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Analysis

Voters vs. Disinformation

Here’s how members of the general public can help identify — and stop the spread of — digital disinformation about elections.

September 2, 2020
voters-vs-disinformation
Issouf Sanogo/Getty

In recent U.S. elec­tions, bad actors — both foreign and domestic — have attemp­ted to stop certain groups of people from voting by spread­ing false inform­a­tion online. For example, lead­ing up to the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, oper­at­ives tied to Russian Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin engaged in voter suppres­sion by posing as Amer­ic­ans and post­ing mislead­ing messages and ads on social media. These voter suppres­sion tactics frequently target histor­ic­ally disen­fran­chised voters, includ­ing people of color, low-income people, and immig­rants. With the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion approach­ing, the ongo­ing Covid-19 pandemic has intens­i­fied the threat of disin­form­a­tion, as bad actors have sowed confu­sion about the crisis for polit­ical gain.

While elec­tion offi­cials, inter­net compan­ies, and the federal govern­ment are all respons­ible for combat­ing digital disin­form­a­tion (as high­lighted in a new Bren­nan Center report), the general public can also play a role in identi­fy­ing and stop­ping the spread of false inform­a­tion.

How to identify disin­form­a­tion about elec­tions

In recent elec­tions, bad actors have attemp­ted to spread a wide range of false inform­a­tion about voting in order to keep certain indi­vidu­als away from the polls — such as disin­form­a­tion about voting times and loca­tions, mislead­ing instruc­tions on how to vote, and false reports about law enforce­ment pres­ence.

Indi­vidu­als should try to determ­ine the vera­city of any elec­tion inform­a­tion before shar­ing or acting on it. To do so, they should first consider the source of inform­a­tion, who is behind it, and what it may be trying to accom­plish. “It’s a bad sign if it’s hard to even tell who it is, or if the account was just recently created,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior coun­sel for the Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program. “Is it some­thing you’ve never heard of? Are the other stor­ies on the site propa­ganda or jokes?”

Because head­lines and quotes on social media can be mislead­ing, users should click through and read the full story behind the piece of inform­a­tion they are consid­er­ing — check­ing the facts and look­ing at the dates to see if the story is current. They should look at whether other sources are report­ing the same inform­a­tion or call­ing it out as a hoax. Most import­ant, voters should contact local elec­tion offi­cials for the author­it­at­ive answer to any ques­tions about how to vote.

How to respond to suspec­ted disin­form­a­tion

Anyone suspi­cious of elec­tion disin­form­a­tion should check with local elec­tion offi­cials for the correct inform­a­tion. The “Can I Vote” resource page, managed by the National Asso­ci­ation of Secret­ar­ies of State, provides the contact inform­a­tion for voting offi­cials across the United State, as well as state-specific voting inform­a­tion, such as regis­tra­tion status, polling loca­tions, and early voting avail­ab­il­ity.  

Every­one can play an active role in stop­ping the spread of disin­form­a­tion by noti­fy­ing elec­tion offi­cials and by contact­ing Elec­tion Protec­tion, a national nonpar­tisan coali­tion that main­tains rela­tion­ships with elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try, at 866.OUR.VOTE. Elec­tion protec­tion volun­teers will record incid­ents, look for patterns, and help pass inform­a­tion to inter­net compan­ies, offi­cials, and ulti­mately affected communit­ies and indi­vidu­als.

Finally, indi­vidu­als should take the initi­at­ive to share accur­ate voting inform­a­tion with their social media networks, local community groups, faith lead­ers, and local news­pa­pers, radio stations, and TV stations. They should avoid repeat­ing false­hoods when report­ing incid­ents of disin­form­a­tion, which can back­fire and make it more likely for read­ers to remem­ber the false inform­a­tion. “Do not repeat false inform­a­tion, do not share the false post, and do not retweet the false tweet,” said Vandewalker.

Read the full report, Digital Disin­form­a­tion and Vote Suppres­sion