Officials warn delayed vote count could lead to flood of disinformation

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Uncertainty over the winner of the presidential election and President Trump’s early victory declaration could open the floodgates for election disinformation. 

Fears about disinformation were already high after Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential contest. 

Now that the United States seems poised to not know the result of the contest for several days, the openings for foreign and domestic agents to plant seeds is far higher, say a number of experts on the issue. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now about different aspects of the election that make this moment a perfect breeding ground for a disinformation campaign or even casual rumors to float around,” Saif Shahin, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communications, told The Hill.  

Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said foreign adversaries could take advantage of Trump’s comments prematurely declaring victory on Wednesday morning, even as votes were being counted. 

“In the coming days, I am deeply concerned that foreign adversaries could seek to amplify messages, like those from the President, that are designed to undermine the legitimacy of the election,” Warner, who won reelection to the Senate on Tuesday, told The Hill in a statement. 

Warner and acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had warned of the threat in the days and weeks leading up to the election. 

“WARNING. The bulk of disinformation attacks prepared by our adversaries were designed for the days before & just after Election Day,” Rubio tweeted last week. “They may come faster than they can be spotted & called out, so word to the wise, the more outlandish the claim, the likelier it’s foreign influence.” 

Federal, state and local officials have urged voters to be patient about the election results in the weeks leading up to Election Day, knowing the coronavirus pandemic and increased mail-in ballots could lengthen the count.   

They also warned that such delays would be an opportunity for foreign and domestic actors online to sow discord.  

“Be sure at this time that you are seeking out trusted sources of information, including from state and local election officials. Those are the folks who run the election, and they have the best sense of what is going on the ground,” David Levine, a former Idaho elections official who is now an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told The Hill. 

“If you come across information … and it seems off and seems like it might not be true, look to reputable sources of information to check yourself,” he added.  

Pennsylvania, where the vote count could last for days, has emerged as a hot spot of online misinformation. State law allows ballots to be counted as long as they were postmarked by Election Day but received by 5 p.m. this Friday.  

One example of misinformation was a claim debunked by officials about a poll worker throwing out Trump ballots in Erie, Pa. 

Facebook removed posts, spawned from a since-removed Instagram story, that furthered the claim. 

“We’ve confirmed with authorities that these claims are inaccurate and are removing them from the platform for violating our voter interference policies,” a Facebook spokesperson said.  

Silicon Valley has played a key role in the years since 2016 in responding to disinformation or misinformation on social media platforms.  

Social media giants implemented additional precautions ahead of Election Day in attempts to rein in election misinformation, including placing warning labels on posts prematurely claiming victory.  

Facebook and Twitter both took action to limit the spread of Trump’s posts early Wednesday over violations of the platforms’ policies about election misinformation. Twitter hid three of the president’s tweets posted Wednesday behind warning labels about “misleading” election content.  

Facebook, however, took a different approach, with a spokesperson for the company telling Reuters that it would label posts, but would stop short of restricting the reach of those posts. Facebook also committed to only flagging posts claiming victory in the presidential race, not those at the state level.  

Social media keywords showed clear concerns from U.S. voters over the elections process on Tuesday.  

Narratives with keywords related to “steal” or “stealing” in the context of the election were mentioned more than 400,000 times between 8 p.m. EST on Tuesday until 9 a.m. EST on Wednesday across all sources that media intelligence firm Zignal Labs tracks, based on data shared with The Hill. 

Zignal’s data covers public Twitter posts, as well as international and local news, blogs and social video sites.  

The mentions about “stealing” the election were highest as related to Pennsylvania, with almost 21,000 mentions, followed by Wisconsin, at more than 15,000 mentions, and Michigan, at almost 12,000 mentions. 

While misinformation is likely to center on states that have yet to announce final election results, Shahin said claims won’t be limited to those states.  

“Obviously, the reason why all of this is important is that a national election is at stake. The spread of misinformation could be at the national or even global [level] because the whole world is watching right now,” Shahin said.  

He also warned online misinformation narratives could spark violence.  

“I hope this doesn’t happen, but there’s a possibility of incitement of  violence through misinformation, because whoever wins the other side is going to be upset — it has been that kind of an election,” he said. 

Federal officials, including Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs, have sought to calm such fears. 

“Regardless of the outcome here, there is a common bond that is stronger than political affiliation, and that is that we are all Americans,” Krebs said during a press conference on Tuesday. “Keep calm, vote on, and after today, keep calm, and let them count.”

Tags 2020 election Donald Trump Marco Rubio Mark Warner

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