Fighting misrepresentation is becoming a growing priority in electoral offices

Election officials preparing for the fast-approaching midterm elections have another headache: trying to tackle the misinformation that sows distrust of the vote and results while fueling vitriol aimed at grassroots election workers.

Some states and counties are devoting more money or personnel to a problem that has only grown worse since the 2020 presidential election and false claims that it has been marred by widespread fraud. A barrage of misinformation in some places has led election officials to complain that parent Facebook Meta, Twitter and other social media platforms aren’t doing enough to help them address the issue.

“Our constituents are angry and confused. They just don’t know what to believe,” Lisa Marra, chief electoral officer in Cochise County, Arizona, told a US House committee last month. “We need to repair this damage.”

Many election offices are taking matters into their own hands and launching public awareness campaigns to provide accurate information on how elections are conducted 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 an analyst dedicated to election disinformation.

However, the task is difficult. Although Oregon has invested additional funds to join a nationwide #TrustedInfo2022 campaign, misinformation continues to reach social media and is forcing local election officials to respond, taking time away from other tasks.

Ben Morris, spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, cited three recent Facebook posts that Meta allowed to remain on Facebook despite his office providing them with proof that they were false.

One of them alleged that a candidate’s name had been inappropriately censored on election leaflets. Another falsely claimed that a party was deliberately denied access to a local election office. Yet another incorrectly claimed that Multnomah County election workers must present proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

“Meta’s policies are too limited to address the misinformation we see nationally and locally,” Morris said. “Their policies cover big national issues, but false posts about a county clerk or state law are not taken down. When you realize this could happen Meta-wide, it’s deeply concerning.

The disconnect may be that Facebook’s policies “prioritize proven false claims that are timely, trending, and consequential.” The three posts Morris referred to were presumably too localized to have a “trend”, although he claims they were still harmful.

They were also posted by election candidates, a group that includes a growing number of Holocaust deniers and whose speech social media companies are working to shield.

Meta spokesperson Corey Chambliss said the policies exempt much of what politicians say online because of “Facebook’s core belief in free speech, respect for democratic process, and belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is most scrutinized. there is speech.

But he said those protections are lifted if there is direct interference in elections or threats of violence or intimidation.

In Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, candidates protected by those protections widely published misinformation during this year’s election cycle. This prompted officials to aggressively condemn the false accounts themselves.

When a candidate for county supervisor encouraged his supporters to steal pens to mark ballots given to them at polling places on Election Day in the state’s August primary, County District Attorney Rachel Mitchell wrote to him warning him 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 unsubstantiated claims of potential fraud ahead of the primary, Oversight Board Chairman Bill Gates told local reporters that her claims were “beyond irresponsibility”.

“They never brought us specifics,” said Gates, another Republican.

He said he has been more vocal on social media and more available to mainstream media than ever before this year, in a bid to snuff out bogus election claims before they spiral out of control.

Gates and County Recorder Stephen Richer regularly respond directly to fake Twitter posts with the facts. Richer said his department also sends emails to Twitter when it sees a misleading narrative or threats against election workers gaining momentum online, though he disagreed with some of the platform’s responses. .

When debunked allegations that the county was deleting election data from 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. . This has prompted threats and harassment against online workers, part of a worrying trend affecting election offices across the country.

Richer said the county wrote to Twitter in hopes of silencing the hate, but the platform “didn’t always agree” that the content violated its policies.

Last month, Twitter activated enforcement of the 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.” that they encounter”. The company’s efforts included unveiling state-specific pages with live election updates featuring tweets from local election officials and reporters. The platform did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Video app TikTok, whose growing popularity has made it another disinformation hub this election cycle, last month announced the launch of an Election Hub that will help people find voting locations and information. on the candidates. The platform said it was working with more than a dozen fact-checking organizations to debunk misinformation and would incorporate artificial intelligence as part of its efforts to detect and remove threats against election workers and fending off electoral misinformation.

Not all states or counties have mastered Maricopa social media.

Relatively few county election offices have official Facebook and Twitter presences, according to a recent report by two scholars specializing in voter participation and electoral processes, Thessalia Merivaki of Mississippi State University and Mara Suttmann-Lea of ​​Connecticut College.

Many more local offices are on one platform or the other, and the vast majority are on neither.

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 countering misinformation.

“Election after election, millions of Americans see inaccurate or misleading information about elections and the voting process on social media, and it hurts our democracy,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who co-sponsors the legislation. hearing last spring.

When election officials fight over staff, funding and personal safety issues to become more engaged on social media, voters of all ages — and especially younger voters — become more engaged, according to the recent academic report on the elections. The electorate benefits, the researchers write, “as does democracy itself.”

That’s exactly what the Collier County, Florida Office of the Supervisor of Elections is trying to do.

In a TikTok video on her personal account, office spokeswoman 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 the public to see during the count.

June’s light-hearted video, playing off a TikTok trend in which users post essential items around their homes and offices, is one of many efforts Robertson is making to restore voter confidence. In addition to posting to her own TikTok feed, she manages the county supervisor’s social media channels, conducts “transparency tours” of the office and responds to piles of public records requests, which often demand information that doesn’t do not exist.

Amid election lies stoked by former President Donald Trump and amplified by his allies, Robertson said fighting misinformation “has become pretty much a full-time job.”

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.

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