Tracking Viral Misinformation Ahead of the Election

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Rigged voting machines. Tossed ballots. Intimidating federal agents. In a year awash in misinformation, it should be no surprise that false reports about the 2020 election are circulating through social media, text messages and emails.

Some of that misinformation — rumors, misleading videos and mislabeled photographs — has been making the rounds for weeks as millions of Americans voted early. The New York Times has been debunking that information daily.

On Tuesday, experts who study misinformation and social media companies expect certain rumors to return. Here are the some of the more common false claims that voters might see.

Claim: The billionaire George Soros owns Smartmatic, a company that makes voting machines. He can manipulate the machines toward a candidate of his choosing.

Fact: Mr. Soros does not own Smartmatic.

Background: Rumors that Mr. Soros, a well-known donor to liberal causes, owns Smartmatic have circulated for years, including during the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections.

Mr. Soros’s only connection to Smartmatic is through the company’s chairman, Mark Malloch-Brown, who serves on the board of Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundation.

“George Soros does not have and has never had any ownership stake in Smartmatic,” according to the Smartmatic website.

Credit…Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press

Claim: There are photographs of ballots being thrown away, providing proof of problems with mail-in voting in California.

Fact: The photographs depict old, empty envelopes from the November 2018 midterm elections that were discarded after the vote was counted.

Background: The images have been circulating in recent months to back claims made by President Trump that mail-in voting, which is expected to nearly double because of the pandemic, will increase voter fraud. Republicans in Congress as well as right-wing outlets have shared the photographs.

On Sept. 25, The Gateway Pundit posted an article that presented the photographs as evidence that ballots were being thrown into dumpsters. The same day, the photographs were featured in a tweet by Elijah Schaffer, a reporter for the right-wing Blaze TV. The tweet was shared over 5,000 times and liked over 7,000 times before Twitter removed it.

California’s Sonoma County, where the photographs were taken, has clarified multiple times that the pictures “are of old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election that were disposed of as allowed by law.”

In a variation of this claim, photographs of printing waste from a direct mail company being shredded have falsely implied that mail-in ballots were being destroyed.

Claim: People are casting multiple votes using mail-in ballots or absentee ballots.

Fact: Election experts have calculated that, in a 20-year period, fraud involving mailed ballots has affected 0.00006 percent of votes, or one case per state every six or seven years.

Background: Several viral Twitter posts have claimed that mail-in ballots cannot be “verified” or have already been cast. Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly attacked state efforts to expand voting by mail, has falsely said mail-in ballots are “dangerous,” “unconstitutional,” “a scam” or rife with “fraud.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, mail-in ballots are the “gold standard of election security.” In most states, registered voters need to apply to vote through an absentee or mail-in ballot. In nine states and Washington, D.C., registered voters are automatically sent ballots by mail.

In all states, elections officials have put systems in place to ensure that each voter is able to vote only once and cannot return multiple ballots or place multiple ballots in the same envelope.

Voters who cast their ballots by mail receive a ballot packet (the envelope addressed to the voter, the ballot, the return envelope, a security envelope and any instructions) with a unique identification that is tied to the individual voter. If a voter requests a replacement ballot because of a damaged one, the first unique identification remains on file but is voided so that ballot envelope cannot be returned. The new ballot is sent with a new unique identification.

Many states also require the signature on the returned ballot be compared with a signature on file.

States also ensure that voters casting their ballots are still eligible to vote. In August, some of Mr. Trump’s supporters circulated claims that “846 dead people” tried to vote in Michigan’s primary. That story was not true. A news release by Michigan’s secretary of state said 846 voters had died “after casting their absentee ballot but before Election Day.” Those votes were not counted, in accordance with local laws in Michigan.

Claim: People can vote by text message, by email or on a state-run website.

Fact: Outside of a small amount of overseas absentee voters, no state allows Americans to vote by email, website or text message.

Background: In 2016 and 2018, posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites claimed that voters could cast their ballots through newly formed websites, or through text-messaging services.

Facebook, Twitter, and Google remove posts that mislead voters about how, when or where they can vote. However, there are concerns that this year some of those claims have circulated through encrypted messaging apps, which cannot be easily monitored.

Claim: Voting machines are malfunctioning and causing votes to be improperly recorded.

Fact: A handful of voting-machine malfunctions are reported every election cycle in most states. The errors are most often due to mistakes by users.

Background: Frequently circulated videos purport to show machines malfunctioning or refusing to let people cast their vote for a particular candidate. A 2016 video shot by a woman in Pennsylvania and posted to Twitter claimed that a voting machine was not allowing her to vote for Mr. Trump. The video, which is likely to resurface this year, was provided as evidence that machines were rigged. But as ProPublica reported, the problem with the machine was user error.

Election officials have said there may be accurate reports of troubles with voting machines. Those problems can be made worse by bad weather, like heat waves or high humidity, or power outages.

This year, because of the pandemic, officials expect that many people will use hand sanitizer before handling their ballots or touching voting machines. The hand sanitizer is likely to build up during the day and could cause more machines to malfunction. Malfunctioning machines would be removed.

Voters can ensure their votes are correctly cast by requesting a paper record after they have voted. Five states tdo not provide a paper trail of votes: Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, New Jersey and Delaware. In those states, voters are encouraged to double-check their choices before submitting their vote, and should notify poll workers if a machine is malfunctioning.

Claim: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will be at polling stations.

Fact: ICE will not be at polling stations.

Background: This rumor has made the rounds for a decade. During the 2018 election, claims that ICE would be at polling stations proliferated on Twitter, making misinformation aimed at suppressing the vote one of the most prevalent forms of misinformation on the platform, according to Twitter.

The rumor has returned this year, including in one Facebook post that has been shared nearly 4,000 times, despite a “false information” label from Facebook.

ICE has repeatedly denied that it will have agents at polling stations and recently issued another denial.

“Rumors that ICE plans to engage in patrols or enforcement operations at polling locations are false,” said an agency spokesman, Mike Alvarez. “Any fliers or advertisements claiming otherwise are incorrect and not sanctioned by ICE.”

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