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Americans are voting in a highly unusual election, during a highly polarized time, and mistrust in authority figures is in overdrive. Misleading information about election tampering and voter suppression is now everywhere.
I spoke about the prevalence of election-related rumors and confusion with my colleagues Kellen Browning and Davey Alba, who wrote on Thursday about the local election officials who are trying to counter bad information:
Shira: How does false information or misunderstandings about the election start? Is it just made-up lies?
Kellen: It often starts with a grain of truth that gets spun out of proportion.
The lead attorney of Henrico County, Va., told me about two recent instances that made voters fearful. There was a batch of mail stolen from mailboxes in the Richmond area, and a utility outage at some state offices meant people couldn’t register to vote online right before the deadline. Each instance made some people believe that there was a plot to stop people from voting, although there was no evidence of this.
There’s also a lot of nonsense out there. Election officials in Philadelphia said that some people believed the voting machines are owned by the liberal financier George Soros, and others believed they’re owned by the Koch family, the conservative financiers. Neither is true, but when people feel like the “other side” is out to get them, these things can get out of hand.
What have local election officials learned about effectively responding to misinformation or fears?
Kellen: Responding quickly to bad information is essential. Sonoma County, Calif., was dealing with tweeted photos of out-of-date and empty ballot envelopes that had been discarded at a recycling center, and some people twisted that as evidence of votes being thrown out. (That wasn’t true.)
The tweet went out overnight, and the next day the county released an explanation of what was really going on that was firm and authoritative. Even so, the false claim of ballot fraud spread widely, and not everyone believed the county’s explanation.
What are the lessons for voters?
Davey: One lesson is that we shouldn’t take all information we see at face value. Falsehoods spread fast, often by what looks like word of mouth but isn’t. There are repeated examples of online messages by an unnamed “friend” of the person posting who seems to be in-the-know and passes on information like that ballots could be invalid if election officials write on them. (This is false.)
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If you don’t know the origin of the information, don’t repost it or spread it. Ask your local elections office, and look for communications directly from them.
I worry that focusing on misinformation will give people a false impression of election chaos.
Davey: I worry about that, too. The message to Americans should be, yes, there will always be isolated cases where ballots are mixed up or stolen, or where elements of the voting process are botched. But the data that we’ve collected show that these instances are rare and generally not evidence of widespread fraud or a broken system.
Try to be aware of things that could go wrong, stay mindful of the information you read and believe, but also know that we can trust in the reliability of the voting process — and we should. And vote. Just do it.
SEND US YOUR QUESTIONS: We want to hear your election tech questions. What are you curious or concerned about related to how tech companies are handling election-related misinformation, or how secure America’s election technology is? Send your questions to email@example.com, and we’ll answer a selection. Please include your full name and location.
When fear itself undermines elections
False information and chatter about isolated cases of botched voting are insidious because they can slowly chip away at our trust in elections or other institutions. As Davey talked about, essential institutions function best when people have faith in them.
America’s enemies know that, too. My colleagues David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth wrote about warnings from U.S. officials that hackers and foreign governments are exaggerating smaller attacks on local voting systems or election-related websites as part of efforts to erode public confidence in the integrity of the election process.
The Department of Homeland Security official responsible for securing voting systems says that one of his biggest concerns is “not a vast attack but a series of smaller ones, perhaps concentrated in swing states, whose effect is more psychological than real,” David and Nicole wrote.
These so-called perception hacks might include the recent defacing of the Trump campaign website, and the threatening, faked emails sent to voters by hackers who U.S. officials said were backed by Iran and had obtained relatively innocuous information on Americans.
David and Nicole wrote about vulnerabilities in election systems, too, including hackers who locked up the voter signature verification systems in Gainesville, Ga., and forced poll workers to pull registration cards manually.
But again, my colleagues wrote, the point of hacking attacks may not be to compromise voting or tamper with election results, but to make people believe that election results were compromised.
So as Davey said, be on the lookout for when things go wrong. Be angry when our government officials are incompetent at managing important things like an election. But also be aware that — to steal a line from Franklin D. Roosevelt — one of the things we have to fear is fear itself.
Before we go …
This tests how low people can sink in the middle of a pandemic: Nicole writes that the same Russian hackers who U.S. officials are worried could stir up election trouble are also targeting American hospitals for computer attacks that hold their data hostage in exchange for ransom payments. (I recently wrote an explanation of these so-called ransomware attacks.)
This is what supporters of social media say it’s for: Many traditional news outlets in Nigeria have been reluctant to report on growing protests in the country against police brutality and the government’s sometimes violent crackdown of them, Vice News writes. But online magazines and protest organizers are using social media to help organize demonstrations and inform people about them, Vice said.
Is there nothing K-pop fans can’t do? Bloomberg Businessweek has this fun tale of the hyperactive online activity of fans of Korean pop supergroups. Sometimes they swarm people online to harass them or mass-call radio stations to request songs by their favorite boy bands. And sometimes they use their influence to organize charitable donations and combat dangerous online conspiracies.
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