The disastrous Iowa caucuses on Monday night underlined one of the most pressing challenges that social media platforms will face this year: misinformation from real, influential people in the United States, not just Russian trolls and other foreign actors.
As news emerged that the caucus results were delayed amid technical difficulties, conservative operatives and users on Facebook, Twitter and other top networks promoted a narrative that the caucuses were “rigged” by the Democratic establishment.
Popular users pointed fingers at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Iowa Democratic Party, presidential candidate Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegDo progressives prefer Trump to compromise? DOJ sues to block JetBlue-American Airlines partnership On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda MORE, the organization behind a glitchy voting app and even the party's 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE.
President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE’s campaign manager, Brad ParscaleBrad ParscaleAides tried to get Trump to stop attacking McCain in hopes of clinching Arizona: report MORE, tweeted “rigged?” late Monday night, sparking a frenzy and garnering more than 6,000 retweets just as party officials, campaign staffers and cable news pundits were scrambling to understand why the caucus results weren’t coming in.
“Rigging ain’t easy,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, to an audience of 4.3 million followers, responding to a CNN segment announcing there were “still no results” on Tuesday morning.
And Sean Davis, the co-founder of the conservative website The Federalist who has almost 250,000 followers, tweeted without any evidence on Tuesday morning that the results were "taking forever because the data are 100% corrupted and they can’t track down all the original ballots, which were never secured and have zero chain of custody verification, for a manual recount.”
"Even odds that they nuke the entire election at this point," he added. Davis's tweet racked up almost 5,000 likes and thousands of retweets.
Jessica Brandt, the head of research and policy at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said it was a predictable situation, considering disinformation thrives in a “low-information” environment.
“Junk fills the vacuum,” Brandt told The Hill.
Experts have spent years raising concerns that users based in the U.S. — people with political agendas and access to Twitter- or Facebook-sized microphones — could pose an even greater challenge to the social media platforms in 2020 than Russian or Iranian disinformation operatives.
“The outburst of disinformation on Twitter regarding the delayed results in Iowa showed that domestically generated false content likely will be more of a threat to the 2020 election than foreign-sourced phony material,” Paul Barett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, told The Hill.
Posts with false and exaggerated claims went viral even as teams at the top tech companies and Democratic campaigns worked overtime to monitor the platforms for misinformation. A DNC spokesperson on Monday said a "decent portion" of its 55-person tech team was deployed to Iowa to help fight disinformation around the caucus, declining to offer a specific number.
But at the end of the day, the tech companies themselves decide what content should remain on their wide-reaching platforms.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter have poured resources into ramping up their defenses against foreign interference and some outright election-related misinformation — such as posts claiming people can vote by text message or providing wrong times for voting — but they have been unwilling to remove most posts emanating from the U.S. that tout conspiracies casting doubt on the democratic process.
Twitter has declined to remove any of the tweets implying voter fraud or rigging in Iowa, though there has been no evidence of either.
And by Tuesday afternoon, #MayorCheat was trending on Twitter as some conservative figures and bot-like accounts promoted conspiracies implying Buttigieg was connected to the app at the center of the Iowa voting delays.
“The app is paid for by #MayorCheat #PeteTheCheat,” read one tweet with more than 3,000 likes from a verified account with nearly 60,000 followers. “And the DNC and Iowa Democratic Party want you to believe that the fact they are screwing Bernie [Sanders] again is a Russia and Trump conspiracy theory. [Joe] Biden was defeated. DNC is hiding it.”
There’s no evidence that Buttigieg paid for the app used by the Iowa Democratic Party.
The Iowa caucuses provided the first major test for social media companies to show off what they’ve learned since 2016, when Russian-backed trolls were able to successfully sow discord on major platforms. Those trolls trafficked not only in misinformation, but content that stoked preexisting divisions in the U.S.
There is already evidence that shows Russians are trying to do it again, Brandt said.
Researchers with the Alliance for Securing Democracy just last week found that Russian state-funded media and government accounts were promoting “criticism of the Democratic establishment” ahead of the Iowa caucuses. A Russian-backed news outlet posted a video on Tuesday also promoting the narrative that the primary was rigged against top-tier candidate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDo progressives prefer Trump to compromise? Texas House Republican tests positive for coronavirus in latest breakthrough case In defense of share buybacks MORE (I-Vt.).
Suzanne Spalding, a senior adviser overseeing election disinformation research at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill that foreign actors are working overtime to seed and amplify any divisive narratives, such as the “rigged” claims in Iowa.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin exacerbates weaknesses of our own making,” Spalding said. According to her research, Russian-backed operations are increasingly amplifying divisive domestic voices and “picking up on narratives and themes" emanating from the U.S., she said.
Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package MORE (D-Va.) echoed those concerns. “This chaos has created an environment where misinformation is now running rampant online," he said in a statement. "As we’ve seen in the past, foreign actors like Russia and China won’t hesitate to latch onto this kind of content in order to add to the domestic discord and distrust in our elections."
Critics on Tuesday said the Iowa caucuses, which were marred by misinformation — including debunked allegations of voter fraud from a conservative group that went viral hours before voting began — is likely only the prelude to a challenging election cycle rife with false claims and division.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said David Becker, the executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “We’re going to see this for the next nine months, and perhaps longer.”
Adav Noti, the senior director and chief of staff with Campaign Legal Center, said he’s concerned about “people questioning the legitimacy of the election if they lose.”
“In a democracy, that’s about the most damaging narrative we could ever have,” Noti said.
“So the fact that high-profile folks are willing to start spreading that narrative now, well in advance of the election, is an ominous sign for what they might be willing to do in November.”
Updated 4:13 P.M.