Plenty of stupid things go minorly viral on social media, but it’s worth contemplating why a 15-second video of a supposedly “rigged” voting machine in Ohio was one of them on Tuesday. The video, which was taken on a cellphone, shows a voter choosing a Republican candidate for governor on a voting machine only to have her paper receipt confirmation say she picked a Democrat. Almost 60,000 people have watched it on Facebook and more than 3,000 on Twitter. The caption reads, “Rigged voter machines in Ohio! Pay attention voters! They’re trying to steal these elections!!!”
The problem, though, is that the video doesn’t show a rigged machine. Rather, according to a press release from the Franklin County Board of Elections, the body in charge of the Ohio polling place, the machine in the video wasn’t rigged at all. Rather, “that particular machine had a paper jam and was taken off line,” according to a statement from Andy Sellars, a spokesperson for the Board of Elections. “The voter in question was moved to another machine and cast their vote with no issues. The time stamp on the paper tape and the electronic poll book confirm the jam, as does the contemporaneous report of the incident by the polling official logged into the issue tracking software,” the statement continues. Facebook deleted the video early Wednesday morning. (Update, Nov. 7, 12:52 a.m. Facebook confirmed in a statement that it took down the video for violating the company’s policy against voter suppression.)
But that hasn’t stopped the video from spreading, as many on social media are taking it as documented evidence of the corruption they believe they too experienced at the polls on Tuesday. One commenter on Facebook wrote, “This just happened to me this morning. When I selected Mike DeWine it automatically defaulted to the democrat for Ohio Governor. I refused to cast my ballot unless they fixed it. It finally let me select correctly and I made sure it printed correctly.” Although the commenter admitted the issue was fixed, she still seemed to have made up her mind, agreeing with the video caption: Democrats have rigged the election. The post has attracted thousands of comments, many of which recount episodes of demanding receipts to ensure their vote was cast correctly.
It’s unlikely that the video discouraged anyone from voting in Ohio. But its spread surely contributes to a troubling effect, in which bogus reports of voting problems—as opposed to some very real ones—erode trust in institutions and the other party. It plays into fears, stoked even by the Oval Office, that our basic democratic systems are rigged. Viral blips like this help to reinforce and harden biases people already harbor. No matter how much platforms like Facebook improve their various defenses against misinformation, tiny little missiles like this keep slipping through.