Fighting bogus claims a growing priority in election offices
Ali Swenson and Julie Carr Smyth
Election officials preparing for the rapidly approaching midterm elections have one more headache: trying to combat misinformation that sows distrust about voting and results while fueling vitriol aimed at rank-and-file election workers.
Some states and counties are devoting more money or staff to a problem that has only grown more concerning since the 2020 presidential election and the false claims that it was marred by widespread fraud. A barrage of misinformation in some places has led election officials to complain that Facebook parent Meta, Twitter and other social media platforms aren't doing enough to help them tackle the problem.
"Our voters are angry and confused. They simply don't know what to believe," Lisa Marra, elections director in Cochise County, Arizona, told a U.S. House committee last month. "We've got to repair this damage."
Many election offices are taking matters into their own hands, starting public outreach campaigns to provide accurate information about how elections are run and how ballots are cast and counted. That means traveling town halls in Arizona, "Mythbuster Mondays" in North Carolina and animated videos in Ohio emphasizing the accuracy of election results. Connecticut is hiring a dedicated election misinformation analyst.
Still, the task is daunting. Despite Oregon putting additional money into joining a national #TrustedInfo2022 campaign, misinformation continues to reach social media and force local election officials to respond, taking time from other duties.
Ben Morris, spokesperson for the Oregon secretary of state's office, cited three recent Facebook posts that Meta allowed to remain on Facebook despite his office providing evidence to them that they were false.
One alleged a candidate's name had been improperly censored from election fliers. Another falsely asserted that one party was purposefully denied access to a local elections office. Yet another claimed inaccurately that election workers in Multnomah County were being required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
"Meta's policies are too limited to address the misinformation we see at a state and local level," Morris said. "Their policies cover big national issues, but false posts about a county clerk or a state law aren't removed. When you realize this could be happening at Meta's scale, it's deeply concerning."
The disconnect may be that Facebook policies "prioritize provably false claims that are timely, trending and consequential." All three posts Morris referenced were presumably too localized to have "trended," though he contends they were still damaging.
They also were posted by candidates for office, a group that includes a growing number of election deniers and whose speech social media companies strive to protect.
Meta spokesperson Corey Chambliss said the policies exempt much of what politicians say online because of "Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is."
But he said those protections are waived in cases of direct election interference or threats of violence or intimidation.
In Arizona's largest county, Maricopa, candidates shielded by those protections have liberally posted misinformation during this year's election cycle. That has prompted officials to aggressively condemn the false narratives themselves.
When a candidate for county supervisor encouraged supporters to steal ballot-marking pens given to them at polling places on Election Day during the state's August primary, the county attorney, Rachel Mitchell, wrote warning her to stop. The candidate pushed false claims that the pens allow election workers to change people's votes.
And when Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake made unsupported claims of potential fraud ahead of the primary, Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates told local reporters her claims were "beyond irresponsible."
"They never brought any specifics to us," said Gates, a fellow Republican.
He said he has been more vocal on social media and more available to traditional media than ever before this year, in an effort to tamp down false election claims before they get out of hand.
Gates and County Recorder Stephen Richer regularly respond directly to false Twitter posts with the facts. Richer said his department also emails Twitter when it sees a misleading narrative or threats against election workers gathering steam online, though it has disagreed with some of the platform's responses.
When debunked claims about the county deleting election data off a server in 2021 resurfaced at an activist-led "election security forum" three days before the state's August primary, the presenters publicly identified two election workers they claimed were responsible and called their actions a crime. That prompted threats and harassment against the workers online, part of a disturbing trend affecting election offices across the country.
Richer said the county wrote to Twitter in hopes of muting the hate, but the platform "didn't always agree" that the content violated its policies.
Last month, Twitter activated enforcement of 2022 election integrity policies intended to "enable healthy civic conversation on Twitter, while ensuring people have the context they need to make informed decisions about content they encounter." The company's efforts included unveiling state-specific pages with live election updates featuring tweets from election officials and local reporters. The platform didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Video app TikTok, whose growing popularity has made it yet another hub for misinformation this election cycle, announced last month it is launching an election center that will help people find voting locations and candidate information. The platform said it works with over a dozen fact-checking organizations to debunk misinformation and will incorporate artificial intelligence as part of its efforts to detect and remove threats against election workers and push back against voting misinformation.
Not every state or county has Maricopa's command of social media.
Relatively few county election offices have official presences on both Facebook and Twitter, according to a recent report by a pair of scholars who specialize in voter participation and the electoral processes, Mississippi State University's Thessalia Merivaki and Connecticut College's Mara Suttmann-Lea.
Many more local offices are on just one platform or the other, and the vast majority aren't on either.
Legislation introduced in Congress earlier this year would provide $20 billion over the next decade to help state and local governments support election administration, which includes fighting misinformation.
"Election after election, millions of Americans see inaccurate or misleading information about elections and the voting process on social media, and it is hurting our democracy," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is co-sponsoring the legislation, said during a hearing last spring.
When election officials battle through staffing, funding and personal safety concerns to get more involved on social media, voters of all ages — and particularly younger voters — become more engaged, according to the recent academic report on elections. The electorate benefits, the researchers wrote, "as does democracy itself."
That's just what the election supervisor's office in Collier County, Florida, is trying to do.
In one TikTok video on her personal account, office spokesperson Trish Robertson snaps her fingers to the Sicilian song "Che La Luna" amid images of district maps, portraits of election officials and large windows that allow for public viewing during vote counting.
The lighthearted video from June, playing off a TikTok trend in which users display essential items in their homes and offices, is one of many efforts Robertson is making to restore voters' trust. Besides posting to her own TikTok feed, she manages the county supervisor's social media channels, hosts "transparency tours" of the office and responds to piles of public record requests, which often demand information that doesn't exist.
Amid election falsehoods stoked by former President Donald Trump and amplified by his allies, Robertson said fighting misinformation "has pretty much become a full-time job."
Associated Press misinformation reporter David Klepper contributed to this report.