Election disinformation is rampant as voters head to the polls

Election disinformation is rampant as voters head to the polls


The misleading videos, which circulated for months after they were filmed, contained unsubstantiated claims that Republican voters were barred from polling places.

Viral tweets turned early morning mechanical problems with the vote tabulators into elaborate claims of systematic fraud.

And users on a pro-Trump extremist forum Donald called for armed intervention in Georgia’s ballot counting centers, advising: “If it gets violent, shoot first.”

The deluge of disinformation hitting American democracy on Tuesday showed how the myths built over the past two years have created an alternative online ecosystem where any unfavorable election outcome is suspect.

The paranoia and preemptive efforts to discredit the results of the midterm elections found perhaps the clearest expression in a headline on a website dedicated to spreading conspiracy theories about the pro-Trump siege of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, an attack that was launched in large part through online disinformation. “Expect theft,” the website warned.

That expectation is no longer a marginal view. It is a political doctrine for entire parts of the country.

Trump’s ‘big lie’ has fueled a new generation of social media influencers

“We’re not just looking at one story or a false claim here and there that just happens to go viral,” said Cindy Otis, a former technology executive and CIA analyst who now investigates disinformation. “We’re looking at entire social media platforms, independent news commentary websites and social media influencers who start from the ‘Election is rigged against conservatives’ place and cover the election from there.”

In some cases, the online conversation included calls for violence.

The encouragement to storm Georgia’s recount sites came in response to news that the deadline to mail in ballots had been extended for some voters in Cobb County after a logistical problem, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online extremists. On Donald, where the big part is planning for the Capitol on January 6 siege, some posters urged supporters in Georgia to “be prepared to lock and load” around election offices in case of “scams”.

One user replied: “I hope for your sake you are willing to follow and not come back. Because soon there will be no second chance.” Wrote another: “We’re not doing this s— again!”

Machine problems at some polling locations in Maricopa County, home to more than half of Arizona’s voters, have become a problem for prominent right-wing voices who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election to claim without evidence that Tuesday’s vote was also fraudulent. County officials emphatically that ballots were not misread but rejected, and that voters had multiple options to ensure their choice was reflected in the results.

Those who preemptively suggested something nefarious was afoot included Blake Masters, Arizona’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Masters, who is vying to unseat Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), has been the most prominent candidate to raise suspicions, painting incidents of mechanical errors as part of a Democratic ruse. “It’s hard to know if we’re seeing incompetence or something worse,” he wrote. “All we know now is that the Democrats are hoping you’ll get discouraged and go home.”

Arizona Republicans also quickly tried to portray the incidents as part of a national problem, even though their claims contradicted the facts.

A post from a Twitter account with about 30 followers, which claimed that voting machines were also malfunctioning in Bell County, Texas, gained widespread attention after it was shared by Kelli Ward, chairwoman of the Arizona GOP. “It’s not just happening in Arizona…” she wrote. That tweet, in turn, inspired a headline on the Gateway Pundit website. “THE FIX IS IN!” the site claimed.

None of that is true. James Stafford, a spokesman for Bell County, told The Washington Post that the problem was not with the voting machines, but with the check-in machines, which briefly did not come online at eight of the county’s 42 vote centers. The issues were resolved early Tuesday morning, Stafford said, and county officials extended voting hours by an hour to give residents additional opportunities to vote.

Efforts by election officials to set expectations about the time it will take to count ballots have also fueled right-wing conspiracy theories.

On the Twitter clone of the former president, Truth Social, his son Donald Trump Jr. posted a collage of news headlines explaining that it was normal for vote counting to last all night and said: “Vote to beat these bulls—.”

The tabulation process since 2020 — and the “red mirage” of early votes suggesting a Republican victory, only to have subsequent ballots shift to Democrats — has become a constant source of right-wing suspicion, even though delays in the counting of mail-in and other ballots are mostly the result of decisions in Republican states not to count mail-in ballots before Election Day.

The anticipated voting delay Counting, especially in close races, could lead to a “prolonged period of uncertainty” that would likely incubate rumors, said Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington who researches online misinformation. Due to continuous attacks on the election administration, she added, “the pump is already primed” for voters to believe such rumors.

After initially refusing to take action against a wave of claims that the multi-day count would allow Democrats to cheat, Twitter implemented information boxes on some of its most popular posts. “Democrats say it could take days and weeks to count mail-in ballots,” wrote one right-wing commentator, garnering thousands of engagements, meaning retweets or likes. “Sounds like they need time to cheat.”

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Social media platforms were divided on Tuesday over their approach to moderating identical content spread online.

This year, GOP election deniers got a free pass from Twitter and Facebook

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has refused to remove or add context to a misleading video, filmed during the Texas primary in March, that is now circulating on its platforms with baseless claims of suppressed GOP votes in Tuesday’s election.

The video captured the pollster appearing to tell Republicans they couldn’t vote because of a lack of staff. The parties were responsible for recruiting election judges, who had to be on site for the vote to take place.

An Instagram account operated by a news agency that says it serves Jewish readers reposted the video without context about the time or location of the alleged trouble. When the watchdog group Common Cause flagged the video to Meta, the company responded that the content did not violate its policies, according to communications reviewed by The Washington Post. A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment on the video, which achieved minimal engagement on the platform.

Twitter took a different tack on the same video, applying a flag notifying users that the content was “presented out of context.” However, one of the posts with the misleading claims received more than 5,000 retweets.

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