Election Integrity and Disinformation
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Disinformation comes in a variety of themes – from stoking xenophobia with doctored images to promoting conspiracy theories with false news stories. These approaches don’t necessarily rely on consumers believing every detail. The goal is instead to generate confusion and cynicism about the reliability of all news sources on social media. However, by far the most direct and potentially damaging strategy is attacking the integrity of elections themselves. Unlike trying to convince a consumer of a complex conspiracy, all one must do is convince them they can vote by text or that their local voting location is closed. Malicious actors, both foreign and domestic, have gone about this in a variety of ways, most significantly in the 2016 presidential elections and the 2018 midterm elections. With the 2020 elections coming up in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread protests against racial injustice and police brutality, it is crucial for both citizens and public officials to take the threat of election interference through disinformation seriously.
The term “voter suppression” conjures images of gerrymandered district maps and draconian voter-ID laws, but the digital age offers malicious actors brand new avenues to controlling voting behaviors that do not involve the slightest bit of legislation. We have divided voter suppression content into three broad types:
· Misleading election information (Incorrect poll hours or locations, telling voters they can vote by text)
· Encouraging voters to boycott the elections or vote for a third party candidate
· Threats or intimidation (Suggesting there may be violent incidents at or near polling stations)
The first strategy is the simplest to execute, but also the easiest to fact-check. A report from the Brennan Center found that misleading tweets can be as basic as telling people they can vote by text (note: nowhere in the U.S. can you vote by text). This misleading information was compounded further by the #votenovember7th hashtag that suggested that citizens could vote one day after the polls had closed on November 6th.
It can also be propagated through fake text messages, such as this SMS collected by the New York Times that surfaced during the 2018 Indiana midterms:
Suffice to say that you should always triple-check any voting information you receive from any source, but especially from text messages. If you are texted any information that appears to contradict your official elections board, it is probably false.
In the 2016 elections, Russian-made blogs, Facebook groups, Instagram accounts and Twitter handles engaged in voter suppression by discouraging voting. They targeted black voters in particular, trying to convince them that voting was a waste of time in a white-dominated country and that both Clinton and Trump were equally dismissive of black concerns about police brutality and justice reform.
False "brands" like Blacktivist, Nefertiti's Community and Williams and Kalvin put out content on every social media platform leading up to the election, balancing seemingly authentic posts about celebrating black models, for example, with content encouraging black voters to sit out the election. Occasionally, these accounts would urge voters to vote Jill Stein as an alternative to boycotting the elections.
In the upcoming elections, members of every ethnicity and demographic should be especially wary of calls to boycott elections or vote Third Party candidates.
Threats and intimidation can work to keep voters away from the polls without explicit calls to violence. An egregious example of this was this pair of tweets from a bot account named "Neil Turner", suggesting that ICE officers were arresting undocumented immigrants at polling stations. The bottom image is a photoshop composite of a normal Arizona poll queue and an unrelated image of an ICE officer making an arrest from Wikipedia.
County readers should be aware that ICE does not conduct operations at voting stations and that any claims to the contrary are false.