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Report

Information Gaps and Misinformation in the 2022 Elections

SUMMARY: False claims about the 2020 election have prompted anti-voter laws and mistrust in the process. Election officials, civic groups, and the media must act against the threat of election misinformation.

Published: August 2, 2022

The prob­lem of elec­tion misin­form­a­tion is vast. Part of the prob­lem occurs when there is high demand for inform­a­tion about a topic, but the supply of accur­ate and reli­able inform­a­tion is inad­equate to meet that demand. The result­ing inform­a­tion gap creates oppor­tun­it­ies for misin­form­a­tion to emerge and spread. foot­note1_nz6m8mi 1 Tommy Shane and Pedro Noel, “Data Defi­cits: Why We Need to Monitor the Demand and Supply of Inform­a­tion in Real Time,” First Draft News, Septem­ber 28, 2020, https://firstdraft­news.org/long-form-article/data-defi­cits/.

One major elec­tion inform­a­tion gap developed in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic drove many states to expand access to voting by mail. foot­note2_0yjrnlj 2 Michael Wald­man, “Voting by Mail Under Threat Again,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Febru­ary 23, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/voting-mail-under-threat-again; and Wendy Weiser et al., “Mail Voting: What Has Changed in 2020,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Septem­ber 17, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/mail-voting-what-has-changed-2020. Inad­equate public know­ledge about the process left room for disin­form­a­tion mongers to spread false claims that mail voting would lead to wide­spread fraud. Elec­tion offi­cials — managing unpre­ced­en­ted chal­lenges to ensure what federal author­it­ies ulti­mately called “the most secure elec­tion in Amer­ican history” foot­note3_jgx1llg 3 Jen Kirby, “Trump’s Own Offi­cials Say 2020 Was Amer­ica’s Most Secure Elec­tion in History,” Vox, Novem­ber 13, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/11/13/21563825/2020-elec­tions-most-secure-dhs-cisa-krebs.  — could not fill inform­a­tion gaps with accur­ate inform­a­tion in time. As is now well known, no less than former Pres­id­ent Trump promoted these false claims, among others, to deny the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion results and provoke the Janu­ary 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. foot­note4_cuij5o0 4 Lauren Miller and Wendy Weiser, “Janu­ary 6 Hear­ings and the Big Lie’s Ongo­ing Damage to Demo­cracy,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, June 13, 2022, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/janu­ary-6-hear­ings-and-big-lies-ongo­ing-damage-demo­cracy.

In 2022, false narrat­ives about a stolen 2020 elec­tion persist, even as an unpre­ced­en­ted spate of restrict­ive voting law changes across the coun­try has created fresh inform­a­tion gaps and, thus, fresh oppor­tun­it­ies for misin­form­a­tion. Since 2020, at least 18 states have shrunk voting access, often in ways that dramat­ic­ally alter proced­ures voters might remem­ber from the past. foot­note5_3u0g8ax 5 Bren­nan Center for Justice, “Voting Laws Roundup: May 2022,” May 26, 2022, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-may-2022; and Katie Friel and Will Wilder, “Find­ing the Same Misin­form­a­tion in Anti-Voter Lawsuits and Anti-Voter Legis­la­tion,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, April 13, 2022, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/find­ing-same-misin­form­a­tion-anti-voter-lawsuits-and-anti-voter. Mean­while, lies and vitriol about the 2020 elec­tion have affected percep­tions of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion in ways that complic­ate work to defend against misin­form­a­tion.

This paper iden­ti­fies some of the most signi­fic­ant inform­a­tion gaps around elec­tions in 2022 and new devel­op­ments in elec­tions over­sight that will make it harder to guard against misin­form­a­tion. Ulti­mately, it recom­mends strategies that elec­tion offi­cials, journ­al­ists, social media compan­ies, civic groups, and indi­vidu­als can and should use to prevent misin­form­a­tion from filling gaps in public know­ledge. Lessons from other subjects, such as Covid-19 vaccine ingredi­ents and tech­no­lo­gies, foot­note6_u71bgjk 6 Rory Smith, Seb Cubbon, and Claire Wardle, “Under the Surface: Covid-19 Vaccine Narrat­ives, Misin­form­a­tion and Data Defi­cits on Social Media,” First Draft News, Novem­ber 12, 2020, https://firstdraft­news.org/long-form-article/under-the-surface-covid-19-vaccine-narrat­ives-misin­form­a­tion-and-data-defi­cits-on-social-media/. show how timely responses and proact­ive “preb­unk­ing” with accur­ate inform­a­tion help to mitig­ate misin­form­a­tion. foot­note7_sk5c9dd 7 Melisa Basol et al., “Towards Psycho­lo­gical Herd Immunity: Cross-Cultural Evid­ence for Two Preb­unk­ing Inter­ven­tions against COVID-19 Misin­form­a­tion,” Big Data & Soci­ety 8, no. 1 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1177%2F20539517211013868; Sander van der Linden et al., “Inocu­lat­ing against COVID-19 Vaccine Misin­form­a­tion,” The Lancet 33 (2021), https://doi. org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.100772; and Maryline Vivion et al., “Preb­unk­ing Messaging to Inocu­late against COVID-19 Vaccine Misin­form­a­tion: An Effect­ive Strategy for Public Health,” Journal of Commu­nic­a­tion in Health­care (2022), https://doi.org/10.1080/17538068.2022.2044606.

The consequences of ignor­ing the misin­form­a­tion risk posed by these inform­a­tion gaps could be severe. Already, voter trust in elec­tions has plunged since 2020. foot­note8_uh25e1p 8 Brit­tany Shep­herd, “Amer­ic­ans’ Faith in Elec­tion Integ­rity Drops: POLL,” ABC News, Janu­ary 6, 2022, https://abcnews.go.com/Polit­ics/amer­ic­ans-faith-elec­tion-integ­rity-drops-poll/story?id=82069876. Threats to elec­tion offi­cials have become a seri­ous public safety prob­lem, with 60 percent of elec­tion offi­cials report­ing in a recent Bren­nan Center survey concerns that threats, harass­ment, and intim­id­a­tion will thin their ranks. foot­note9_fdrm089 9 Bren­nan Center for Justice, Elec­tion Offi­cials Are Under Attack (Full- Length Version), YouTube, June 16, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOCBIiVUBMc/; and Ruby Edlin and Turquoise Baker, “Poll of Local Elec­tion Offi­cials Finds Safety Fears for Colleagues – and Them­selves,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, March 10, 2022, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/poll-local-elec­tion-offi­cials-finds-safety-fears-colleagues-and. After major changes to voting proced­ures since 2020, at least one state — Texas — has already seen remark­able increases in mail ballot rejec­tions, and several other states have newly disen­fran­chised some minor­ity voters. foot­note10_z6u7uh4 10 Kevin Morris, Coryn Grange, and Zoe Merri­man, “The Impact of Restrict­ive Voting Legis­la­tion,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, April 5, 2022, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/impact-restrict­ive-voting-legis­la­tion.

Key find­ings

Key recom­mend­a­tions

Recom­mend­a­tions for elec­tion offi­cials

  • Plan well-timed voter educa­tion campaigns that include resources such as Frequently Asked Ques­tions pages and video tutori­als.
  • Provide educa­tional resources in voters’ preferred languages.
  • Consider publish­ing rumor control pages to “preb­unk” misin­form­a­tion.
  • Build and main­tain a network of part­ners and messen­gers — includ­ing secret­ar­ies of state, community groups, candid­ates of all affil­i­ations, busi­ness groups, and the media — to amplify accur­ate elec­tion inform­a­tion.
  • Where languages other than English are common, elec­tion offi­cials should seek part­ner­ships with messen­gers who can reach such voters and have their trust.

Recom­mend­a­tions for community-based organ­iz­a­tions

  • Develop contacts among elec­tion offi­cials and nonpar­tisan voting experts.
  • Provide accur­ate elec­tion inform­a­tion and tools to identify misin­form­a­tion to community constitu­en­cies in preferred languages and formats.
  • Develop part­ner­ships with trus­ted messen­gers to ensure community educa­tion efforts travel further.

Recom­mend­a­tions for journ­al­ists

  • Cultiv­ate author­it­at­ive sources on elec­tions, includ­ing elec­tion offi­cials.
  • Report pre-elec­tion stor­ies on confus­ing or new topics.
  • Provide accur­ate context and perspect­ive in cover­ing common­place glitches or delays, consult­ing with nonpar­tisan experts where needed to help prevent misin­form­a­tion.

Recom­mend­a­tions for inter­net and social media compan­ies

  • Publish and amplify accur­ate, author­it­at­ive elec­tion inform­a­tion.
  • Publish clear and trans­par­ent policies to minim­ize elec­tion misin­form­a­tion.
  • Create infra­struc­ture to impede elec­tion misin­form­a­tion, such as effect­ive educa­tion tools and algorithmic inter­ven­tions that slow the spread of misin­form­a­tion.
  • Defend elec­tion offi­cial websites and accounts against hack­ing and inter­fer­ence.

Recom­mend­a­tions for the public

  • Make a plan to vote that accounts for recent changes in voting proced­ures.
  • Learn how to recog­nize online misin­form­a­tion and build news liter­acy.
  • Seek out context for troub­ling elec­tion-related claims.
  • Share accur­ate voting inform­a­tion with social, civic, and faith networks.

End Notes