‘Tsunamis of misinformation’ overwhelm local election officials
By Kellen Browning and Davey Alba
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 Donald 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 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 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.
Fueled by inaccurate comments from 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, Texas, and Santa Rosa, California, 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.
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, Wisconsin, for example, some conservative media outlets inaccurately claimed that Democrats were dumping absentee ballots. In Germantown, Maryland, a video of an election official darkening an oval on a ballot was erroneously used as evidence that voters’ preferences were being altered, 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.
The experience of Deva Marie Proto, the registrar of voters in Sonoma County, California, 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, 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 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, 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. Proto said voters had thanked her for the fact check.
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. 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, 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.
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,” Kaplan said. “We definitely take the Whac-a-Mole approach.”