Manipulating the Vote with Disinformation

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook have lots of false or misleading content. So do billboards, radio, TV, and news outlets. There are plenty of platforms where bad actors seek to create confusion, depress voter enthusiasm, and are hoping to change the course of the 2020 election.

“Viral misinformation is contagious and it is dangerous. Just like an actual virus this content spreads because people are sharing it with each other and it creates significant problems, problems that put our health and well-being at risk as well as

Cameron Hickey

the future of our democracy,” said Cameron Hickey, program director of Algorithmic Transparency at National Conference on Citizenship.

Hickey said that rumors, conspiracy theories, false narratives, junk news, and hate speech all mislead people.  He said it’s not always easy to spot content that is meant to manipulate you rather than inform you.

“Content that makes you feel scared, angry, or self-righteous to get you to change your behavior, that’s potentially risky content that might have underlying misinformation embedded in it,” he said. 

Hickey said long-standing conspiracy theories of the “deep state”, content that lacks critical background details, pseudoscience like promoting hydroxychloroquine as a cure for coronavirus, slurs and dog whistles that divide people based on identity, or old and irrelevant information are things to look out for.  

He said rumors that predict armed conflict after the 2020 Election, or photos of discarded mail-in ballots, messages about ballot harvesting, and confusing or misleading messages about when, where, and how to vote are being widely spread. 

Their purpose is to discourage people from voting.

Illogical arguments that use false-equivalences are common in political discourse these days. They abound on social media platforms and the airwaves.  For example, the Washington Post analyzed 7305 protests following the killing of George Floyd and found 97.7% of them were peaceful with no reported injuries. And 96.3% involved no property damage or police injuries.  

But in the wake of those demonstrations, President Trump blamed the “radical left”, and Black Lives Matter, not white supremacists, for all the violence. The fact that there wasn’t much violence is a classic example of disinformation. The speaker is aware they’ve created a straw man to knock down and that it’s a lie.

President Trump and the Republicans have also been spreading the rumor that absentee voting is rife with fraud even though six states use mail-in balloting without problems. Thirty states allow “no excuse” absentee voting but a voter must request a ballot, fill it out, and then return it by mail or in person. Tennessee is one of the 14 states that restrict absentee voting. 

Trump says the Democrats will use absentee ballots to steal the election and has urged his followers to go to the polls and watch for skullduggery. He doesn’t trust in person voting either. And he has not agreed to leave office without a fight if he loses a “”phony” election.  

If that happens, newly minted Supreme Court Justice and archconservative Amy Coney Barrett will undoubtedly be in Trump’s corner. During her confirmation hearing last week Senate Democrats couldn’t get Barrett to admit racial discrimination against voters still exists. She called it “a very charged issue”. That answer appalled prominent Civil Rights leaders who held a virtual press conference called by Rev. Al Sharpton to say Barrett was bad news. 

Even Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, wrote in Shelby County v Holder (2013) that it still exists. However, that decision ended federal oversight of elections in Southern states, including Tennessee, with a history of Jim Crow laws that suppressed voting rights of Blacks. After the Shelby v Holder decision, 4 million more voters were removed from the voter rolls in those states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The President has tried to disown the U.S. Postal Service and defunded its budget to undermine voter confidence in using it to vote. Republican-controlled states have purged millions of Black voters since 2016. 

There is only one ballot drop-off box per county in Texas, including sprawling Harris County, the state’s most populous county that includes Houston. Sixty percent of voters there are either African American or Latino. Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the one-box per county rule that went into effect October 9.

“These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting,” Abbott said. There used to be 12 ballot boxes located throughout the 2,000 square miles of Harris County. Now there is only one.

It’s not voter fraud Republicans are afraid of. They know it’s a red herring. What they are really afraid of is that all those votes will get counted so they are doing their darnedest to make sure people either don’t vote or disqualify as many as they can who do.

In the run up to the 2020 Election, Jacquelyn Mason, senior researcher at First Draft, studied disinformation in Black and

Jacquelyn Mason

Latinx communities. She said mail-in voting in Southern states is plagued with risk and hassles and it’s become contentious.

“Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia have an alarming number of African American votes that are being rejected, almost twice the rate as other races,” Mason said.

In North Carolina many votes are rejected because voter signatures don’t match exactly. If they are rejected, a voter can revote but has to wait for a decision from election officials that may not come until the last minute.

“This is just all plain and out voter suppression because if you resubmit a vote there is always the danger that you voted twice which is a felony,” she said. 

If you’re a Black American and there is confusion about what’s going on and confusion about how to submit your ballot, voters are deciding to risk their health and endure long waiting lines to vote in person rather than use a mail-in ballot. 

“Long lines are more likely in Black communities in the first place. You are seven times more likely to wait in line for over an hour. These are all forms of voter suppression that we look out for,” Mason said.