Local election officials, politicians and disinformation researchers continue to express concern about how misinformation about voting could disrupt Election Day next week. False and misleading information, research shows, has already been spreading widely.
The 2019 race for governor of Kentucky illustrates what can go wrong, as we explored in the latest episode of “Stressed Election.” In that race, the standing governor, Matt Bevin, a Republican, disputed the results when the vote tally showed him narrowly losing to his Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear.
Mr. Bevin and some of his allies argued, without showing any evidence, that there were voting irregularities and fraud, echoing some false and misleading statements made on social media. The governor initially refused to concede even though returns showed him trailing by about 5,000 votes. Mr. Bevin conceded about a week later.
The race offers some lessons about the power of disinformation in American elections:
1. Misinformation efforts don’t need to be sophisticated to be successful. In Kentucky, an account with just 19 followers sent out a tweet on election night that claimed to have “shredded a box of Republican ballots.” The tweet, sent as a joke by a college student, would eventually reach thousands.
2. Stopping the spread of misleading election information is not easy. Election officials noticed the false “shredded” tweet, which was retweeted by a few popular conservative accounts, and reported it to Twitter. The company removed the post within an hour, but screenshots of the post were retweeted by dozens of accounts, with retweets reaching well into the thousands. Tracking all of those screenshots proved difficult for both election officials and Twitter.
3. One piece of misinformation can beget much more. The sudden spread of the false tweet about shredding ballots seemed to be a green light for other claims. Some tweets started to question the accuracy of voter rolls in Kentucky, others wondered about “hackers” attacking the “cloud” where election results were stored, except there is no “cloud” used in Kentucky elections. And baseless claims of voter fraud were rampant.
4. There are networks ready to amplify and spread misinformation. Some groups on Twitter spread countless conspiracies, be it the QAnon cabal conspiracy or an anti-mask conspiracy. These networks can quickly seize on a piece of conspiratorial misinformation and amplify and accelerate its spread, which is part of why a single tweet from an obscure account reached so many in Kentucky.
5. An extremely close election is particularly ripe for misinformation. Following election night in Kentucky, the brush fire of misinformation that was spreading online quickly took hold offline. Mr. Bevin’s supporters staged news conferences with baseless claims of fraud, and set up a robocall network telling people to “please report suspected voter fraud” to the state elections board. Online, the discussion had now moved far beyond a case of shredded ballots to accusations of a stolen or rigged election.