argue that partisan actors have identity-based motivations for employing particular moral claims at particular moments in time. Regardless of the factual basis of moral political communication, its “contagious” nature makes it especially powerful. Moral language is likely to capture our attention and evoke an emotional response, and the affordances of digital media platforms amplify its spread (Brady et al., 2019). Thus, actors who employ moral political communication can transform political identities, issues, and campaigns into winner-takes-all moral contests against their opposition. Centering identity and morality in disinformation studies can help us better understand what, or whose, aims disinformation serves.
My work finds that in the U.S. context, political elites have embraced moral political communication as a key media and, at times, disinformation strategy. Merging computational and qualitative content analyses to study discourse from left- and right-wing cable political talk shows, op-ed stories, and campaign tweets during the 2020 U.S. election cycle, I find elite partisan actors draw upon the same language to make fundamentally opposing moral claims, even if those claims have little or no factual basis (Eddy, 2021). By strategically co-opting particular moral keywords from the left, U.S. right-wing actors were able to delegitimize them along moral lines in ways that were more salient for their identity groups.
For instance, despite Democrats’ strategic attempts to use the terms “racist” and “racism” to reflect a reckoning with racial injustice emerging from the Black Lives Matter movement, the terms were instead used more than three times as often among Republican and right-wing political actors across political talk shows, op-eds, and Twitter—and for contradictory means. Left-wing efforts to center America’s history and legacy of slavery and white supremacy, such as in discussions of “critical race theory” or the “1619 Project,” were largely portrayed by U.S. conservative actors as “racist” and “hateful” by being distinctly “anti-American.” This served as a powerful basis for in-group moral solidarity and delegitimized all calls for engagement with racism and white supremacy in the U.S. from left-wing actors as uncivil discourse (Alexander, 2004).
What was notable here was that right-wing actors were imbuing moral positions to the political left that were not actually articulated in this study’s left-wing data (Eddy, 2021). Rather, these disinformation tactics employed moral claims intended to “build on preexisting conservative white beliefs about race and inequality” (Marwick & Kreiss, 2021; Jefferson & Takahashi, 2021). This aligns with scholars’ recent depictions of digital disinformation practices, including “keyword squatting” and “keyword signaling,” to manipulate political language by imbuing terms with new meanings (Collins-Dexter & Donovan, 2021; Tripodi, 2019).
This example has a few critical implications for how we think about and study disinformation moving forward, particularly in, but not limited to, the U.S. context. First, it supports recent work in political communication arguing that some contemporary U.S. right-wing discourse must be identified as strategic disinformation campaigns, particularly surrounding efforts to center America’s legacy of slavery and white supremacy. These campaigns “muster false information, distorted stereotypes, and mischaracterizations” and “are deliberately spread to advance particular political and ideological goals” (Marwick & Kreiss, 2021; Freelon, Marwick, & Kreiss, 2020).
Second, this shows how partisan actors imbue disinformation campaigns with distinctly moral undertones and arguments to both attract and perform for particular identity coalitions. For example, elite Republicans and Democrats also made two distinct and rivaling moral arguments articulating political opponents’ attempts to “steal” the election (Eddy, 2021). Among Democrats, these attempts of election “stealing” were articulated as linked to anti-democratic practices of voter suppression. For Republicans, they emerged through unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud. Donald Trump strategically employed the keyword “steal” to ground his election disinformation campaign in a powerful moral claim: that something was stolen from him and his supporters, justifying their actions to reclaim what was rightfully theirs through political violence, as demonstrated in the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. This was not simply a form of disinformation but also a powerful, strategic use of moral political communication. And this is not just a U.S. phenomenon. Moral political communication likely appears anywhere moral differences are mapped onto divisions along social identities such as race, gender, religion, class, or caste.
Moving forward, it is critical that scholars of disinformation and political communication pay attention to the identity-based and moral motivations and content of information in the public sphere. When our field interprets disinformation through the lens of factual information without considering its underlying moral appeals, we miss significant elements of what political communication does and what aims it serves. We must engage with how and why people, especially elite political actors, share information (regardless of its factual basis) as a tool to appeal to particular identity groups and to deepen political and social divides. And, from anti-CRT and anti-vaxxing to QAnon and #StopTheSteal movements, we must pay attention to the moral claims embedded in political discourse as well as their political aims. Without understanding “why and how certain groups… seek to deepen political and social divides” (Kreiss & McGregor, 2020), at times using morality and disinformation as tools to do so, we cannot fully address contemporary threats to democracy, public knowledge, and political and social equality.
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Collins-Dexter, B., & Donovan, J. (2021, March). How a racialized disinformation campaign ties itself to the 1619 Project. Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/opinion/1776-keyword-squatting-right-wing-media.php/
Eddy, K. A. (2021). The righteous and the woke: “Radicals,” “racists,” and the moralization of American political communication (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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Jefferson, H., & Takahashi, K. (2021, May 10). How the politics of white liberals and white conservatives are shaped by whiteness. FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-the-politics-of-white-liberals-and-white-conservatives-are-shaped-by-whiteness/
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Nkonde, M., Rodriguez, M. Y., Cortana, L., Mukogosi, J. K., King, S., Serrato, R., Martinez, N., Drummer, M., Lewis, A., & Malik, M. M. (2021). Disinformation creep: ADOS and the strategic weaponization of breaking news. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 1(7). https://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-52
Tripodi, F. (2019). Devin Nunes and the power of keyword signaling. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/devin-nunes-and-the-dark-power-of-keyword-signaling/