This election week, you are going to see alarming things on social media: viral stories of voters turned away, machines malfunctioning, sometimes with brief clips or photos. They might look like harbingers of a deep, systemic problem. They will beg you to get outraged and click “retweet.”
But on Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, Renee DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory and an expert on viral misinformation, said that people should be careful about what they share. For months now, Renee and her colleagues at the Election Integrity Partnership have been studying the movement of misinformation about the election. She and her colleagues collect viral stories, funnel them into a tracking system, then try to answer a series of questions. Where did the content come from? What’s the narrative? How did it spread, and how fast is it spreading? You can have well-intentioned misinformation, where the information might be wrong but the intent is innocent, or disinformation where the intent is to mislead. And it’s really hard as an internet consumer to know what’s what: misinformation, disinformation, or something real.
In this excerpt of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, DiResta talks about the viral narratives she has seen unfold in early voting and the lessons they offer for Election Day.
Renee DiResta: I saw some videos of police officers taking [personal protective equipment] from a polling place in Brooklyn that went viral. There is a lot of tension on the left in particular related to police officers, so that narrative of a police officer doing something that they weren’t supposed to was read as, Oh, they’re in the tank for Trump. But there are certain laws about where you have to be, how far you have to be from the door of a polling place related to electioneering. And it wasn’t really clear from the video whether this fell into that category, whether this was electioneering, whether this was just an unfortunate encounter that got heated where the police officers overreacted and took stuff away. There were a lot of things about it that weren’t made clear until I think about 24 hours later, when the official channels for the police precinct that was involved said actually the officer was wrong and here is what should have happened instead.
In those moments, there’s really no way to fact-check. There’s no way to know what actually happened in that situation until the facts are revealed a couple hours to maybe even a day later. And so the story continues to go viral before the facts are known.
Everybody’s got their video camera in their pocket, which means that there’s going to be tons and tons and tons of these primary-source videos purportedly documenting misbehavior, malfeasance, bad poll workers, you name it. And they’re all going to be strung together into what’s going to feel like an overwhelming swell of evidence that for the left, the vote was suppressed, for the right, illegal ballots were cast. There will be machines that don’t work. There will be encounters between people that are hostile and inappropriate and possibly illegal. We have to expect that in a country with over 100,000 polling locations. Things are going to go wrong. They always have gone wrong, in fact. It’s just that they’re isolated, disparate events. And we have to be careful not to read too much into them to construct a narrative of that more broadly delegitimizes the election.
Lizzie O’Leary: Maybe it’s because I had a baby not too long ago, but I keep thinking of all of this is, like, what to expect when you’re expecting misinformation. It’s not a question of if, but a question of when.
Right. We all know that this is going to be an uncertain period. We all know that there are going to be a lot of opportunities for videos and footage that people take to be twisted or used inappropriately, for real incidents to be taken out of context and put in the context of a vast, broad conspiracy to erode confidence in the legitimacy of the election overall. We know that they’re going to be candidates who are going to claim victory and then insinuate that it is being stolen from them.
There’s a line in one of your reports that kind of startled me, and it just feels like it’s about the scope of all of this. You guys wrote, “Regardless of origins or intent, these attacks on the perceived integrity of the 2020 election represent a threat to democracy itself.” That feels dire. Are you frightened?
Yes. I think several of us who have worked on this, this is not our first election. We worked the 2018 midterms. We’ve seen elections in a number of other countries at this point and how social media narratives figure in there. It’s just that this particular election is incredibly high stakes. And so I think the threat to democracy is in part based on the idea that a democracy implies an informed electorate. Now, that’s not how it manifests all the time. We’re not going to be naïve and say that in the olden days, everybody was wildly informed and then now they’re not. That’s not true. But people were not, to the same extent, quite so actively disinformed.
Democracy also relies on us believing the results. If the media and social media are used in advance for months to preemptively delegitimize the results of the election by saying that any isolated ballot incident is evidence of massive voter fraud or any protest in the streets is evidence of a vast color revolution coup, that means that a large, large percentage of people who engage with those stories are not going to accept the outcome.