In the fight against electoral disinformation, “2020 changed everything” | WJHL

WASHINGTON (AP) — Beth Bowers grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with parents who protested, wrote letters to members of Congress and voted in elections big and small.

Her father, a World War II veteran, and her mother, a school counselor, did not use social media sites in their lifetimes. But Bowers is sure they would be disheartened by how easily lies about the US election are broadcast online to millions and millions of people.

That’s why the Evanston, Illinois mom spends a few hours a week scouring Facebook groups for conspiracy theories or lies as part of a nationwide volunteer effort to debunk voting misinformation.

“The good thing about this job is that it would be so easy to get incredibly cynical and desperate, but I think we think it’s something we can do and make a difference,” said Bowers, 59. years, during a telephone interview.

As voters prepare for hundreds of elections of local and national significance this year, officials and suffrage advocates brace for a repeat of the misinformation that engulfed the 2020 presidential race and sowed mistrust. about the legitimacy of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. It culminated in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 by angry supporters of then-President Donald Trump, who believed his lies that the election had been stolen from him.

“2020 has changed everything,” said Alex Linser, deputy director of the Hamilton County, Ohio, election commission. “It has to be part of our job now. Not only do our job well, but show the public how we do our job. For a long time the system just worked and people didn’t have to think about it. Now there are a lot of people who question that.

Voting advocacy group Common Cause will rely on thousands of volunteers like Bowers to identify misinformation circulating online and lobby for Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to remove the most egregious lies. False statements about voting times, locations or eligibility, for example, are prohibited on the Twitter and Meta platforms, which include Facebook and Instagram.

During the 2020 election, platforms applied fact checks, labeled or removed more than 300 pieces of popular fake content that Common Cause uncovered. More recently, in Texas, more than 100 volunteers worked four-hour shifts to monitor false claims stemming from the state’s primary election in March. The most frequently shared conspiracy theory that night claimed that staffing shortages at polling places were deliberate, Bowers noted.

“Texas is sort of the playbook for things to come,” said Emma Steiner, disinformation analyst for the group. “My main concern is that local issues, like these shortages of staff or ballots, are being amplified by influencers or partisan actors with a national platform as signs of malicious interference in elections; it is a fairly recognized model from 2020. »

On Election Day 2020, Pennsylvania was a hotbed of misrepresentations about voting machine breakdowns and rejected votes that were shared on conservative news websites and social media.

It’s a problem many counties in the state remain ill-equipped to handle, said Al Schmidt, who served as the only Republican on the Philadelphia Electoral Board in the 2020 presidential race. for rebutting Trump’s false allegations of mass voter fraud. He resigned from his post in January and now leads a government watchdog group that also educates Pennsylvania voters about the electoral process.

“Elections are all consuming and few have the time to monitor and counter misinformation,” Schmidt said. “A lot of them don’t have the resources to do it, or the internal capacity to do it on their own – you get hit when you’re busiest.”

Election officials in Hamilton County, Ohio, hope to be better prepared this year.

They produced videos and designed graphics, shared on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, in an ongoing series called “MythBusters” that explains how complex voting issues such as recounts, audits and provisional ballots work. Last year, when the election commission was inundated with calls and emails complaining about the voting process, it invited critics to tour the warehouse that stores voting materials and election offices. About two dozen people showed up, Linser said.

Trump continued to describe the 2020 election as “rigged” or “stolen”, despite a coalition of senior government and industry officials calling it “the safest in American history”. A mountain of evidence concluded that the election was held without any widespread fraud. An Associated Press review of six battleground states contested by Trump identified 475 cases of potential voter fraud, nearly all of which were isolated cases and certainly not enough to tip the election in Trump’s favor. either of the candidates.

Still, Trump supporters have pushed for additional audits and reviews of the vote count.

In Arizona, GOP lawmakers last year hired a company called Cyber ​​Ninjas that spent six months researching evidence of fraud to back up Trump’s false allegations of a stolen election. The group instead concluded that Biden won the state by 360 more votes than the official certified results in 2020.

Staff in Maricopa County in Arizona, the target of many false claims about the vote, used the county’s official Twitter accounts to respond directly to the misinformation, in English and Spanish.

“BREAKING: Cyber ​​Ninjas draft #azaudit report confirms county canvassing for 2020 general election was accurate and candidates certified as winners did, in fact, win,” the official Twitter account tweeted. of Maricopa County in September.

During last year’s gubernatorial recall effort in California, Los Angeles election officials discovered that using social media to directly answer questions, polling place incidents or misleading claims helped quickly eliminate viral misinformation or misunderstandings.

In one case, a Twitter user said he was unable to vote at a polling station due to a technical error indicating he had already voted. Her story began to gain traction on social media, where it was touted as evidence of widespread voter fraud.

The Los Angeles County Clerk’s Office publicly responded to the tweets, saying staff members contacted the voter directly to make sure they could vote.

The approach helps build trust with voters, said office spokesman Mike Sanchez.

“Some people will say to us very frankly, ‘I never thought you would answer,'” he said.