Disinformation and midterm elections: what to expect

Mail-in ballot conspiracy theories. Anonymous text messages warning voters to stay home. Marginal social media platforms where election disinformation spreads with impunity.

Misinformation about the upcoming midterm elections has been building for months, challenging election officials and tech companies while providing yet another reminder of how conspiracy theories and mistrust shape American politics.

The demands are fueling candidacies from Holocaust deniers and threaten to further corrode faith in voting and democracy. Many of them date back to 2020, when then-President Donald Trump refused to accept the outcome of the election he lost to Joe Biden and began lying about his results.

“Disinformation is going to be at the heart of this midterm election and at the heart of the 2024 election,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, who studies technological change and society and is the dean of global affairs at the Fletcher School of Tufts University. “The one galvanizing narrative is that the 2020 election was stolen.”

An overview of the main challenges of disinformation in the run-up to the 2022 elections:

MISLEADING VOTING CLAIMS

Political misinformation often focuses on immigration, crime, public health, geopolitics, disasters, education, or mass shootings. This year, it’s all about voting.

Claims about the security of mail-in ballots have increased in recent weeks, as have baseless rumors about non-citizens voting. This is in addition to claims of dead people voting, ballot boxes being moved or crazy stories about voting machines.

Trump, a Republican, attacked the legitimacy of the election even before losing. He then refused to concede, spreading lies about the election that inspired the deadly January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. His claim has been overruled in more than 60 court cases and by his own attorney general, William Barr.

Together, these misleading claims about the country’s electoral system have led some Republicans to say they will keep their mail-in ballots until Election Day – a move that could slow the count.

Others pledge to monitor polls to prevent cheating, raising concerns about intimidation and even the possibility of violence at election sites.

Tech companies say they have new policies and programs in place designed to unearth misinformation.

“We have seen hundreds of elections take place on our platforms in recent years and we have applied the lessons of each to strengthen our preparations,” Facebook and Instagram owner Meta said in a statement.

Yet critics say the volume of misrepresentations spreading now shows that there is still much to be done, such as better enforcement of existing rules or government regulations requiring more aggressive policies.

“This is no longer a new problem,” said Jon Lloyd, senior adviser to the non-profit organization Global Witness, which last week published a report showing that TikTok has failed to remove many ads. containing election disinformation. Major social media platforms, he said, “just aren’t doing enough to stop threats to democracy.

ERRORS WILL OCCUR – WHILE THE CLOCK IS RUNNING

Elections involve the combined efforts of tens of thousands of people working under pressure. Errors are expected, which is why there is a robust system of checks and balances to ensure errors are found and corrected.

Taken out of context, stories of faulty voting machines, scrambled ballots, or even “suspicious” vehicles arriving at polling centers can become food for the next voter fraud myth.

And with so much work to do at such a rapid pace, election workers, local officials and even the media have little time to push back against such claims before they go viral.

In Georgia in 2020, a burst pipe at an election office was used to tell a far-fetched story of ballot-rigging by the FBI. In Arizona, the choice of pens given to voters filling out ballots has led to similarly absurd claims.

To avoid falling into the trap of making a misleading claim, consult several sources, including local election offices. Any significant voting irregularities will be covered by multiple media outlets and addressed by election officials. Be skeptical of claims from second-hand sources, said Shaye-Ann McDonald, a behavioral researcher at Duke University who studies ways to improve resistance to misinformation.

The most viral misinformation often stirs up anger or fear that motivates readers to repost it before they’ve had a chance to coolly examine the underlying claim.

“When you read something that evokes strong emotion, that should be a warning sign,” McDonald said.

A MULTILINGUAL CHALLENGE

Just before the 2020 election, Facebook ads in Spanish falsely claimed that Biden, a Democrat, was a Communist. On other platforms, messages warned Latinos in the United States not to vote at all.

Misinformation in languages ​​other than English is a particular concern cited by researchers who say the major platforms – most of them based in the US – are focused on moderating content in English. Automated systems written to detect disinformation in English do not work as well when applied to other languages.

“As bad as they (tech companies) are moderating content in English, they’re even worse when it comes to non-English languages,” said Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of the nonprofit Free Press. who works on issues of racial justice and technology.

DISINFORMATION BY TEXT?

While election misinformation spreads easily on major social media platforms like Facebook, it has also taken root on a long list of less familiar platforms: Gab, Gettr, Parler, and Trump’s Truth Social platform.

Meanwhile, TikTok has become a key network for young voters — and the politicians who want to reach them. The platform, owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, has created an election hub to connect users with reliable election and voting information. But the misinformation persists nonetheless.

The problem is not limited to social networks. The number of false declarations transmitted by SMS and e-mail has steadily increased in recent years. Last summer, Democratic voters in Kansas received misleading messages telling them that a yes vote in an upcoming referendum would protect abortion rights; the opposite was true.

MUSK AND TWITTER

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter just weeks before the 2022 election has upended the platform’s plans to tackle misinformation ahead of midterms.

Musk quickly fired the executive who oversaw content moderation. Over the weekend, he posted a tweet advancing a baseless conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, before deleting it.

Musk called himself a free speech absolutist and said he disagreed with the decision to fire Trump from the platform inciting violence on January 6, 2021.

He said a content moderation committee would consider possible revisions to Twitter’s rules, but no changes would be made before the election.

“We remain vigilant against attempts to manipulate conversations about the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.” Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of security and integrity, tweeted on Tuesday.

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC THREATS

Russian efforts to interfere in US elections go back years, and there are indications that China and Iran are stepping up their game.

Tech companies, government officials and disinformation researchers say they are monitoring such activity ahead of midstreams. But the threat of misinformation posed by domestic groups can be far greater.

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Follow the AP’s misinformation coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation. Follow the AP for full coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ap_politics. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the midterm issues and factors at play.

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