In this photo illustration, social media apps are seen on a mobile phone. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
In Colorado, an error in early October involving voter registration postcards that were mailed to non-citizens in the state morphed into a conspiracy theory about voter fraud.
In Iowa, voters in late September received phone calls spreading misinformation about how they could vote, with Iowans falsely told they could cast their ballots over the phone, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported.
In Kansas, Secretary of State Scott Schwab warned voters of unsolicited text messages with false information about incorrect voting locations for the upcoming midterm elections, the Kansas Reflector reported.
For weeks, researchers across the country have been trying to track misinformation and disinformation related to the Nov. 8 midterm election. In interviews, they said much of the misinformation they are seeing around the midterm elections about voting stems from falsehoods about election security and voter fraud that originated with the 2020 presidential election.
Researchers also point to another incident in Kent County, Michigan, where a poll worker after the primary was arrested for allegedly tampering with an electronic poll book—an electronic version of paper records. Although the breach had no impact on the election results, it was interpreted as election fraud.
Some of the misinformation also targets communities of color, even tailored to the regions and cities where members of those communities have settled, researchers say.
Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that spreads, while disinformation is the act of deliberately spreading false information. It’s hard to determine what is disinformation, and who the actors are behind it.
In Idaho, the Secretary of State’s office launched a new website to allow Idahoans to report any election-related misinformation they come across, the Idaho Capital Sun reported.
“If it is determined that the social media post is trying to disenfranchise voters and undermine our democracy, the report will be passed to the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, who will verify the information and forward it to the (U.S.) Department of Homeland Security for further action,” Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney said in a press release.
Some Republican candidates are also running campaigns denying the validity of the presidential election, which election experts say sows even more distrust in the American political system and could cast a shadow over the Nov. 8 results.
Misinformation within communities
Misinformation leading up to elections in the past has persisted in various communities, particularly diaspora communities who have fled political violence or regimes.
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, misinformation that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was preparing to send the National Guard to quell riots was an attempt to instill fear in Chinese Americans, so they would stay home on Election Day, according to reporting by ProPublica.
“Within the Asian American diaspora, there’s a lot of diversity in terms of language spoken in countries of origin,” a researcher who specialties in Asian American misinformation and disinformation said. “So because of that, the mis and disinformation is also very diverse and unique.”
Due to the nature of the researchers’ work in misinformation and disinformation spaces, they spoke on the condition they not be identified.
It’s even harder to track where that misinformation stems from, as many immigrant communities use various platforms such as WeChat, which is very popular with Chinese Americans, and WhatsApp, predominantly used by the Southeast Asian community.
“The groups within that (WeChat) app often function as sort of echo chambers where falsehoods can thrive, and especially since the app is sort of enclosed and that it’s really difficult to link externally, it’s oftentimes difficult to distinguish between factual news articles and just opinion that people post,” a researcher who specializes in Asian American misinformation and disinformation said.
A spike in that misinformation has been seen in areas where congressional Republicans objected or planned to object to electoral votes in states that President Joe Biden won in 2020, such as states like Michigan and Arizona, said Rachel E. Moran, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public.
The center has a partnership with Stanford Internet Observatory, known as the Election Integrity Partnership, which focuses on tracking and debunking false narratives that are harmful to democracy.
For example, EIP has tracked one narrative on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram in early October in which a University of Michigan computer science professor published an analysis of a computer flaw in the software for Dominion Voting System’s ballot. The flaw would not allow for ballots or tallies to be modified, but could undermine voter privacy because the flaw, in some circumstances, could allow people to identify how someone voted.
A right-wing media outlet picked up the story on Twitter and EIP found that “[t]he conversation about the disclosure itself remained largely factual on the platform, though notably it spread primarily among accounts on the right who were already mistrustful of the security of Dominion voting machines.”
“There’s definitely these geographical points of inflection when it comes to misinformation, but because of social media, those things do get traction in other states,” Moran said.
In Arizona, EIP tracked on Twitter a news story about the Department of Justice challenging an Arizona state law that requires proof of citizenship in order to vote in federal elections, “instead of the attestation of citizenship currently required by federal law.” That story was distorted, and reframed as the Justice Department trying to allow non-citizens to vote.
“In the conversation surrounding the DOJ lawsuit against Arizona, the story was linked explicitly to the 2020 election and the continuing false narrative of the stolen election,” EIP found. “In addition, claims that Democrats were rigging future elections were spread using this story as evidence.”
There have been efforts to not only sow confusion and distrust of voting in elections, but also attempts to suppress communities of color from participating in elections.
It’s a concern that led congressional Democrats to hold a hearing in April, in which experts detailed how communities of color are targeted with misinformation in order to dissuade them from voting. For example, leading up to the 2016 elections, a meme on Facebook and Twitter targeting Black and Latino voters falsely claimed that voters could cast a ballot by sending a text message to “Hillary” to the number 59925.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence “found that no single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans,” leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The Internet Research Agency is based in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Spanish language misinformation
Estrada of Media Matters, a progressive research organization that monitors conservative misinformation in American media, has found that social media companies have been slow to remove misinformation and disinformation that’s in Spanish, or fail to monitor if those actors move to another platform.
“When these networks of Spanish language misinformation … get removed, right, or when they do get suspended, or their accounts get terminated, a lot of times they’ll fall back on their other channels,” Estrada said.
Estrada in an October report said her group has found dozens of Spanish-language YouTube videos that racked up millions of views that were spreading misinformation and disinformation about U.S. elections. Most promulgated the false narrative that fraudulent votes were cast in the 2020 presidential election.
The University of Washington Center for an Informed Public studied the spread of misinformation in the 2020 election between Vietnam and other nations where Vietnamese people have settled, finding that social media platforms like Facebook, WeChat, Telegram and YouTube, “are not doing enough to slow the tide of misinformation that is not in English.”
But disinformation doesn’t necessarily work, said Roberta Braga, the director of counter-disinformation strategies at Equis Research, a public opinion research firm focused on creating a better understanding of Latinos in the United States.
“Generally from our research, we’ve found that it’s not the case that Latino communities are more susceptible or being targeted more,” Braga said.
Equis Research tested eight falsehoods, ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the 2020 presidential election.
“We actually found was that the majority of Latinos were uncertain in what to believe, they recognize the narratives, but they couldn’t say 100% with certainty whether these narratives were true or false,” she said. “And so it’s not the case that Latinos are believing everything that they’re seeing circulating.”
Equis Research found that more politically engaged, affluent and college educated Latinos who the ones who “were more ready to believe false information about the opposing side.”
“I think it goes counter to pre-existing perceptions about Latinos and disinformation,” Braga said.
But disinformation is not new, or a standalone issue, she said.
“I think that when we talk about disinfo we need to talk about it as a symptom and a byproduct of a larger crisis of trust,” Braga said.
Trust in the system
American trust in the electoral system is at an all-time low, according to various polls. A poll from NPR earlier this year found that misinformation and disinformation is eroding the public’s trust in democracy, with 64% believing democracy is in peril.
Similarly, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found only 20% of respondents surveyed trusted the American electoral system.
The Biden administration has struggled to combat misinformation and disinformation by creating a Disinformation Governance Board, within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But the backlash was so swift from Republicans and right-wing media that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas had to terminate the board in August.
“[T]he Department will continue to address threat streams that undermine the security of our country consistent with the law, while upholding the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of the American people and promoting transparency in our work,” DHS said in a statement at the time.
But even when there’s transparency around elections, it still backfires, as in the case of the erroneous voter registration cards in Colorado, said Moran, with the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public.
“The best misinformation about conspiracy theories have that kernel of truth,” she said.=
The Colorado incident occurred when the secretary of state’s office accidentally sent 30,000 voter registration postcards to non-citizens, which was reported by Colorado Public Radio.
The incident had minimal engagement on Twitter, until a micro-influencer of about 20,000 followers amplified the story, “and it was subsequently engaged with in right-leaning online communities,” according to a report by CIP’s non-partisan Election Integrity Partnership.
Mainstream news outlets like The Associated Press picked up the story, but many Twitter users “framed the error as intentional rather than an accident,” according to the report.
A similar event happened in Arizona during the August primaries, where election officials failed to print enough ballots to meet the demand for in-person voting in Pinal County, National Public Radio reported.
Kari Lake, one of the Republican primary candidates—who won—framed the mistake as intentional, even referring that “we outvoted the fraud,” according to an AP report.
“What we find is that these are genuine failures, often either accidental or, a flaw in the system that has to be fixed and being transparent and having open reporting on those is obviously very important to be able to fix that system, but what we see is that they end up getting taken up and weaponized by people adding a frame of intentionality to it,” Moran said.
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