Skip to main content

Northwestern experts on the threat to democracy posed by misinformation

Evanston, Ill. — President Biden gave a speech yesterday in Washington, D.C., in which he warned that America would be on a “path to chaos” if Republican politicians and candidates continue to encourage political violence and cast doubt on the electoral process and outcome of the 2020 election and future elections.

Northwestern University experts are available to discuss how and why misinformation spreads, how to educate voters about its risks and the threats that it poses to the American political system.

David Rapp is a professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is an expert on how people process information, why it is difficult to debunk false claims and the role played by memory and language in cognition. He can be reached by contacting Max Witynski at

 Quote from Professor Rapp

 “Work in my lab and others has shown that merely presenting inaccurate claims can be influential, leading people to doubt the truth, be confused about what is likely to be true, and in the worst case, even rely on inaccurate ideas. When inaccuracies like the ‘Big Lie’ are repeated, even in efforts to reject them (and clearly the ideas are not always rejected when they are reported), it allows for the ideas to remain in information ecosystems.”

Stephanie Edgerly is a professor of journalism in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication. She studies new media, with a focus on Twitter. Her current research looks at how people make decisions about what is news and their strategies for verifying information on social media. Edgerly can be reached by contacting Erin Karter at

 Quote from Professor Edgerly

“Social media platforms are tricky spaces for users because both facts and falsities circulate, especially during an election. In the final days of an election, social media users need to be especially vigilant. There will be a lot of election-related material circulating, and not all of it factual. Some election stories will be attention grabbing and designed to provoke an emotional reaction. When scrolling through posts, it is important to slow down and pay closer attention to where information is coming from. Ask yourself: Do I know this account? Does the account have a history of posting false things? Is the information corroborated elsewhere?”

Erik C. Nisbet is the Owen L. Coon Endowed Professor of Policy Analysis & Communication and director of the Center for Communication & Public Policy in the School of Communication. He studies the intersection of media, public opinion and public policy, including democracy, elections and international security. He can be reached by contacting Max Witynski at

Quote from Professor Nisbet

“In 2016, the problem was online “fake news” and misinformation targeting candidates and influencing vote choice. Four years later, misinformation targeting candidates prior to the 2020 election was not widespread, but after the election there was a torrent of false claims about the electoral process that justified political violence. This is a much more dangerous form of misinformation than lies about political candidates with widespread public belief in these false claims continuing today. The next iteration of this information disorder in 2022 will likely continue this post-election trend of targeting electoral institutions and justifying violence and is a dress rehearsal for the main event in 2024. Systematically eroding Americans’ faith and confidence in democratic processes while increasing public support for extralegal political acts is a dark political future for the United States.”