Today’s newsletter is a dispatch from our colleagues in the tech bureau who have been covering the spread of disinformation in the aftermath of the election. First this from Davey Alba:
President Trump’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge that Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the presidential election, along with his continual statements containing unfounded claims that the election was rigged, has left a huge information gap ripe for exploitation by bad actors, disinformation researchers have told me. And that has led to the worst-case scenario for the proliferation of misinformation about the election playing out: The volume of bad information, they say, is unprecedented.
As my colleagues Jim Rutenberg and Nick Corasaniti reported on Sunday, the roots of Mr. Trump’s approach — to cast doubt on the outcome of the vote — dates to before his election in 2016, and he advanced his plans throughout his term. But it took shape in earnest when the coronavirus pandemic upended normal life and led states to promote voting by mail.
To be sure, misinformation of all kinds, not just about the election, had already been on the rise, compounded by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders that have caused more people to be glued to their screens and consuming social media.
But a lot of it was tied to politics in one form or another. There was a surge in followers of the QAnon conspiracy, whose convoluted theory falsely claims that a cabal of Satan-worshiping, pedophile Democrats is plotting against President Trump. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the average membership in 10 large public QAnon Facebook groups swelled almost 600 percent from March through July.
I spoke with Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who told me she was worried about three specific themes around election misinformation:
The repurposing of user-created content from Election Day, which documented one-off incidents, aggregated to support claims of fraud and illegitimacy;
False and misleading information surging in battleground states that have become the focus of the political battle — including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia;
The re-emergence of misinformation incidents and delegitimization themes that pointed back to earlier allegations — ideas that a Democrat-led coup would take place, voting machines being tainted, and more.
“These narratives are reaching audiences inclined to believe them, and so a significant concern remains around whether the losing side will accept the legitimacy of the outcome,” Ms. DiResta said.
A lot of the claims are not new, with just the specifics updated. Indeed, I can’t tell you how many misinformation themes have been recycled in this period. Unsubstantiated rumors of dead people voting emerged early on in Michigan; the same rumor happened in Pennsylvania, only the supposed fraud was now at a much larger scale, including tens of thousands of people. Then the claims of voter fraud morphed into an unfounded accusation about impostors using maiden names to steal votes. Claims of ballots being magically lost or found, or being burned, or being carted into vote-counting sites by unauthorized people soared.
For some solid advice on how to keep levelheaded in this period, especially coming out of this weekend, when protests about the election results were held, I would suggest listening to Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation analyst at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. She recommended trying to tune out politicians and political pundits for the time being, especially when you feel yourself starting to have a strong emotional response to social media posts.
“I would recommend some ‘informational distancing’ — walk away from your device for a little while and if that information is still bugging you in a few minutes go and do some lateral reading,” Ms. Jankowicz said. “Figure out if anyone else is reporting what you’ve seen, and look at those official sources to see if they corroborate what you’ve just read or watched.”
Stay safe out there in the internet seas, dear readers.
Here from Joe Plambeck are some false and misleading rumors spreading about the election, and the truth behind the claims.
Can Mr. Trump still win? No. He’s already lost. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that he “will win.” This is false. Mr. Biden’s winning margins in the key battleground states he has captured are well above the thresholds of votes that have been changed in previous recounts. [The New York Times]
Could state legislatures pick electors to vote for Trump? It is not likely. Election law experts are highly skeptical. And leaders of the Republican majorities in legislatures in key states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia, said they saw no role for themselves in picking electors. [The New York Times]
No, Dominion voting machines did not delete Trump votes. President Trump last week spread new baseless claims that “glitches” in software made by Dominion Voting Systems changed vote tallies in Michigan and Georgia. The Dominion software was used in only two of the five counties that had problems in those states, and in every instance there was a detailed explanation for what had happened. In all of the cases, software did not affect the vote counts. [The New York Times]
There is no proof that people stole maiden names to vote. The claim that unauthorized people had cast votes under the maiden names of real voters spread widely last week, much of it under the hashtag #MaidenGate. But there is no evidence behind those accusations. [The New York Times]
No, Sharpies didn’t invalidate votes in Arizona. Republicans looking to cast doubts on the legitimacy of election results in the state circulated a conspiracy theory that alleged that poll workers had provided Trump voters with felt-tip pens to mark their ballots, which some claimed invalidated those ballots by making them unreadable by voting machines. Multiple Arizona officials said that there was no truth to that claim, and that votes with felt-tip pens were counted. [The New York Times]
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