The online battle against dead voters and other damaging disinformation

Genesis Obando | December 9, 2020 | Politics, NJ Decides 2020
Some groups are shining a virtual light on lies about forged mail ballots, ‘live coups,’ blue-state socialists and the rest on Facebook, Twitter and across the internet

Editor’s note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Jose Alvarez from Union says he saw social posts claiming that dead people in Michigan voted in this past election.

“That caught my attention because that honestly made me lose all trust and confidence in our voting process for this year,” said Alvarez, a sophomore at Union County Community College.

He researched the charges and came across local news reports that debunked them, showing they came from isolated data input errors and indicating the state has processes in place that reject ballots from dead voters.

Organizations like First Draft, Make the Road New Jersey and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice are fighting this sort of disinformation, particularly online, but it’s definitely an uphill battle.

Even with the assurance of election officials, many people like Alvarez become skeptical, experts and advocates said, when they see posts about “suddenly discovered” ballots, vote-by-mail “fraud” and “watching a live coup happen.”

Targeting disinformation

On popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, New Jerseyans were exposed to widely spread, misleading claims about election fraud and posts that President-elect Joe Biden is a socialist. The Trump campaign created videos targeting a Spanish-speaking audience, adding to the fear of a “socialist America.” Biden’s campaign has denounced such labels, and his proposed policies do not advocate for a socialist country.

Experts have noted the dangers associated with the spread of misinformation and false claims from conspiracy theorists and prominent figures. Researchers, voting-rights activists and community leaders said they have seen how certain posts target people of color and immigrant communities. Trump’s campaign ads about a socialist America worry and attract immigrants to his base that escaped socialist or communist countries.

Further, although certain groups are targeted, the effects can be seen on the general public, which begins to distrust the electoral process with no solid evidence of fraud or a coup. More damaging, they may start to believe their vote doesn’t matter and choose not to vote in local elections, where their votes could matter the most.

Learning where to look for the truth

First Draft is one of the many organizations that research misinformation and its effects. They also provide training and resources that teach people to avoid deception and find reliable sources.

Daniel Acosta-Ramos, investigative researcher for First Draft, says that misinformation and false claims about the electoral process make people lose trust in credible sources. He adds that it’s hard to build that trust again. In the past few months, people have repeatedly questioned experts and election officials over claims that have been exposed as fake or misleading.

The most widespread disinformation can be traced to Trump administration’s claims about voter fraud, when federal and local election officials around the country have found no evidence to substantiate those claims. Officials have acknowledged errors but say they would not have changed the outcome of the election. In New Jersey, for example, there are safeguards in place that validate signatures and prevent people from voting twice.

“A lot of the content is easy to read, easy to understand and easy to share,” said Acosta-Ramos. “Basically, they’re memes, GIFs (graphics) instead of long posts.”

Social media users add their thoughts and contribute to the spread of debunked claims. Memes travel fast online because the average user makes them and shares them with other followers and friends. One picture shared on Facebook and Reddit said “Guess who will still be your friend no matter who you vote for. Not me because I’m not friends with communists.” The post implies that people were voting mainstream candidates who were communists. These kinds of posts, although seeming to be jokes, add to the repeatedly debunked claim that when Americans are voting for Democrats, they are supporting socialists and communists.

Playing on voters’ emotions

Acosta-Ramos says that these posts are entertaining and often incite an emotional response that make them even more shareable. A post can cause someone to be angry, scared or disappointed, which encourages them to share it with their followers — who also pass it along. In that way it travels around the state and country.

Experts and government officials have encouraged the general public to find and trust credible sources. But what is a credible source? According to Acosta-Ramos, another big issue is that people have different definitions of a credible source. Politicians, clergy and social media influencers are often deemed to be credible sources by their followers and communities. Anything they post or share is seen as factual because they are already trusted.

That’s why community leaders and misinformation experts try to push out accurate information and encourage people to seek out news outlets or grassroots organizations that have high standards for information and a nonpartisan agenda.

“I would encourage people to find credible sources like a local newspaper and public radio,” said Acosta-Ramos.

Memes you can trust

In the weeks before Election Day, community organizations like the Make the Road New Jersey and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice were sharing social media posts featuring graphics and information designed to encourage people to vote.

Leaders in these organizations said they saw a lot of misleading posts and responded to concerns from potential voters. They saw posts about a “rigged election” and claims that voting by mail is not secure. Some posts were from people who were just confused about the voting process. By sharing information on how to vote, assuring voters their ballot is safe and will be counted, activists were hoping, they said, to mitigate the harm caused by misinformation and false claims and encourage people to vote.

“We want people to know their rights and we don’t want people’s rights to be interfered with and that’s something that could potentially happen with the type of posts we’ve seen,” said Aaron Greene, Associate Counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Taking truth to Twitter

Greene said that volunteers with the Institute and Election Protection would respond to confused Twitter users. One person tweeted that New Jersey could only vote by mail and voters didn’t have another choice. A volunteer responded saying that people had the option to vote in person on Election Day and attached a flyer with details. Greene said they wanted to cast a wide net, delivering accurate information that would keep people informed and assure them that their vote matters.

On Election Day, Make the Road New Jersey shared a post telling their followers to not expect same-day results and how Trump may declare a victory when states have not finished counting. These grassroots organizations and many others hope to keep their communities informed by providing the resources they need and answering any questions and concerns.

Some people like Alvarez take the time to fact-check claims they come across, but he says he has lost some faith in the electoral process. Repeated claims of alleged fraud from past elections and this election just don’t sit well with him. Despite that, he is optimistic about the future.

“I’m not the kind of person that loses all hope in something. I definitely hope that there’s a better outcome as the years go by and I hope my trust comes back,” said Alvarez.