The Fox News video showed a Wisconsin poll worker initialing ballots before they were given to voters. It’s a normal process on election day.
On Tuesday, someone posted the clip to social media, instead claiming it showed a Philadelphia poll worker manipulating ballots. And on Wednesday, the false claim was shared by QAnon believers and far-right figures like Michael Flynn, ex-President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser.
“Masked man cheats in front of mainstream media cameras,” read a post that included the clip, which instructed users to repost it. “Distribute on standard parts.”
It is an example of election day misinformation, showing how misleading claims emerge and are circulated, and how innocent events can be turned into the latest viral election hoax. It also shows the kind of baseless rumors and conspiracy theories that reverberated around the internet on Wednesday as candidates and far-right influencers tried to explain losses and unexpected races.
Maricopa County remained the epicenter of voter misinformation Wednesday after problems with voter-tray machines in that Arizona county sparked conspiracy theories of voter rigging. The claims spread despite statements from local officials – including those from both parties – and assurances that all votes would be counted.
It’s understandable that people on social media complain about long voting lines or buggy voting machines, said University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, a leading researcher on misinformation.
“The problem is when their audience picks that up with this suspected implication of voter fraud,” Starbird said. “It will be picked up and reformulated as voter fraud if it spreads.”
According to analysis by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company that tracks online content, online mentions of Pennsylvania and voter fraud topped online conversation in the early part of Election Day. But that content was quickly overtaken by mentions of Maricopa County, Arizona, which began to spike early Tuesday morning as news of the voting machine problems spread.
Many of the claims in Pennsylvania since the election have centered on misleading explanations for the time it takes to count the votes.
In Pennsylvania, a woman who said she was a poll worker claimed on a QAnon message board that ballot counting was complete and that delays in counting votes were a cover to cover fraud. This example was identified by the SITE Intelligence Group, a firm that monitors misinformation and extremism.
The US has a long history of political races not decided on Election Day, and those occasional delays have only increased in recent years amid the rise in popularity of mail-in voting. In key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, election officials can’t begin counting mail-in ballots until Election Day, guaranteeing delays.
In the weeks leading up to November 8, election officials, voter advocates and misinformation investigators have been closely monitoring social media content given the role misleading claims of voter fraud played in the deadly attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Misinformation about elections has also been blamed for deepening political divisions and even an increased risk of political violence.
In some cases Tuesday, conspiracy theories about voter fraud prompted violent threats, particularly on fringe platforms and websites popular with far-right groups. But in general, Election Day came and went with few major problems reported.
The counting of votes in several key races continued Wednesday in Arizona and Pennsylvania, two battleground states that have featured prominently in election conspiracy theories in 2020 and again this year.
Both states also had prominent Republican stand-ins running for governor: Kari Lake of Arizona and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania. Mastriano lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro but is yet to concede. Lake trailed Democrat Katie Hobbs Wednesday afternoon; final results are not expected until later this week.
One of the most damaging aspects of voting and election misinformation is that it can undermine trust in democracy itself.
That’s true whether the candidates making misleading claims about elections win or lose, and especially when it comes to candidates for foreign secretary or other offices with electoral power, said Bret Schafer, senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan organization that prosecutes misinformation.
“If they lose, it only reinforces the belief that the whole thing is rigged,” he said. “And when they win, you have people running elections who have pretty wild ideas about how elections should be conducted.”
Several Republican candidates running for State Department positions had backed Trump’s failed efforts to recoup his 2020 defeat. The results of Tuesday’s election were mixed.
It will take days or even weeks to gauge the true impact of misinformation on election day and the weeks leading up to it, Starbird said. But initial assessments suggest that there was slightly less online engagement overall with viral, misleading content about elections and voting.
“Which is a little relieved,” she added.
Follow the AP’s coverage of misinformation at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation. For full coverage of the 2022 midterm elections, follow the AP at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ap_politics. Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections.
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