How some states are fighting election misinformation ahead of midterms

Ahead of the 2020 election, Connecticut faced a slew of voting lies that swirled online. One, widely seen on Facebook, erroneously claimed mail-in ballots were sent to deceased people. On Twitter, users spread a false message that a tractor-trailer carrying ballots had crashed on Interstate 95, sending thousands of ballots flying through the air and down the highway.

Concerned about a similar deluge of unfounded rumors and lies surrounding this year’s midterm elections, the state plans to spend nearly $2 million on marketing to share factual information about the vote and create its first-ever position of expert in the fight against misinformation. With a salary of $150,000, the person would have to comb through fringe sites like 4chan, far-right social networks like Gettr and Rumble, and mainstream social media sites to weed out early accounts of misinformation about the vote before they go viral, then urge companies to remove or report posts containing false information.

“We need to have situational awareness by reviewing all incoming threats to election integrity,” said Scott Bates, Connecticut’s assistant secretary of state. “Disinformation can erode people’s confidence in elections, and we see this as a critical threat to the democratic process.”

Connecticut joins a handful of states preparing to battle a wave of rumors and lies about this year’s election.

Oregon, Idaho, and Arizona have education and advertising campaigns on the Internet, television, radio, and billboards aimed at disseminating accurate information about polling times, the elector eligibility and absentee voting. Colorado has hired three cybersecurity experts to monitor sites for false information. The California Secretary of State’s Office researches disinformation and works with the Department of Homeland Security and academics to research patterns of disinformation on the Internet.

These mostly Democratic-controlled states acted as voter confidence in the integrity of the election plummeted. In a January ABC/Ipsos poll, only 20% of respondents said they were “very confident” in the integrity of the electoral system and 39% said they felt “somewhat confident”. Many Republican candidates have embraced former President Donald J. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, campaigning — often successfully — on the false claim that it was stolen from him.

Some conservatives and civil rights groups will almost certainly complain that efforts to limit misinformation could restrict free speech. Republican-led Florida has enacted legislation limiting the kind of social media moderation sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can do, with supporters saying the sites restrict conservative voices. (A U.S. appeals court recently blocked most aspects of the law.) At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security recently suspended the work of a disinformation advisory board after a barrage of criticism from conservative lawmakers and free speech advocates that the group could suppress speech.

“State and local governments are well positioned to reduce the harms of disinformation and misinformation by providing timely, accurate and reliable information,” said Rachel Goodman, an attorney at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan advocacy group. “But in order to maintain that trust, they must make it clear that they do not engage in any form of censorship or surveillance that would raise constitutional concerns.”

Officials in Connecticut and Colorado said the problem of misinformation has only gotten worse since 2020, and without a more concerted push to counter it, even more voters could lose faith in the integrity of the election. They also said they feared for the safety of some election workers.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented atmosphere of threat in this country,” said Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state. Ms. Griswold, a Democrat who is up for re-election this fall, has received threats for confirming the 2020 election results and rebutting Mr. Trump’s false claims about fraudulent voting in the state.

Other secretaries of state, who head the office typically tasked with overseeing elections, have received similar pushback. In Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who certified President Biden’s victory in the state, has faced heavy criticism amidst misrepresentations regarding the 2020 election.

In his primary race this year, Mr Raffensperger fought misinformation that there were 66,000 underage voters, 2,400 unregistered voters and more than 10,350 deceased people who voted in the presidential election. None of the statements are true. He won his primary last week.

Colorado is redeploying a disinformation team the state created for the 2020 election. The team is made up of three election security experts who monitor misinformation on the internet and then report it to law enforcement. federal.

Ms Griswold will oversee the team, called the Rapid Response Election Security Cyber ​​Unit. It only looks for election-related misinformation on issues such as absentee voting, polling places and eligibility, she said.

“The facts still exist and the lies are used to chip away at our basic freedoms,” Ms Griswold said.

Connecticut officials said the state’s goal was to patrol the internet for election lies. On May 7, the Connecticut Legislature approved $2 million for Internet, television, mail, and radio information campaigns about the election process and to hire an election information security officer.

Officials said they would prefer candidates fluent in both English and Spanish, to combat the spread of misinformation in both languages. The officer would track viral misinformation posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, and look for emerging stories and memes, especially on fringe social media platforms and the dark web.

“We know we can’t boil the ocean, but we need to figure out where the threat is coming from and before it metastasizes,” Mr Bates said.

Neil Vigor contributed report.

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