The huge follower counts of dedicated misinformers appear to outweigh efforts by journalists, government officials, and the social media platforms themselves.
Supporters of President Trump, who baselessly claimed voter fraud after Trump’s first election, had long telegraphed their intent to do so again after his second. One week after Election Day, experts say that’s exactly what happened — and even though Trump is going away, vote tampering myths and misinformation is here to stay.
Widespread but unverified claims of voter fraud and digital vote-rigging in the wake of the 2020 presidential election have surprised observers around the globe, but not Kate Starbird, an associate professor of human-centered design & engineering at the University of Washington. At the end of October, Starbird and her colleagues published a paper outlining what journalists and observers could expect in terms of misinformation trends around the election, hitting on a number of observations that turned out to be prescient.
“There was a metanarrative all along that there was going to be widespread voter fraud, a false narrative that they kind of preemptively put in this space that there would be systematic voter fraud. And over time, we saw these different incidents [as in random claims of vote-rigging or fraud] get picked up and tried to fit into that narrative,” said Starbird, who co-authored an October paper outlining what misinformation trends to expect around the election, spoke on Tuesday during an Atlantic Council webcast. “On Election Day and afterwards, that became this massive exercise.”
Forewarned may be forearmed, but journalists and government officials have been hard-pressed to dispel the rumors and misinformation that have poured from the White House and elsewhere. Take, for example, the myth that attackers have used a set of secret CIA software programs called Hammer and Scorecard to break into state governments’ computer networks and alter votes.
Chris Krebs, director of the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, debunked the rumor on Tuesday, saying, “Hammer/Scorecard is still nonsense,” and “DHS IS NOT carrying out a fraud sting op using watermarked ballots.”
Myths and false narratives like Hammer/Scorecard often persist because they come from semi- or quasi-experts, people with some technical competency, which imbues the myth or narrative with credibility, said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory Policy Center, during Tuesday’s webcast.
For instance, Thomas McInerney, a retired United States Air Force Lieutenant General, appeared on a Nov. 8, podcast with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon describing the way Hammer and Scorecard would work, without providing any evidence that anyone had used the programs to alter votes, or that they even actually exist.
“What makes things sticky is when people claim some sort of technical background and then come up with a bunch of gobbledygook that makes it sound legitimate,” Stamos said. “We’re seeing now people saying, ‘I’m a cybersecurity expert and I believe it's possible for the CIA [to] actually have a supercomputer that can change the results of an election.’”
On Thursday, CISA released a new statement reading, “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history. Right now, across the country, election officials are reviewing and double-checking the entire election process prior to finalizing the result.”
Much of the misinformation is spread over social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which have upped their efforts to stem the flow but remain overmatched by users’ determination to spread it.
“A crucial component is we have started labeling content,” that is questionable, similar to the way Twitter now labels some disputed posts from highly influential users such as the president, Monica Bickert, the head of Global Policy Management at Facebook, said on Thursday. “If there’s content that is delegitimizing the election process” — for instance, an inaccurate claim that mail-in voting is not secure — “we would put a label on there.”
But in recent weeks, half or more of the most shared posts on Facebook have been from high-follower sources and users with a record of posting false or misleading information. That presents Facebook with a growing dilemma.
“You have a relatively small number of people with very large followings who have the ability to go and find a narrative somewhere, pick it out of obscurity…one tweet, one photo, one video, and then to harden it into these narratives…that will be the absolute biggest challenge for the platforms going forward,” said Stamos.
It’s relatively easy, he said, for social-media platforms to program their newsfeed algorithms to filter out, say, Russian trolls. But, he said, “When you talk about people that have millions of folks who have decided that they’re going to make the affirmative step of following this person’s account, they’re going to religiously reload their YouTube page for the newest video. They’re going to watch their Facebook Lives. How do you handle those people is a humongous problem.”
Stamos said this phenomenon makes Facebook’s efforts to reduce misinformation less about moderating content. “It's almost more of the editorial process you would see at like a cable network,” he said.
On Election Night, Stamos and Starbird said, people gathered news mostly on television But in the days that followed, they turned toward social media — and therefore toward exposure to misinformation, especially if it reconfirms already held biases and comes from social media personalities that have become familiar presence in their daily lives.
Following the election, Trump supporters unhappy with Twitter and Facebook’s methods to police and remove misinformation — the president and his allies allege it’s a form of free speech censorship — are organizing to quit those platforms en masse and join Parler, a Twitter-like copycat with fewer restrictions.
“You’re not talking about grassroots activity anymore,” said Stamos. “You’re talking about top-down activity that is facilitated by the ability for these folks to create these audiences that are a significant fraction of the audience of prime time cable news show.”
Some of the false narratives about vote tampering that we’re seeing now “will probably persist for years or even decades, unfortunately. Because people are motivated to both participate in them and believe them.”