In election misinformation fight, '2020 changed everything'
WASHINGTON — Beth Bowers grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with parents who marched in protests, wrote letters to members of Congress and voted in elections big and small.
Her father, a World War II veteran, and her mother, an educational counselor, did not use social media sites in their lifetimes. But Bowers is sure they would be disheartened to see how easily falsehoods about the U.S. elections are disseminated online to millions and millions of people.
That’s why the Evanston, Illinois, mom spends a few hours each week scouring Facebook groups for conspiracy theories or lies as part of a nationwide volunteer effort to debunk misinformation about voting.
“The good thing about this work is, it’d be so easy to become incredibly cynical and hopeless, but I think we feel like this is something we can do and make a difference,” Bowers, 59, said in a phone interview.
As voters ready for hundreds of elections of local and national importance this year, officials and voting rights advocates are bracing for a repeat of the misinformation that overwhelmed the 2020 presidential race and seeded distrust about the legitimacy of Democrat Joe Biden's victory. It culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by angry supporters of then-President Donald Trump who believed his lies that the election was stolen from him.
“2020 changed everything,” said Alex Linser, deputy director of the Hamilton County, Ohio, election board. “This has got to be a part of our job now. Not just doing our job well, but showing the public how we do our job. For a long time, the system just worked and people didn’t have to think about it. Now, there’s a lot of people calling it into question.”
The voting advocacy group Common Cause will rely on thousands of volunteers like Bowers to identify misinformation floating around online and push for Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to take down the most egregious falsehoods. False claims about voting times, locations or eligibility, for example, are banned across Twitter and Meta’s platforms, which include Facebook and Instagram.
During the 2020 election, platforms applied fact checks, labeled or removed more than 300 pieces of popular, false content that Common Cause turned up. More recently, in Texas, more than 100 volunteers worked four-hour shifts to monitor false claims coming out of the state’s primary election in March. The most frequent conspiracy theory shared that night claimed that staffing shortages at polling locations were deliberate, Bowers noted.
“Texas is kind of the playbook for things to come,” said Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst for the group. “My major concern is that local issues, like with these staff or ballot shortages, will be amplified by influencers or partisan actors with a national platform as signs of malign interference in elections; it’s a pretty recognized pattern from 2020.”
On Election Day 2020, Pennsylvania was a hotbed for false claims about voting machine outages and discarded votes that were shared across conservative news websites and social media.
It’s a problem that many counties in the state remain ill-equipped to handle, said Al Schmidt, who served as the lone Republican on Philadelphia’s election board during the 2020 presidential contest. He drew national attention for refuting Trump’s false claims of mass voter fraud. He resigned from his post in January and now runs a government watchdog group that also educates Pennsylvania voters about the election process.
“Elections are all consuming and few have the time to monitor and counter misinformation,” Schmidt said. “A lot of them don’t have the resources to do this, or the in-house capacity to do this by themselves — you’re hit at the time you’re most busy.”
Election officials in Ohio's Hamilton County hope they are better prepared this year.
They have produced videos and crafted graphics, shared across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, in an ongoing series called “MythBusters” that explains how complex voting issues such as recounts, audits and provisional ballots work. Last year, as the elections board was overwhelmed with calls and emails complaining about the voting process, it invited critics to take a tour of the warehouse that stores voting equipment and elections offices. Roughly two dozen people showed up, Linser said.
Trump has continued to describe the 2020 election as “rigged” or “stolen,” despite a coalition of top government and industry officials calling it “the most secure in American history.” A mountain of evidence has concluded that the election was executed without any widespread fraud. An Associated Press review of six battleground states disputed by Trump identified 475 cases of potential voter fraud, nearly all of which were isolated cases and were certainly not enough to tip the election in either candidate’s favor.
Yet Trump’s supporters have pushed for additional audits and reviews of the vote count.
In Arizona, GOP lawmakers last year hired a firm called Cyber Ninjas that spent six months searching for evidence of fraud to support Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. The group instead concluded that Biden had won the state by 360 more votes than the official results certified in 2020.
Staff in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the target of many false claims about the vote, have used the county’s official Twitter accounts to respond directly to misinformation, in both English and Spanish.
“BREAKING: The #azaudit draft report from Cyber Ninjas confirms the county’s canvass of the 2020 General Election was accurate and the candidates certified as the winners did, in fact, win,” Maricopa County’s official Twitter account tweeted in September.
During last year’s gubernatorial recall effort in California, Los Angeles election officials found that using social media to respond directly to questions, mishaps at polling locations or misleading claims helped quickly stamp out viral misinformation or misunderstandings.
In one case, a Twitter user posted that he was unable to cast his ballot at a polling location because of a technical error that showed he had already voted. His story started to gain traction on social media, where it was held up as proof of widespread voter fraud.
The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder County Clerk’s office responded publicly to the tweets, explaining that staffers had reached out to the voter directly to make sure he could cast a ballot.
The approach helps build trust with voters, said Mike Sanchez, a spokesperson for the office.
“Some individuals will just quite candidly tell us, ‘I never thought you would have responded,'” he said.