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Analysis

Twitter Is a Cauldron of Misinformation About the Arizona 2020 Vote Audit

One solution is for platforms to work with federal partners to develop a directory of verified election officials.

This piece first appeared in Slate.

Six months after the 2020 elec­tion, the Arizona state Senate is conduct­ing what it calls an “audit” of Mari­copa County’s Novem­ber results. The process has been roundly and rightly criti­cized as chaotic and partisan by elec­tion secur­ity and admin­is­tra­tion profes­sion­als—includ­ing members of the county’s own Board of Elec­tions, which is not parti­cip­at­ing. Run by a company whose founder has spread Stop the Steal conspir­acy theor­ies, the audit has become an oppor­tun­ity for people to peddle elec­tion-related disin­form­a­tion. And these false narrat­ives are too much for elec­tion offi­cials in Arizon­a—or around the coun­try—to combat on their own.
Social media plat­forms must take a more active role in prevent­ing false inform­a­tion around elec­tions from spread­ing and work with elec­tion offi­cials to amplify accur­ate content.

The purpose of the sham in Mari­copa County is to sow contin­ued doubt in the legit­im­acy of Pres­id­ent Biden’s elec­tion. Former Pres­id­ent Trump claims the audit will some­how change results in Arizona, with other swing states to follow. It’s wholly lack­ing in the kinds of proto­cols and proced­ures you’d expect from a process inten­ded to ensure rigor and accur­acy—bal­lots have been left unat­ten­ded, and a candid­ate for the Arizona House of Repres­ent­at­ives who lost in Novem­ber is one of the audit­ors. The conspir­acy theor­ies being invest­ig­ated include ludicrous claims, one of which exploits anti-Asian racism: To inspect the ballots in an effort to legit­im­ize the myth that they were fakes sent from China, work­ers used an ultra­vi­olet light that could damage ballots, appar­ently to check them for bamboo fibers.

In fact, the offi­cial Twit­ter account for the audit is also proact­ively spread­ing false inform­a­tion. Inter­spersed with fundrais­ing pleas, the account has tweeted inform­a­tion that’s not true about observ­ers and report­ers on site at the audit, as well as accus­a­tions of bias against local report­ers who have exposed embar­rass­ing flaws in the process. On May 2, a tweet from the account falsely accused one of the observ­ers sent by Arizona Secret­ary of State Katie Hobbs’ office of sneak­ing his way into the event by pretend­ing to be a member of the media, lead­ing to calls that day on Twit­ter for Hobbs to be doxxed. Even after the call to dox the secret­ary was flagged for the plat­form, it was still avail­able as of May 12.  The pres­id­ent of the Arizona state Senate has also contrib­uted to the prob­lem, tweet­ing a false claim that members of the media had doxxed an auditor. On May 6, Hobbs revealed that her office had received at least three threats, includ­ing a call from a man who wanted to know what she was wear­ing so she would be “easy to get.” State troop­ers have been assigned to protect her.

Despite Trump and others being banned from Face­book and Twit­ter, social media remains an import­ant vector for elec­tion-related disin­form­a­tion. Far-right news sites pick up disin­form­a­tion and then amplify and sensa­tion­al­ize it, further propagat­ing it on social media: After the false inform­a­tion tweeted by the Arizona audit account and the state senate pres­id­ent, the Gate­way Pundit published two articles push­ing and expand­ing on these narrat­ives. One repro­duced a false tweet about the observer sent by Hobbs’ office and posted his image along­side that of  a cartoon villain. The other accused a CNN reporter of harass­ing audit­ors. Although Gate­way Pundit founder Jim Hoft, who ran the site’s Twit­ter account, was perman­ently banned from Twit­ter earlier this year, other users on the plat­form are spread­ing both articles on the plat­form.

Elec­tion-related misin­form­a­tion is a wide­spread prob­lem that elec­tion offi­cials are trying to combat where they can. For example, Hobbs’ office has their own accounts where they share accur­ate inform­a­tion about elec­tions or the audit. But the plat­forms need to take a bigger role in help­ing proact­ively combat these narrat­ives, which have led to death threats

Plat­forms could work with federal govern­ment part­ners to develop a direct­ory of veri­fied elec­tion offi­cials, who they help in their efforts to inform the public about not just where and how to vote, but how their votes are coun­ted. These elec­tion offi­cials could bene­fit from ampli­fic­a­tion of their content when it other­wise complies with plat­form policies. That way, when Hobbs’s office provides accur­ate inform­a­tion about the audit, it would­n’t be as easily drowned out by sensa­tional false­hoods. Just as it makes sense to prom­in­ently display and promote content from trus­ted part­ners on issues of public health, like vaccines, it makes sense to build up those rela­tion­ships with elec­tion offi­cials and continue promot­ing correct inform­a­tion even after the elec­tion is over.

And requests from those same elec­tion offi­cials to remove content for policy viol­a­tions could also be prior­it­ized for review—in partic­u­lar content that harasses elec­tion work­ers or spreads false inform­a­tion about elec­tions. If a call to dox a veri­fied elec­tion offi­cial like Hobbs is repor­ted, the plat­form could prior­it­ize remov­ing this content. Plat­forms have numer­ous reports of policy viol­a­tions to contend with, but threats to elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers exploded during the 2020 elec­tion cycle. The uptick is concern­ing not only as it relates to the safety of elec­tion offi­cials and their famil­ies, but it has also raised ques­tions among elec­tion offi­cials as to whether they will be able to recruit and retain good staff to perform the job. The least the plat­forms can do for these heroes of demo­cracy is respond to any harass­ment of them with extra atten­tion.