What Twitter’s Quake Could Mean: Interim Misinformation Run Amok
A a recent exchange between David Beckernonpartisan election pundit, and Twitter user “@catturd2” — an account with nearly a million followers that sometimes trades posts with Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and the new owner of Twitter — offered a striking example of why misinformation is such an intractable problem.
“Funny how until a few years ago we could easily count every vote in every state on election night,” he wrote on Twitter. The false claim has garnered 67,000 likes.
“With all due respect to catturd,” Becker explained to his much smaller list of 15,000 followers, “never in our nation’s history have we come close to counting all the votes on election night. It takes weeks for each state to count all ballots (including military ones) and officially certify the results. Every country. Always.”
Why is this important? Because misinformation about the mechanics of voting fuels mistrust and leads many Americans — mostly on the right — accept conspiracy theories about the election.
and by the way Musk is in the midst of laying off thousands of employees at Twitterincluding members of the trust and safety teams who manage content moderation.
“It’s an extremely irresponsible thing to do just days before an election that is likely to be plagued by voter intimidation, false claims of election rigging and potential political violence,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of the nonprofit watchdog group Accountable Tech.
First: for the avoidance of doubt, the idea that America ever counts every vote on election night is completely false and easily verifiable. California, for example, has never come anywhere near that goal. Finished races there can take weeks. New York State is notoriously slow in counting votes; In 2020, local election boards did not begin counting absentee ballots until seven days after Election Day. Some waited even longer.
There is no conspiracy. It takes a long time to count votes in a country as big as the United States. This is why states have processes in place to confirm results during the weeks. Alaska, for example, doesn’t plan to compile and release unofficial results of its election until Nov. 23. This is completely normal.
But with Twitter in turmoil, Lehrich worries how misinformation about the vote could spread unchecked in the next few days and weeks. “Things are going to fall through the cracks, even if Elon doesn’t do anything intentionally to sabotage things,” he said.
Part of what’s going on here is a declining level of trust in the pillars of American civic life—a decades-long trend vividly depicted in “Bowling Alone”, a famous book by Robert Putnam from 2000.
Now the numbers are even worse. Jeffrey Jones, a Gallup analyst, noted in July that the Americans had arrived “record low trust in all institutions.”
News organizations polled at the bottom of Gallup’s list. Only 16 percent of the public said they had “a great deal” or “somewhat” trust in newspapers, and only 11 percent said the same about TV news.
The differences by party were large. Only 5 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of independents said they had a high level of trust in newspapers, and only 35 percent of Democrats said the same. All of these numbers were down from a year earlier.
Coming in the middle of a midterm election in which journalists are trying to inform millions of voters about what’s going on and help them evaluate the candidates’ ideas and personal characteristics, Gallup’s findings were alarming.
And that’s just one data point. Recently survey by Bright Line Watch, a project run by a group of political scientists, found that 91 percent of Democrats are confident their vote will count, compared to just 68 percent of Republicans. That lack of trust is the initial fuel of choice denial.
Organized groups on the right have been chasing the press for decades, and conservative politicians often take up the chorus. Richard Nixon’s ill-fated vice president, Spiro Agnew, called reporters “babbling about negativism”; Donald Trump attacked the media as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ripped the “corporate media” despite being a frequent guest on Fox News — which, yes, is a corporation. If Walter Cronkite walked among us today, he would be leaning on the liberal pillar.
The left has its own connections with the media. This week, Dan Froomkin, the reliably scathing liberal critic of political reporting, wrote a post with a question“Why aren’t mainstream journalists sounding the alarm about the danger to democracy?” He complained that, in his opinion, political journalists were “just reporting it as another partisan fight.”
Political reporters cover partisan struggles; elections are underway, and readers care who wins, who loses, and why.
But major news outlets have invested heavily in covering the event this year January 6 hearing, denial of choice, political violence, danger to election workers, plans to disrupt the appointments, misinformation and threats to democracy in general. There was a lot of hard-hitting, critical coverage of the denial of the election.
Local news is often a different story. Here is a tweet from KTNV, a Nevada television station: “Democrat Cisco Aguilar and Republican Jim Marchant are running for Nevada’s next secretary of state. And both have the same focus: electoral integrity.”
Text article implies that Marchant, the leader of a group of far-right candidates for the highest elected offices in several states denying the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, is spreading “baseless claims of widespread election fraud.” But it doesn’t say that explicitly.
In an interview, Aguilar pointed to the KTNV article as an example of how the news treated the candidates too flatly and gave Marchant a platform he didn’t deserve. (Marchant did not respond to emails sent to three of his known addresses.)
When I asked Adrian Fontes, the Democratic candidate for Arizona secretary of state, how he plans to combat misinformation if he wins the race against Mark Finchem, the far-right Republican who has fueled conspiracy theories about the election, he made a similar argument.
“Actually, it’s not a hard problem,” Fontes said, urging reporters to stop “chasing shiny objects” and “crazy conspiracy theories” and instead focus on what election workers are doing.
“As secretary of state,” he said, “I plan to celebrate them, elevate them, and make sure that guys like you don’t respectfully ignore them in favor of weirdos.”
Facts are stubborn things, except when they aren’t.
However, more and more millions of Americans are not getting information from people like me. They follow sources that don’t have any of the checks and balances—however imperfect—that most mainstream media have.
Over the past few decades, as it has fostered distrust of the mainstream media, the right has built a closed alternative ecosystem that includes Fox News, but also smaller outlets such as Newsmax or One America News Network. But even those places put their names behind their stories, and viewers get a good sense of the perspective and slant they present.
I asked @catturd2 on Twitter this morning if the user behind the account plans to correct or delete the incorrect information. No response yet, but the account wrote in another tweet: “LOL – Look what Twitter did to my tweet – trying to verify it with fake NYT news,” followed by five laughing emoticons.
Polls show that younger people increasingly trust what they see on social media as much as traditional news sources. The data also shows that readers often cannot distinguish between news reporting and opinion, even when explicitly labeled. Social media timelines bring them all together.
and, as noted by the Pew Research Centerpeople don’t even agree on what a “fact” is: “Members of each political party were more likely to label both factual and opinion statements as factual when they spoke more to their political party,” Pew wrote in 2018.
Those people voter intimidation in Arizona based on false information, or seeking hand-counting of ballots in Nevada? They don’t get their information from mainstream sources.
How do fair and honest journalists reach them with accurate news? It’s a much deeper social challenge, and no one seems to have good answers.
What to read tonight
Donald Trump is expected to announce a third campaign for the White House shortly after the midterms, possibly as early as November 14 Written by Michael Bender and Maggie Haberman.
In Wisconsin, one of the nation’s most evenly matched swing states, Republicans are close to winning a supermajority in the state legislature that would render a Democratic governor irrelevant, even if he wins re-election. Reid Epstein reports.
San Luis, Ariz., a small farming outpost on the border, played a key role in the making of “2,000 Mules,” a conspiracy film about alleged election fraud in 2020. Now some residents are afraid to vote, Jack Healy and Alexandra Berzon write.
Sheera Frenkel discusses the phenomenon of “participatory disinformation” on the Internet, where hunting voter fraud has become a game.
Fist pumping on a classic political battlefield
At 17:30 there was an all-out sprint of campaign workers, volunteers and supporters.
The goal: to find the best view of the parking lot where Sen. Maggie Hassan and her Republican challenger Don Bolduc will arrive for their final debate. Supporters of each candidate jockeyed for position to make their signs visible.
Inside the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, the stage was set for Hassan, a Democrat, and Bolduc, whose Senate race has tightened in recent weeks, giving Republicans hopes of an upset victory.
Hassan arrived first, working the line for about a minute before heading inside. Within about 30 seconds, Bolduc arrived, to cheers and jeers.
He pumped his fists in front of supporters, and I captured this image – a view of the political theater in New Hampshire.
Thank you for reading about politics and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake
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