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‘Tsunamis of Misinformation’ Overwhelm Local Election Officials

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From Philadelphia to Sonoma County, Calif., election officials said they were working marathon hours to fight a flood of falsehoods.

Al Schmidt, a member of the Philadelphia board that supervises voter registration and elections, said his team had been working up to 17-hour days. Al Schmidt, a member of the Philadelphia board that supervises voter registration and elections, said his team had been working up to 17-hour days.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times Kellen BrowningDavey Alba

  • Oct. 29, 2020

The morning after last month’s presidential debate, the phones inside the Philadelphia election offices that Al Schmidt helps oversee rang off the hook.

One caller asked whether President Trump’s comments hinting at rampant voter fraud in Philadelphia were true. Another yelled about the inaccurate rumor that poll watchers were being barred from polling places. Still another demanded to know what the city was trying to hide.

It was just another day at the office for Mr. Schmidt, one of Philadelphia’s three city commissioners, a job that includes supervising voter registration and elections. Hundreds of people have called in every day for months, many parroting conspiracy theories about the election and lies about how partisan megadonors own the voting machines. Staff members spend hours shooting down the rumors, he said.

“It’s not like we have tens of millions of dollars to spend on communications to battle tsunamis of misinformation that come our way,” said Mr. Schmidt, 49, whose team has been working up to 17-hour days ahead of Election Day on Tuesday. “It wears on all of us.”

Election officials across the country are already stretched thin this year, dealing with a record number of mail-in ballots and other effects of the coronavirus pandemic. On top of that, many are battling another scourge: misinformation.

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In 2016, Russia developed a simple, effective playbook to undermine U.S. elections with disinformation on social media. Four years later, Americans are using the same playbook on each other.

Quick, think about disinformation. What comes to mind? “Vladimir Putin, president of Russia.” But in 2020, many experts are more concerned with disinformation coming from our very own backyard. Like this guy, who, with a single tweet, disrupted a governor’s race in Kentucky. “Oh I’m just a broke college student, basically.” “He had 19 followers. It’s slightly absurd. But it’s also slightly terrifying.” What makes misinformation truly dangerous is that it doesn’t need to hack into the actual infrastructure of an election. It only needs to hack the brains of voters. “A seed of doubt is sowed into the democratic process of elections. People just don’t trust the process anymore.” “The purpose is to confuse people, to cause chaos and to cause division. The hope with disinformation is that a country will kind of fall in on itself.” And the coronavirus pandemic has made things even worse. To understand how we got here, we have to go to a key battleground in this election, one that has no state boundary. The internet. Remember the internet in 2016? The year that gave us these? “Damn, Daniel.” “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs?” Well, it also gave us a flood of election disinformation created by a Russian troll factory, a.k.a. a Kremlin-linked company called the Internet Research Agency. “It was essentially a gray office building in St. Petersburg in Russia.” This is Claire Wardle. She’s a disinformation expert and educator. “People were paid to sit all day, pretending to be Americans, creating social posts and memes and videos, and pushing that out. They could just throw spaghetti at the wall. Many of the posts didn’t succeed, but other things really did.” Russians developed a simple, but effective playbook. “They basically inflamed existing American divisions. A lot of these accounts actually got in the hundreds of thousands of followers.” By the end of the 2016 election, Russian trolls could reach millions of Americans through their social media accounts. Crucially, what they managed to do was use online disinformation to organize dozens of real-life political rallies. Attendees had no idea they’d been set up by Russians. This was one of them, filmed by a Houston TV station. “I’m in downtown Houston right by the Islamic Da’hwa Center. There’s protests going on, on both sides of the street.” Russian trolls did all of this, not with particularly sophisticated spycraft, but with tools available to everyone. Pretty soon, their disinformation, spread with the intent to deceive, became misinformation, as real people unwittingly started engaging with the material. All the while, social media companies denied there was a problem. Speaking days after the 2016 election, Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerburg struggled to articulate a defense. “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content — influenced the election in any way, I think is a pretty crazy idea.” In the years since, there has been a slow recognition. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I’m sorry.” “We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems that we’ve acknowledged. And we take the full responsibility to fix it.” Some lessons were learned. “The companies have been a lot tougher on election misinformation, especially when they can tie it to foreign interference.” But those policies aren’t applied in the same way when the source of the misinformation is within U.S. borders. In certain cases, like with an unsubstantiated New York Post report, some platforms have taken drastic measures to restrict access, and face charges of censorship. But generally, the platforms try to avoid being seen as arbiters of truth. “When it comes to domestic and homegrown misinformation, social media companies still do err on the side of free speech.” So in the last four years, America’s election disinformation problem didn’t go away. It evolved. “Unfortunately, the landscape looks and feels very different now, because you’ve got all sorts of actors using the platforms in the ways that we learned the Russians did in 2016. And we see that playbook being used by political operatives in the U.S. And we see that same playbook being used by individuals in their basements who are angry and frustrated with life.” Sometimes it’s just one guy, sending one tweet from hundreds of miles away. That actually happened in 2019 in Kentucky. To tell this story, let’s first meet three people. The New York Times reporter who covered the Kentucky election. “My name is Nick Corasaniti.” The election administrator. “My name is Jared Dearing.” And the internet troll. “I am @Overlordkraken1.” We’re not showing his face, and only using his first name, because he says he’s afraid for his safety. On Nov. 5, 2019, Kentucky voters went to the polls to pick their next governor. “The race for governor in Kentucky in 2019 featured a very unpopular governor, Matt Bevin, who is a Republican.” “We’re just getting started.” “Facing off against Andy Beshear, the Democratic attorney general.” “We can’t take four more years.” “Every Democrat in the country was viewing the opportunity to deliver a blow to Mitch McConnell, and give him a Democratic governor as a real win. National money flooded this election.” “The day started well. I drove in around 4 a.m. Election Day is more like game day for me.” “I woke up, got ready for school, went to school.” “When the polls close at 6, the day’s not even halfway through at that point.” “I got on Twitter, and I saw the Kentucky election, what’s going on. And then I saw that the race was very close.” “It was neck and neck. They were maybe 1,000 votes here, 100 votes there, separating them.” “When an election is close, there’s a lot of pressure and stress that’s put onto the system.” “As soon as Republicans in the state started to see the possibility that they might lose the Statehouse, social media kind of erupted a little bit. People were looking for reasons as to how this could possibly be happening. How could a Democrat be winning in deeply red Kentucky? Emotions were high. It was kind of the perfect environment for any kind of disinformation or misinformation about the results to take hold.” “I decided that it would be a funny idea that if I made a fake tweet, spread it out to bigger accounts. I thought it was the perfect situation for it to go viral. I don’t remember how many followers I had, but I know it was less than 20.” “He had 19 followers.” “I set my geolocation to Louisville, Ky.” “He claimed he was from Louisville, but it was misspelled.” “It was just a typo. I’ve never been to Kentucky.” “And he sent out a simple tweet that said, ‘Just shredded a box of — ” “‘Republican mail-in ballots. Bye bye Bevin.’” “There’s so many checks and balances that we’ve built into the system over the past decades that we kind of know where all the ballots are at all times. So this is obviously a false claim.” “I’ve never seen a mail-in ballot.” “I probably never will know what their intentions were.” “All I really wanted to do was just get a few reactions out of some Boomers.” “Irresponsible. Frustrating. Damaging. Not helpful.” “I just thought it was funny.” “So Kentucky election officials found this tweet about an hour after polls closed, and they immediately notified Twitter.” And like that, the tweet was gone. But the story didn’t end there. It had actually just begun. “A few conservative accounts began screenshotting the tweet. And and when they screenshot that tweet and sent it around to their tens of thousands of followers, hundreds of thousands of followers, it was like a spark in a brushfire. And the tweet was everywhere.” “When we called Twitter to then take those screengrabs down, Twitter then said that it was commentary on the original tweet itself, and were unwilling to take the screengrabs down. So it’s a pretty big loophole, as far as I’m concerned.” “Election security officials kind of refer to these networks of accounts as a Trump core. And what they do is they wait until there is a debate, or a discussion, or a controversy, and they will immediately go to the conservative side and amplify it.” Throughout the evening, a single atom of disinformation opened the door for more stories that muddied the waters in an already close election. “While this was happening, it was now reaching a pretty broad narrative. It wasn’t only restricted to the conservative internet. There were normal voters who were seeing this, there was news outlets who were seeing this.” At the end of the night, Matt Bevin, who was trailing behind his opponent by just 5,000 votes, contested the results. “There have been more than a few irregularities.” “He didn’t offer any evidence. He didn’t say what those irregularities were. But it was because of those irregularities that he requested a re-canvass of all of the vote.” Bevin never specifically mentioned the tweet, but it was one of the most viral pieces of disinformation raising doubts about the election. “Bevin basically refused to concede, and left the election in question.” “My intention was never for it to get as big as it did. But I guess it was a lot easier than I thought.” For the next few days, talks of election fraud hurting Bevin kept going. “There was a time in the middle there, where there was a lot of squoosh. Both sides had the opportunity to create their own narrative. And unfortunately, part of that narrative was being driven by misinformation.” Bevin’s supporters staged a press conference, alleging fraud. But again, offered no evidence. “Are you really under the belief that hackers couldn’t hack our votes that are uploaded to a cloud?” “There is no cloud involved in the election tabulations in Kentucky.” Eventually, after re-canvassing of the results concluded nine days later, Bevin conceded the race. “We’re going to have a change in the governorship, based on the vote of the people.” Andy Beshear is now the governor of Kentucky. But it’s hard to remove the various claims casting doubt on the election, once they’re out there. Videos alleging fraud in Kentucky’s governor’s race are still gaining more views and comments. Fast forward to 2020. “I don’t think the question of misinformation is whether it’s going to happen. It will happen.” Election officials across the country are gearing up for a difficult fight against disinformation ahead of the election. Like in Michigan. “We anticipate challenges coming from multiple different angles. Whether they come from the White House, whether they come from foreign entities, whether they come from social media voices.” And Colorado. “We really need federal leadership. There’s bills just sitting in the House and in the Senate that are never going to get heard, never going to get their chance. And meanwhile, our democracy is under attack.” After countless investigations, hearings and public grillings of social media executives over the past four years, the U.S. is still ill-equipped to deal with the problem. “I feel like the analogy here is someone taking a bucket of water and throwing it in the ocean.” Election officials are competing on social media against people with larger followings, like President Donald Trump himself. “President Trump has used his Twitter account and his Facebook account to spread falsehoods about voting.” In 2020, President Trump has tweeted election misinformation or claims about rigged elections about 120 times. Twitter has put warnings on some of President Trump’s tweets and Facebook has added labels that direct people to accurate election information. “There really isn’t a uniform policy that they apply evenly across the different social media companies.” “It’s pretty depressing to sit where we sit right now, heading into this election. We have failed to do enough to secure the election in a way that we needed to.” On top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic is making the misinformation problem even worse. For example, the pandemic has forced many states to expand vote-by-mail on a large scale for the first time. And that’s resulted in a surge in false or misleading claims about mail-in voting, according to media insights company Zignal Labs. Of the 13.4 million mentions of vote-by-mail between January and September, nearly one-quarter were likely misinformation. The pandemic has led to another important shift, as different conspiracy communities are emerging and working together. Here’s a look at how domestic misinformation gained more reach on Facebook during a single month this summer. These are groups that are prone to share misinformation about the election. These are anti-mask groups that tend to share content like this. Then there are the QAnon groups, a pro-Trump conspiracy group that promotes, among other things, the false idea that America is controlled by a cabal of globalist pedophiles. Facebook says all QAnon on accounts would be banned on its platforms. But what we found is these seemingly disparate conspiracy groups are increasingly connected by crossposting the same content, forming — “A huge tent conspiracy.” For example, this piece of disinformation, claiming that Barack Obama created antifa, was shared in all three types of communities. “A lot of people who will believe that the coronavirus is a hoax will also believe that the elections process is not to be trusted.” “The theme here is that more and more Americans feel like they cannot trust institutions.” And that could have serious consequences around Election Day. “What that does is that will create a big uncertainty, and allow any bad actors to spread more disinformation in an already charged electorate. It will also give people the opportunity to say they’ve rigged an election, when it’s so much harder to actually rig an election.” Social media companies are preparing for the scenario that President Trump, or other candidates, will falsely declare victory. Or worse, where the losing candidate refuses to concede, and claims election fraud. The 2019 Kentucky election avoided that, but the 2020 presidential election may not. “If we were to insert President Trump and months of undermining the electoral process into the Kentucky election, there probably would have been even more users who believed @Overlordkraken1’s tweet that he shredded ballots. It could have gone from thousands to millions.” “Will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?” “I hope it’s going to be a fair election. If it’s a fair election, I am 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.” “It’s something we’ve never seen before, and it sets a runway for the kind of disinformation that has disrupted other elections to really take off at a level we’ve never seen.” “I’m Isabelle Niu, one of the producers of this episode. There’s a lot going on in this election, and we want to make sure we take a deep dive into the major issues. Check out the other episodes of Stressed Election. We cover voting rights, voting technology and vote-by-mail.”

Video player loading In 2016, Russia developed a simple, effective playbook to undermine U.S. elections with disinformation on social media. Four years later, Americans are using the same playbook on each other.CreditCredit…Nicole Fineman

Fueled by inaccurate comments from Mr. Trump and others, election lies have spread across social media. They include claims that Black Lives Matter protesters incited violence at polling places, that mail-in ballots were dumped, that ballot boxes and voting machines were compromised, and that ballots were “harvested,” or collected and dropped off in bulk by unauthorized people.

Election officials in places such as Philadelphia, El Paso and Santa Rosa, Calif., are bearing the brunt of the fallout, according to interviews with a dozen of them in seven states. Some have had to contain misinformation-induced voter panic. Others are fighting back by posting accurate information on social media or giving newspaper and television interviews to spread their messages. Many are working longer shifts to debunk the distortions.

ImageCity workers in Philadelphia sorting mail-in ballots this week. City workers in Philadelphia sorting mail-in ballots this week.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

But their efforts have largely been fruitless, they said. When one rumor is smacked down, another pops up. And the reach of the rumors online is often so vast that the officials said they could not hope to compete.

“They’re definitely overwhelmed,” said Isabella Garcia-Camargo, an organizer of the Election Integrity Partnership, a new coalition of misinformation researchers.

Since Sept. 8, she said, her group has investigated 182 cases of election-related misinformation, most of which started locally. When mail was found in a ditch in Greenville, Wis., for example, some conservative media outlets inaccurately claimed that Democrats were dumping absentee ballots. In Germantown, Md., a video of an election official darkening an oval on a ballot was erroneously used as evidence that voters’ preferences were being altered, Ms. Garcia-Camargo said.

Last week, the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an information-sharing partnership, warned election officials about a spate of suspicious emails that impersonated state officials or included links to websites that asked them to verify their password information.

The emails, reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal, did not appear to be part of a coordinated campaign, said Jason Forget, a spokesman for the group. But it was a sign that local officials should “remain vigilant in identifying and reporting suspicious activity to protect the vote,” he said.

Top state officials who oversee elections said they were also constantly communicating with local authorities about the surge of falsehoods. In Colorado, Jena Griswold, the secretary of state, said her office had held a call with local officials and county clerks this month after the disclosure that Iran was behind threatening emails meant to influence American voters.

Ms. Griswold said she wanted to ensure that the officials were equipped in case they encountered similar messages and reminded them of the best practices for online security.

“This is just a tough year for everybody in our office,” she said.

The experience of Deva Marie Proto, the registrar of voters in Sonoma County, Calif., has been typical of local election officials. Some mornings, she rises at 5 to answer voter questions on Facebook. She then heads to the county offices in Santa Rosa to lift the morale of the 15 full-time staff members, plus a handful of temporary election workers, who are dealing with people’s calls about rumors and conspiracies.

One day this month, Ms. Proto’s office received 1,200 calls, many related to distortions about whether certain ballot drop boxes were real or fake, said Chanel Ruiz-Bricco, a county elections manager.

Sonoma County was also a specific target of misinformation last month when the conservative media personality Elijah Schaffer posted photos on Twitter of local ballot envelopes that had been discarded at a recycling center. “SHOCKING,” he wrote. That prompted people to claim that votes for Republicans were being tossed.

In fact, the envelopes were empty and from the 2018 election, Ms. Proto said. After voters called in asking about the photos and the local newspaper approached her for comment, the county tweeted about how outdated the envelopes were. Ms. Proto said voters had thanked her for the fact check.

Sonoma County, Calif., had to respond to public concern over this tweet, which was shared more than 5,400 times.

Mr. Schaffer, whose tweet is no longer available, said he hadn’t stated that the debris was from this year and had simply wanted people on Twitter to investigate. “I didn’t make any claims, just inquired to get to the bottom of the story,” he said.

But the damage had been done. Mr. Schaffer’s tweet was shared more than 5,400 times across Facebook and Twitter, according to a New York Times analysis. (Twitter eventually locked accounts that shared the post until they deleted it; Facebook added a label saying the post contained false information.) In contrast, Ms. Proto’s clarification was shared just 1,400 times on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook and Twitter said they had strengthened their policies before Election Day and were referring people to authoritative sources. The companies also said they were talking with state officials, political parties and academics to respond to false rumors about the election.

In El Paso County this month, a viral rumor that started on Facebook falsely claimed that ballots cast by voters at the polls could be thrown out if election officials had written on them first. The El Paso County Elections Facebook page debunked the inaccuracy by posting: “Texas election code requires the election judge to initial the back of each ballot before giving it to the voter.”

But by then, the original post had spread 1,017 times on Facebook. Copies of the post also gathered nearly 27,000 likes and shares on the social network and reached up to 7.6 million people, according to a Times analysis. The post has spread further in text screenshots, in private Facebook groups and in hundreds of Twitter posts.

The county’s elections administrator, Lisa Wise, said countering falsehoods was difficult “because even if you backtrack to that first person” who spread the misinformation, that person was “probably not going to call the 20 or 30 people” he or she had misled.

Asked for comment, Facebook said it had put policies in place to fight voter suppression and removed claims that errant marks invalidate ballots if the state has provided guidance saying otherwise.

A Facebook post claimed that ballots could be thrown out if election officials had written on them. El Paso County election officials later debunked the falsehood.Credit…handout

Lisa Kaplan, the founder of Alethea Group, a company that helps public officials and private clients fight misinformation, said she and her team had tried a proactive approach, sometimes alerting social media companies to copyrighted elements in election misinformation, like background music, so they will remove it.

“We don’t wait for engagement levels of those narratives to get high,” Ms. Kaplan said. “We definitely take the Whac-a-Mole approach.”

Philadelphia reassigned at least 40 employees in August and September to help with the election workload, but still has only about 20 people answering calls. The false information has hindered workers from replying to other questions about ballots and polling places, said Michelle Montalvo, a deputy commissioner.

“There’s no end in sight to the conspiracies and misinformation,” said Michelle Montalvo, a deputy commissioner for Philadelphia.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

She has not had time to see friends, and her colleagues have missed time with their children and loved ones, Ms. Montalvo said. To unwind, she scrolls through TikTok. At night, she said, she was kept up by the thought of voters, fooled by conspiracy theories into thinking that voting by mail was not secure, showing up en masse on Election Day and overwhelming polling places.

Ms. Montalvo said she and her colleagues were not looking for sympathy — just the ability to help people without having to contend with so many lies.

“There’s no end in sight to the conspiracies and misinformation,” she said. “We’re being attacked for things that we have absolutely no control over.”

Sheera Frenkel contributed reporting. Jacob Silver contributed research.

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