Three examples of the misinformation spread on Facebook this year by Oklahoma politicians and political parties: (clockwise, from top left) by State Sen. Casey Murdock; by State Rep. Kevin McDugle; by the Pottawatomie County Republican Party. (Photo illustration by Oklahoma Watch)

Oklahoma State Sen. Casey Murdock doesn’t trust Facebook.

The rancher from northwest Oklahoma calls the social media site “biased” and “one big gossip column.”

But, like many conservatives who routinely criticize the social media platform, that hasn’t stopped him from using the site as a platform to share district updates, the latest happenings at the State Capitol and even information that Facebook — or specifically its independent fact-checkers — does not trust.

An Oklahoma Watch investigation into the spread of misinformation, which looked at how frequently state political parties and politicians shared content flagged by fact-checkers on Facebook this year, found Murdock, R-Felt, was one of the most prolific sharers of posts identified on the site as false or misleading.

State Sen. Casey Murdock

Among the 16 flagged posts he shared was a debunked claim that Trump was personally responsible for rescuing 600 missing children from pedophiles, a made-up statistic that Black Lives Matter protests caused 36 deaths and 1,000 police injuries and a fabricated quote attributed to Kamala Harris that falsely claimed she said she would send police to confiscate citizens’ firearms. 

Murdock hasn’t been alone in trafficking misinformation or disinformation posts to his hundreds of followers on the site.

Oklahoma Watch’s review of hundreds of Facebook pages and thousands of posts revealed that state and local political parties, lawmakers and legislative hopefuls have shared at least 85 posts that were flagged as false or misleading information — with the vast majority coming from Republican voices.

The posts range from debunked medical advice about the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories involving pedophilia rings and fabricated or misattributed quotes from living and dead politicians. Altogether these posts were directly shared 2,700 times, something which misinformation experts say is especially dangerous because they come from trusted sources and people in positions of authority.

“It is my fear that we are losing trust in government as an institution,” said Bill Adair, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University and the founder of the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website PolitiFact said. “I think politicians have an obligation to check things out before they repeat them or retweet and I think that has often been forgotten in these hyper-partisan media wars that we are in.” (Story continues below).

Examples of Misinformation and Fact-Checks

Who’s Spreading the Misinformation?

Oklahoma Watch’s review found both parties were guilty of sharing posts, articles or memes deemed false or missing context by nonpartisan fact-checkers, such as PolitiFact or The Associated Press, who work with Facebook to flag misinformation. 

But it is not an equal split. 

Republicans were responsible for all but six of the 85 posts that Oklahoma Watch’s review found were flagged as false, partially false or missing context. 

Two of the misinformation posts shared by Democrats came from a pair of county party Facebook groups that shared the same viral post blaming the U.S. Postal financial woes squarely on a 2006 bill, and not on additional factors as the fact-checkers clarified when they rated it partially false.

Democrats were also flagged for sharing a viral post that incorrectly stated that California pays more taxes to the federal government than it gets back, a misattributed quote from Nelson Mandela (although the original author of the post would later correct the post), a fabricated Tweet from President Donald Trump and a debunked claim that federal agents in the Portland protests were mercenaries provided by Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm Blackwater. 

None of the posts from Democrats were shared by their followers 10 times or more. 

Flagged posts from Republicans, meanwhile, dwarfed Democrats in breadth and scope of topics, hitting on the Black Lives Matter movement, presidential candidate Joe Biden’s tax plan and conspiracy theories, including false claims that Hillary Clinton covered up “an elite pedophile ring” while leading the U.S. Department of State or that U.S. Attorney William Barr ordered a federal investigation into whether former President Barack Obama was behind ANTIFA (which came from a satirical news site).

Others featured false and easily refutable claims, such as a viral post that incorrectly claimed Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to now-disgraced public figures including Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein while he was in office or another one that falsely claimed the first 23 black congressmen were Republicans. 

State Rep. Kevin McDugle

More than a dozen of the flagged misinformation posts included debunked or unverified information about the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 228,000 Americans and nearly 1,300 Oklahomans. 

This includes a post shared by Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, from a fringe right-wing alternative medical site that claimed a group called America’s Frontline Doctors, which has been discredited for spread misleading claims about treating the virus with hydroxychloroquine and the effectiveness of masks, was being wrongly silenced for its statements. 

Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, was among the other sitting lawmakers who shared misinformation about the virus. Earlier this month, he shared a post that falsely claimed the New York Times had reported that up to 90% of people testing positive for COVID-19 were wrongly diagnosed. Fact-checkers, however, showed that was just a misinterpretation of the article and that the claim had no basis in fact. 

State Sen. David Bullard

Four misinformation experts, all university professors, that Oklahoma Watch shared its findings with said research on the national level also have found that conservatives have been the top sharers of misinformation when compared to Democrats.

“This is not one of those instances where journalistic objectivity requires you to look equally at both sides,” said Aram Sinnreich, a professor and chair of communication studies at American University in Washington, D.C. who researches the spread of misinformation at the national level. “In the current moment, in 2020, the Republican Party is much more complicit in the spread of disinformation than the Democratic party is. Just like (Oklahoma Watch’s data) shows, that is empirically observable.”

But not all politicians or party leaders engaged in the type of misinformation that would trigger Facebook fact-checks, which are usually reserved for viral posts or topics that hit on national issues such as voting or COVID-19. Instead, a select number of pages or politicians were responsible for sharing the bulk of the flagged posts. 

Murdock, who shared more misinformation posts than any state party organization or politician reviewed by Oklahoma Watch, first claimed that his page was private even though it was public and followed by more than 1,430 people. 

He then said that he wanted to push “the limit on Facebook to see how fact-checking worked.”

“If there was a post on my page that was indeed fake, I deleted them at that time,” he said. “If I disagreed with the fact-checkers I did not delete it.”

Murdock added social media is “hiding stories and censoring conservative voices,” and that “somebody should stand up to the fake news machine that is Facebook.”

After being contacted by Oklahoma Watch for this story, it appears Murdock has deleted or hidden the flagged posts.

Other top spreaders of misinformation included Facebook pages for the Kay, Logan, Pottawatomie and Marshall County GOP organizations. 

The Pottawatomie County Republican Party, one of the state’s more prolific posters of memes, photos and articles, has shared posts wrongly claiming that Joe Biden said the N-word, that Biden botched the Pledge of Allegiance and a false claim that Harris called for “vengeance” against Trump supporters. 

The group also has shared more outlandish claims, including one flagged post that purportedly shows Biden hugging and kissing a child’s face with the caption, “People are so hardwired to hate Trump to turn a blind eye to this.” But, as fact-checkers noted, that child is his grandson and Biden was actually comforting the child during the 2015 funeral of Biden’s son, Beau. 

The Pottawatomie County Republican Party also has numerous other posts, none of which provide any substantiated information, that insinuate or flat out claim that Biden is a pedophile or is inappropriate around children.   

Leaders of the county party, as well as the Oklahoma Republican Party, did not respond for requests for comments for this story. But party leaders have also been vocal about their opposition to Facebook’s fact-checking on the platform. 

On Oct. 16, for example, the Oklahoma Republican Party posted an image on its Facebook page that read, “Wanna know how you can tell when the truth is being told? Facebook Blocks it, Twitter Deletes it and YouTube Bans it.”

Oklahoma Democratic Chairwoman Alicia Andrews said she believes party leaders have a responsibility to call out members of their own party if they are sharing false or misleading information.

Andrews said she has had those conversations with county chairs in the past and said she’ll look into the flagged posts from Democrats that were uncovered in Oklahoma Watch’s review.

“So there should be some internal policing and I think it’s my job as leader of this state party to self-police,” she said. “But I think it should be the same on the Republican side.”

Misinformation Spread Seen Elsewhere

It didn’t take long for the accusations of voter fraud and a rigged election to start circulating online after the Oklahoma primary. 

Less than an hour after it became clear that State Question 802 passed and Democrats had secured a big win in passing the Medicaid expansion ballot measure in late June, hundreds of Oklahomans were already taking to Facebook questioning the legitimacy of the statewide vote. 

It began when Wagoner County GOP Vice Chairman Eric Tomlinson crafted a post questioning the discrepancy between “yes” votes from absentee mail-in ballots compared to in-person voting. 

“THAT SEEMS VERY ODD TO ME!,” he said as he ended the post. 

It didn’t take long for it to spread, along with unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Soon hundreds shared his post directly from his page, including shares from Facebook pages of the Oklahoma Republican Party and other country GOP groups.

“Something fishy going on with the mail-in (ballots)? It smells like Democrat mail fraud,” an Oklahoma City resident commented on his post. 

“Ballot harvesting is real, look it up,” commented another. 

“So basically what they are gonna do with the presidential election,” warned one woman with a Trump/Pence graphic splashed across her profile picture. 

No proof of fraud or a miscount was provided. No investigations followed. And weeks later, the state Election Board certified the results with little fanfare or controversy. 

The rumors and unsubstantiated accusations that followed after this post are examples of how misinformation can spread beyond the posts that have been reviewed by Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers.

Andrew Beers, a graduate research assistant who studies misinformation at the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering, said there remains a lot of work before Facebook or other social media sites get a handle on how to consistently and thoroughly identify misinformation.

Beers is part of the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of academics and researchers who hope to detect and combat attempts to deter people from voting or delegitimize election results. He said one of his top worries is unfounded reports that cast doubt on previous results.

“Someone might not trust the outcome of (the presidential elections) if they hear untrue stories about past elections,” he said. “That’s why we are working to make sure people know they’re able to vote, do vote if they can and that they trust the results after the election to the maximum extent that facts allow.”  

What Is Being Done?

Panayiota Kendeou is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota whose work includes identifying, researching and implementing strategies that reduce the impact of misinformation.

She said although it’s unclear whether the type and effectiveness of misinformation or disinformation has changed compared to the last presidential election, knowledge about the dangers and how to combat them is increasing. 

“We know a lot more now than we did in 2016, “ she said. “So I think that knowledge has prepared us not only to be able to identify misinformation but also stop them at their tracks in some cases.”

Efforts to combat misinformation on sites like Facebook and Twitter have been criticized by both parties over the seemingly inconsistent and ever-changing approaches the social media giants have taken toward removing or add disclaimers on content

But Kendeou said efforts by social media platforms, the media, researchers and others calling out blatantly false information is showing that society is reacting to it more and responding  more transparently. 

But even with that Sinnreich, the American University professor, and other researchers agreed more still needs to be done, not only from social media platforms but from political figures and others with large followings who have the ability to amplify or callout misinformation.  

“The linchpin that pulls all of this together is a sense of shared purpose and shared investment in the democratic process that transcends party and politics,” he said. “But you can only point and shout at things for so long. Ultimately it’s up to big tech, it’s up to the political parties and it’s up to the general public to look after their own interests and to behave ethically.”

Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc

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Trevor Brown

Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589 or email at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org....