In the fight for misinformation in elections, ‘2020 changed everything’

WASHINGTON (AP) – Beth Bowers grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with parents marching in protest, writing letters to members of Congress and voting in large and small elections.

Her father, a World War II veteran, and her mother, an educational counselor, did not use social media in their lives. But Bowers is sure they would be discouraged to see how easily lies about the U.S. election spread online to millions and millions of people.

That’s why the mother in Evanston, Illinois, spends a few hours each week searching Facebook groups for conspiracy theories or lies as part of a nationwide volunteer effort to expose misinformation about voting.

“The good thing about this work is that it would be so easy to become incredibly cynical and hopeless, but I think we feel this is something we can do and make a difference,” Bowers, 59, said. in a telephone interview.

While voters are ready for hundreds of elections of local and national importance this year, officials and suffrage advocates are preparing for a repeat of the misinformation that overwhelmed the 2020 presidential election and created distrust of the legitimacy of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. It culminated with the storm of the US capital on January 6th of angry supporters of then-President Donald Trump who believed his lies that the election had been stolen from him.

“2020 changed everything,” said Alex Linser, deputy director of Hamilton County, Ohio Electoral Board. “This should be part of our job now. Not just doing our job well, but showing the public how we do our job. For a long time, the system just worked and people did not have to think about it. Now there are many who questions it. “

The voting group Common Cause will rely on thousands of volunteers like Bowers to identify misinformation floating around the web and push for Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to remove the most cruel lies. False claims about voting times, locations or eligibility, for example, are banned across Twitter and Meta’s platforms, which include Facebook and Instagram.

During the 2020 election, platforms used fact-checking, tagged or removed more than 300 pieces of popular, fake content, as Common Cause showed. Recently, more than 100 volunteers in Texas worked four-hour shifts to monitor false allegations coming out of the state primary in March. The most frequent conspiracy theory shared that night claimed that staff shortages at polling stations were deliberate, Bowers noted.

“Texas is a kind of playbook for things to come,” said Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst for the group. “My main concern is that local problems, as with these staff or the lack of ballot papers, will be exacerbated by influencers or party political actors with a national platform as a sign of malicious interference in elections; it’s a fairly recognized pattern from 2020. “

On Election Day 2020, Pennsylvania was a hotbed of false claims about the failure of voting machine and discarded votes that were shared across conservative news websites and social media.

It is a problem that many counties in the state remain ill-equipped to deal with, said Al Schmidt, who served as the sole Republican on Philadelphia’s election committee during the 2020 presidential race. He attracted national attention for refuting Trump’s false allegations of mass electoral fraud. He resigned from his post in January and now leads a government watchdog group that also trains Pennsylvania voters on the election process.

“Elections are all engrossing, and few have time to monitor and counter misinformation,” Schmidt said. “Many of them do not have the resources to do this, or the internal capacity to do this themselves – you will be affected at the time when you are most busy.”

Election officials in Ohio’s Hamilton County hope they are better prepared this year.

They have produced videos and made graphics, shared across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, in an ongoing series called “MythBusters”, which explains how complex polling issues such as polls, revisions and preliminary ballots work. Last year, when the Election Board was overwhelmed with calls and emails complaining about the voting process, it invited critics to take a tour of the warehouse that stores voting equipment and polling stations. About two dozen people showed up, Linser said.

Trump continues to describe the 2020 election as “fraudulent” or “stolen,” despite a coalition of top government and industry officials calling it “the safest in American history.” A mountain of evidence has concluded that the election was conducted without widespread fraud. An Associated Press Review of Six Battlefield States disputed by Trump identified 475 cases of potential voter fraud, almost all of which were isolated cases and certainly not enough to tip the election in favor of any of the candidates.

Still, Trump supporters have pushed for further revisions and reviews of the vote count.

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

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

“BREAKING: # azaudit draft report from Cyber ​​Ninjas confirms that the county’s canvas of the 2020 general election was accurate and that the candidates certified as the winners actually won,” Maricopa County’s official Twitter account tweeted in September.

During last year’s California Govt.

In one case, a Twitter user wrote that he was unable to cast his vote at a polling station due to a technical error indicating that he had already voted. His story began to gain traction on social media, where it was put forward as evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder County Clerk’s office responded publicly to tweetsand explained that staff had contacted the voter directly to make sure he could cast a vote.

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

“Some individuals just honestly want to tell us, ‘I never thought you would have reacted,'” he said.

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