Arm Yourself for Election Day Online

Election Day is filled with unknowns. One thing we can count on like clockwork is seeing some of the familiar flavors of false or misleading information circulating online.

My colleague Sheera Frenkel wrote that Americans on Tuesday may see misleading reports about trashed ballots, lies that people can vote by text message and other greatest hits of voting misinformation. She spoke with me about why election misinformation matters, and what we can do to stamp it out.

Shira: What’s your message to Americans about what they may see or read online about the election?

Sheera: My main message is that when you see posts, videos or photographs that report isolated cases of election problems or voting machines that aren’t working properly — and it will happen — do not extrapolate that as evidence of widespread botched voting or fraud. Look at the data. Voting fraud is extremely rare. Our election systems work fairly well.

But stuff will go wrong.

Yes. We’re voting in a pandemic, so voting machines will break down because of things like hand sanitizer building up on paper ballots or touch screen machines. Lines for voting might be long because polling stations have more limited capacity or fewer poll workers for pandemic safety.

These things are all unfortunate, but we need to take a moment before we jump to conclusions that voter fraud is happening or the election system is broken.

Who is at fault for election-related misinformation?

All of us. People love a good story, especially one that confirms what they already believe.

Have you had to talk people out of misleading claims about the election?

People in two WhatsApp groups that I’m in got angry recently about a tweet from Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, where he said he was voting more than once. Huckabee later said that he was joking.

What did you tell them?

I calmly responded with facts: This is false. Election officials have security measures to make sure that people can only vote once. If someone receives a mail-in ballot, it has a unique voter identification number that is voided if a voter requests a replacement.

It’s also important to understand why someone like Huckabee might be sharing false information. He seemed to be tweeting this to get a reaction from people.

Is it misguided to focus our advice — including this newsletter! — on how all of us can avoid spreading election misinformation? Shouldn’t influential people, including President Trump, get more blame for originating or widely circulating misleading information?

I would love it if everyone in a position of power found it in their hearts not to share misinformation. That’s not likely to happen. The next best thing is for all of us not to amplify it. I personally don’t have any control over what Huckabee and the president post or share online. I only have control over what I share online.

Is there a risk that we’re overstating the impact of misleading online information on people’s beliefs or political behavior?

The internet companies have the best data on this, and they’re not sharing. But what we experience online does appear to change how we feel and behave. Facebook itself found that people’s moods improved when it showed people more positive posts, and vice versa. It’s anecdotal, but after my years of reporting on this subject, misinformation does appear to drive people further apart.

What do you want Americans to keep in mind over the next few days?

That everyone has a personal responsibility when sharing information to make sure that it is truthful and calming. That Americans are incredibly lucky to live in a country where we can vote and our votes matter. And that the most important things we can do are encourage people around us to vote, and when we see or hear fantastical stories online, take a moment to think.

Shameless plug: The New York Times will be bringing you reliable, responsible news about Election Day, including a special live broadcast of “The Daily” starting at 4 p.m. Eastern.

The Morning newsletter also had a helpful guide on what to pay attention to — and what to ignore — from election results. My colleague Davey Alba has a running Twitter thread in which she corrects false or misleading election information that’s spreading online.


YOUR LEAD

Wow, readers, you emailed in great questions about technology and the election. I asked Davey Alba, who writes about online disinformation for The Times, to tackle a couple of them related to social media. They have been lightly edited:

My most pressing and serious concern is a candidate, for example Donald Trump, claiming an election victory before all votes are counted. If that happens, how will social media companies address this issue? — Barbara Sloan, Conway, S.C.

They have been preparing for this possibility. Facebook and Twitter will add prominent labels to posts if candidates declare victory before the election is called by authoritative sources, and they will direct people to official election information. YouTube is displaying information panels in all election videos featuring warnings that results may not be final. (Our colleagues have more details here.)

However — and I don’t want to be too much of a downer — we’ve seen repeatedly that misinformation can slip past these guardrails. And there are ways of getting around the internet companies’ rules.

Why can’t the tech companies employ many administrators to look over, hold back or remove false, fraudulent, uncivil or conspiracy-laden comments before they go viral? — Judy Cline, New Bern, N.C.

Judy, I assume you mean content moderators, or the people assigned to monitor what goes up and circulates on social media.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have thousands or more people looking at the material people post. But there’s not always agreement on what is false or potentially dangerous, or what to do about it. And when there is, efforts at content moderation are wildly disproportionate to the volume of material.

To give one example: On YouTube, more than 500 hours of video are uploaded every minute. Humans can’t screen all of it, so YouTube and companies like it tend to use triggers — certain keywords or reports from multiple users — to prioritize which videos might need review from the moderators.


  • Technology is not always the answer, example 3 zillion: Walmart has stopped using robots that roamed the aisles to make sure products were kept stocked on shelves, The Wall Street Journal reported. Walmart found that people were just as useful as the machines at the task.

  • Faxes might be involved when you Google “how to vote”: Giving people reliable information on their voting locations and list of candidates is tricky because of America’s decentralized voting process. Protocol explains how Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are relying on organizations like Ballotpedia and Democracy Works that are collecting and organizing messy voting information from hundreds of thousands of local election authorities.

  • Or, I could watch paint dry: To increase visibility and trust in the election, Nevada’s Washoe County is among the local election offices around the United States livestreaming election officials counting ballots for anyone to watch online, Bloomberg CityLab reported. Maricopa County’s ballot-counting feed in Arizona has 13 different angles!

Real talk: People are feeling STRESSED. Why not watch a video of dolphins making faces for the camera? Or check out the weird and wonderful Election Distractor? I made a big batch of oatmeal raisin cookie batter so I will have fresh baked cookies for days. (Or possibly, just for one day.)


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