Days Before Election, Officials Work to Combat Misinformation

A District of Columbia Board of Election employee locks and seals an official ballot drop box after collecting ballots in northwest Washington, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A District of Columbia Board of Election employee locks and seals an official ballot drop box after collecting ballots in northwest Washington, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) Associated Press


Connecting state and local government leaders

Election officials across the country are waging public information campaigns and utilizing technology to fight misinformation campaigns ahead of Tuesday's election.

On Tuesday, officials in Cuyahoga County, Ohio indicted two men for placing nearly 67,000 robocalls “that attempted to suppress voting in local minority neighborhoods by intimidating residents to refrain from voting by mail,” County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley said. 

“The right to vote is the most fundamental component of our nation’s democracy. These individuals clearly infringed upon that right in a blatant attempt to suppress votes and undermine the integrity of this election,” he said in a statement. “We urge all citizens to get out and vote. Do not let these individuals or others like them succeed.”

The announcement was one of myriad attempts in recent weeks by state and local officials to either crack down on voter suppression or simply counter misinformation ahead of next week’s general election. For example, this week in Mendham, New Jersey, some residents received messages that Gov. Phil Murphy decided to cancel in-person voting on Nov. 3 for everyone other than voters who are registered as “visually impaired.” The messages, delivered by mail, text and email, appeared to come from the local Republican party. But none of them were true, NJ Spotlight News reported.

Nationwide, researchers identified 52 unique misinformation campaigns from Oct. 20 to Oct. 27, including “pre-delegitimization of the election results”—the most common type of false information—along with stories about “corrupt poll-workers,” according to the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of misinformation researchers. Those campaigns are likely to continue, and potentially increase, past Election Day, shifting from questioning the legitimacy of mail-in voting to questioning the integrity of the election results themselves, said Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington and a member of the partnership.

“My hunch is that it’s going to be worse, that the pace of this misinformation is going to be higher,” she said at a briefing highlighting the group’s most recent findings. “They’ve got self-motivating volunteers out there, documenting things, taking pictures and videos and maybe not even understanding what they’re seeing. Those are going to be...assembled to fit these narratives of voter fraud and delegitimization that are already out there, and that people are already sort of primed to believe. I expect the days after the election to be some of the hardest days for us.”

Across the country, state and local election officials have employed a variety of tactics to head off increasing amounts of misinformation directed at voters. In Colorado, Secretary of State Jena Griswold launched an education initiative that includes social media ads and digital outreach to help voters better identify false information. In Sonoma County, California, election officials took to Twitter to debunk rumors that mail-in ballots had been discarded at a local recycling center (they were empty envelopes from the 2018 election, thrown out according to law). 

In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill launched a public information campaign “designed to explain certain aspects of the election process that have taken on new relevance since the advent of the Covid-19 crisis,” an initiative that included hiring an analyst specifically to scan social media and the dark web “to identify and counter any misinformation or disinformation.”

Connecticut is also one of 13 states that’s using SQUINT, a free program that uses a “trusted group” of election officials and organizations to flag social media posts that appear to contain faulty information related to voting. Those reports—which can be submitted by clicking a browser extension or by a smartphone app—are sent to a secure server, where they’re aggregated, scored and analyzed, then compiled into a summary that’s distributed to jurisdictions that might be affected.

The program, a product of the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit that manages federally funded research and development centers, is designed specifically to help overworked election officials stay on top of misinformation campaigns that spread frequently, and quickly, on social media. The “trusted group” of reporters includes those officials, but also a handful of nonprofit, non-governmental and nonpartisan organizations that operate explicitly in support of democracy or voting, including the League of Women Voters and the National Governors Association, said Emily Frye, co-director of MITRE’s election integrity initiative.

“If you’re an election official and are trying to run an election, you don’t know what those social media accounts are, what was on them, whether that incorrect information has spread across your whole voting population,” she said. “You’re really blind, and that’s not right, because we want our election officials to be empowered to understand what’s going on in their jurisdiction. And there was literally no solution at all to that problem.”

The system does not automatically remove problematic social media posts, or even ask tech companies to do so, Frye said—it just provides context for affected municipalities, allowing election officials themselves to determine what steps, if any, to take next. 

For example, one user flagged a newspaper story claiming that a new law in Illinois would require counties to have only a single polling place. Analysts found that bots had been used to amplify the article’s reach; the newspaper later corrected its story. In Connecticut, the program has flagged several posts for election officials, but none have gone viral, said Scott Bates, deputy secretary of state.

“It just gives us an extra awareness,” he said. “Things pop up every day, but they’re pretty minor so far.”

The state has also been proactive in disseminating its own information, particularly on absentee voting, which surged from about 6% in a normal election year to 66% this year. That includes messages about drop boxes, voting deadlines and also the hours and locations of polling places that remain open during the pandemic. It’s a delicate balance of pushing out facts while keeping an eye on fabrications, which Bates said will likely remain the norm during election season for the foreseeable future.

“We’re pushing that good information out there. You can never bat down all the bad stuff,” he said. “Going forward, I think it’s just going to be a way of life for every election cycle. I’d envision that we’ll keep building that type of capability for years to come.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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