Elections

Published — March 11, 2020

Online misinformation during the primaries: a preview of what’s to come?

A woman votes in the presidential primary election at the the Summit View Church of the Nazarene Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Watchdog groups are preparing to combat it in the general election.

Introduction

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates betrayals of public trust. Sign up to receive our stories.

Primary voters have been contending with long lines, technical glitches — and misinformation.

Tuesday’s primaries were no exception. A watchdog group told the Center for Public Integrity that it found a smattering of social media accounts pushing misleading information, such as incorrectly saying some voters should actually go to the polls on Wednesday. Similar posts surfaced on Super Tuesday.

Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit, said this is the first time the group has monitored misinformation on social media during the primary season, and he had expected to find less of what he terms “cyber suppression.”

“We’re talking dozens to hundreds of pieces of content — not thousands or millions — but even that I’m quite surprised at,” he said.

Littlewood said it’s difficult to tell how much of the bad content comes from bad actors, as opposed to “users who just think it’s funny to say [Joe] Biden voters vote on Wednesday.”

It’s also unclear how many voters are really taken in by scattered social media posts with bad information about voting — just one type of problematic content circulating online that social media companies have been grappling with.

But watchdog groups and online researchers are monitoring social media during the primary season in part to prepare for an uptick in disinformation and misinformation leading up to the general election in November.

Already this primary season, there has been evidence of online efforts targeting specific presidential candidates.

On Super Tuesday, this image was posted on Twitter along with a message telling Joe Biden supporters to wait to vote until the next day. “Otherwise your votes will be counted for” Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren — which isn’t true.

“Weaponizing issues of race and then dividing the left could end up being a voter suppression effort on a scale that American hasn’t really seen before, and I think that that’s something we all need to prepare for,” said Brett Horvath, president of guardians.ai, a New York-based company that helps pro-democracy groups deal with information warfare.

For example, Horvath said, he is concerned about whether there will be social media posts exploiting people’s fear over the spread of the coronavirus — an attempt at either sowing division by blaming some communities for the virus or sowing fear by telling people to avoid polling places.

Watchdog groups are concerned that such content “can have on participation among older voters this primary season,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, during a call with reporters Tuesday on behalf of a voting-rights election protection coalition.

The Lawyers’ Committee provided examples of tweets from Tuesday that suggested elderly voters should avoid polling places. Littlewood provided separate examples, including some with subsequent posts saying they were joking.

In an interview with Public Integrity, Clarke said social media companies need to do a better job policing “dangerously antidemocratic” content that seeks to discourage voters.

Watchdog groups have been reporting the most misleading and false content to social media companies, which have varying policies about when to remove postings. Littlewood said several of the tweets Common Cause reported as containing false information about voting have been taken down.

And, of course, misinformation isn’t limited to online.

On March 3, for example, the Texas Secretary of State’s office said it received a “flurry of calls” about a robocall falsely telling voters that Democrats weren’t supposed to vote until Wednesday, spokesman Stephen Chang confirmed.

Officials reported the calls to federal authorities, and Chang quickly posted a tweet on the secretary of state’s account warning voters about the robocalls: “To be clear, all eligible voters should vote today.”

The tweet carried a hashtag, #TrustedInfo2020, linked to a national campaign by secretaries of state to fight election misinformation online.

Chang said he put the tweet out to be proactive. “We want to combat misinformation whenever it comes up,” he said.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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