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How the online echo chamber gave us the Arizona election audit

From Facebook to Fox, media isolated the GOP from the real world. The results are still playing out.

How the online echo chamber gave us the Arizona election audit
A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas, which was hired by the Arizona State Senate, transports ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 1, 2021, in Phoenix. The Maricopa County ballot recount comes after two election audits found no evidence of widespread fraud in Arizona. [Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images]
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Reporting on the audit of the 2020 presidential election now going on in Maricopa County, Arizona, National Memo’s Steven Rosenfeld writes that one floor observer was overheard saying, “I hope they are fake ballots, because I am seeing so many Biden.”

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After the November 7 election, Trump supporters wondered how Biden could possibly have won when all they’d seen for months were reports of packed Trump rallies, yards filled with Trump signs, and excited Facebook posts about Trump and his upcoming win.

They were honestly shocked when Trump lost. They simply couldn’t connect up their own experience with the result of the election. They live within a right-wing echo chamber where opposing viewpoints are rarely heard. They saw the widespread support for Biden only through the lens of right-wing misinformation and disinformation. They dismissed Biden’s continual lead in the polls as “fake.”

Facebook, the go-to social media platform for Trump supporters in 2020, did a lot to contribute to the echo chamber. When the social network’s algorithms pick up on a user’s interest in right-wing content, it serves them more and more of it, and filters out other opinions. All through the campaign, many Trump supporters saw nothing but news posts and shared memes about Trump’s achievements as president, his huge rallies, and his mockery of Joe Biden and the Democrats.

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And right-wingers were, and remain, the most energized group on Facebook, even as Donald Trump remains expelled from the platform after he helped incite an insurrection on January 6.

The disappearance of local news sources is also contributing to Americans’ politically homogenous media diet. Local newspapers and TV affiliates are often no longer present in the community to report on diverse subjects and opinions. In the absence of that coverage, community members are often left only with national news sources. In red America, that means Fox News, which did its part to sow doubt in the election result.

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Partisan segregation, online and off, may explain Trump supporters’ shock in the week after November 7, 2020, when it became clear Biden had prevailed. It helps explain how Donald Trump was able to sell the Big Lie that he’d won. People were ready to believe it—it provided an explanation for an election result that didn’t make sense. In fact, 60% of Republicans still say that they believe Trump to be the real winner of the election.

The audit in Arizona shows that red America is not letting go of the Big Lie easily. There are now plans for a similar audit in Fulton County, Georgia. And belief in the Big Lie has provided political cover for Republicans in state government to take big leaps forward in advancing new voting restrictions.

The media has enabled the formation of two separate media universes that portray two separate political realities. Democracy is a team sport, but Republicans and Democrats are increasingly unable to even meet on the same playing field. As long as information gatekeepers such as Facebook and Fox continue to profit from partisan filter bubbles, they’ll continue enabling them.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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