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.
The good news for the County is that in the 2018 midterm elections, the Monterey Civil Grand Jury found no evidence of "external influence" or voter fraud. However, the County's report does not go into much detail into what they considered "external", which could refer to both domestic and foreign actors. "Influence" could also refer to something as blatant as an actual attempt to hack into voting databases, or something as subtle as retweeting incorrect voting hours. The former is extremely unlikely, but the latter can happen organically and is beyond public officials to moderate. Thankfully, the past two months have seen both Facebook and Twitter beef up their content policies, especially on the subject of election integrity. That being said, the moderation process takes time, so one should never assume that just because social media companies have strengthened their commitment to removing misleading electoral information, that you should trust content blindly.
It's true that the County, not being home to a major metropolitan area and being solidly Democrat, is not the ideal target for disinformation campaigns. However, there are still several reasons why we should take the threat of local electoral disinformation seriously. In our most recent report on County twitter networks, we found that national news spreads rapidly in local hubs, some of which are echo chambers which do not engage with reliable news sources. Thus, conspiratorial content that discourages voters from going to the polls that was originally aimed at a different audience can still influence local election turnout.
What can we do as regular citizens to maintain the integrity of our elections? The most important thing to do is to make sure you have access to accurate information about upcoming elections, and the best source for that will always be your local election board. In the case of Monterey County that's here. You can find their official Twitter home page here. If friends or family share election information with you, such as polling locations, voting hours or voting procedures, confirm that information by checking in with your election board. Remember that disinformation isn't just incredible conspiracies (violent migrant caravans coming to your polling station) or obvious hoaxes (you can text your vote in) - it can be as subtle as a slight change in voting hours or requirements. This New York Times guide to spotting common election falsehoods remains helpful going into the 2020 cycle.
Finally, don't forget to check your voter registration status here, and if you haven't already, please register to vote. Transparent and authentic elections are crucial to the democratic process, and everyone from voters to public officials can cooperate in protecting ourselves from harmful disinformation.