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Research 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_mQmJ41VArv181Tommy 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_nR2WgHqxbfOy2Michael 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_ueAOFyImHY0f3Jen 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_hnDqiW5fIfgY4Lauren 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_tR4QueQUxO2C5Brennan 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_x6ZFQpC0dD0X6Rory 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_ujW6gkPhk0Y17Melisa 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_bIjj9uQSVH2Z8Brittany 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_vOczz6d1Q5YI9Brennan 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_fRK7ueiVxNmJ10Kevin 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