Stoking up the base with scary tales isn't just effective campaigning. It has also become good business for a slew of fly-by-night U.S. entrepreneurs who operate political-disinformation websites. "It's easy and profitable to put up a series of websites, load them with politically sensitive, fallacious information, drive traffic there and make money off of pay-per-click ads," says Cindy Otis, a former C.I.A. analyst who specializes in disinformation, and author of the forthcoming book True or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide to Spotting Fake News.

The coming avalanche of political disinformation is going to have a bigger effect on this election than on past contests, says Wharton's Yildirim. That's because the pandemic is shutting down other key types of campaigning while driving up our dependence on social media and other online sources of information. "Typically in an election year, there's a lot of in-person outreach, from knocking on doors to rallies to town halls," she says. "All that's disappeared. Instead we're consuming more social media, and it's more full of misinformation."

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