How to Handle Post-Election Misinformation, Even With a Presidential Winner Declared

    Court battles and possible recounts create fertile ground for false statements. Here’s how you can wade through the claims.

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    With courtroom battles underway, recounts possible, and President Donald Trump claiming without evidence that the election was rigged, an avalanche of election misinformation on social media is likely to continue unabated even after news outlets including the Associated Press, Fox News, and NBC called Joe Biden the winner in the presidential race Saturday morning.

    Social media sites already were full of countless false claims of misdeeds following Election Day. For instance, a video Wednesday showing a man wheeling equipment into a Detroit vote counting center was baselessly characterized online as evidence of ballot theft. WXYZ-TV, an ABC affiliate in Detroit, said on its website that the video showed one of its photographers carrying camera gear.

    False narratives about the vote count “are going to survive the election and exist for quite a long time,” Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, said at a Thursday briefing from the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research groups focused on watching election misinformation. “It’s highly unlikely to us that this activity is going to slack off, even after inauguration.”

    More on Misinformation

    This year’s election created a perfect storm of sorts for the spread of misinformation, defined as incorrect or misleading information. Massive numbers of voters opted to mail in their ballots as a way to avoid polling places during the coronavirus pandemic—a legal means of voting. That has led to state officials taking longer to count ballots than during other elections, which in turn created an environment of uncertainty.

    Meanwhile, the narrow differences in the vote counts in some states also could add more time to the process if recounts happen.

    “That’s when you might see more litigation that has some chance of drawing this process out,” says Matthew Weil, director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

    States have different rules on when recounts can be requested and when they begin, and the process can take some time.

    A few key tips will help you wade through this confusion in the coming days and weeks:

    • Verify what you find on social media through multiple other sources, such as national newspapers including the Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Times, and the federal government’s rumor vs. reality page.

    • Slow down. Lots of misinformation is designed to rile up the reader, experts have told CR. Take a moment to check explosive claims: See if they’re backed up by credible news reporting or if they’ve been widely debunked.

    • Take a break from watching news about the election. Try our pointers on breathing to clear your mind and relax.

    False Claims of Ballot Errors, Vote Theft

    Here are the kinds of misinformation you might encounter on social media, most of which are aimed at shaking people’s confidence in the vote-counting process.

    • In one widely shared example, social media posts claimed that some poll workers in Arizona’s Maricopa County deliberately gave Trump supporters Sharpies at voting sites in order to later invalidate their votes. (Some Sharpie marks can bleed through ballots.) But Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs wrote on Twitter that all ballots will be counted “no matter what kind of pen you used.”

    • Other posts claimed that quick jumps in vote counts were evidence of funny business, or that hundreds of thousands of Biden votes were “found” overnight on Wednesday. But big increases in vote tallies often happen: Election officials in many states frequently provide updates, which can lead to dramatic changes. On Pennsylvania’s official vote results feed, the state said: “On Election night, the Pennsylvania Department of State will be updating this data approximately hourly.”

    • Then there are posts that say ballot “curing,” or working with voters to correct mistakes, is fraudulent. The practice is legal in many states, including Arizona and Georgia. The most common issue is a ballot signature that doesn’t match the signature in a voter’s file.

    Facebook on Thursday shut down a group on its platform called Stop the Steal, saying the group was spreading false narratives after it had amassed more than 300,000 members. Facebook said Stop the Steal was “organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group.”

    What Social Media Companies Are Doing

    Facebook and Twitter have taken an aggressive stance against some types of misinformation, such as rule-breaking posts from public figures including a Trump campaign senior advisor and also from Trump, who Thursday night in an appearance from the White House perpetuated many false statements about the election and continued to proclaim his victory even as five states remained uncalled by AP and Biden led in the news agency’s Electoral College count.

    Some high-profile Republicans disagreed with the president. “The President is within his rights to request recounts, to call for investigations of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists, and to exhaust legal remedies—doing these things is consistent with our election process,” Sen. Mitt Romney, the former GOP presidential nominee, said in a statement on Twitter. “He is wrong to say the election was rigged, corrupt and stolen—doing so damages the cause of freedom here and around the world, weakens the institutions that lie at the foundations of the Republic, and recklessly inflames destructive and dangerous passions.”

    Twitter hid several of Trump’s tweets after Election Day behind a warning label that said they might contain misleading information, and made some of the tweets more difficult to share—something the social media platform has been doing with posts from a range of individuals, not just the president’s, throughout the election. Twitter also added links to up-to-date information about election results below some other tweets in which the president misleadingly declared victory.

    Facebook also added links to a page with official election information below some of Trump’s misleading posts but didn’t go as far as Twitter’s warning labels and sharing restrictions. YouTube added links to election results below election-related videos, but some videos with false claims were not labeled, reporters at other media outlets found.

    It’s hard to know just how effective these labels are, Kate Starbird, a misinformation expert at the University of Washington, said during the Election Integrity Partnership briefing.

    “The most effective tools for fighting misinformation are those that introduce greater friction into the platforms,” said David Brody, who leads the Digital Justice Initiative at the nonpartisan Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. These include tools that “reduce sharing, reduce virality, make the user do more clicks before they can share something harmful.”

    The major social media companies have all recently introduced features to slow people down from sharing misinformation—changes that go against their longstanding drive to make sharing as easy as possible. Take, for example, a new warning on Twitter that appears when you try to share a link to an article that you haven’t clicked on yourself. Twitter says the added step has led more people to open the articles before retweeting them, and some people to change their mind about hitting retweet.

    If you see false election information on social media, here’s how you can report it to the companies.