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Americans are choosing an extremely unusual choice in a highly polarized era, and distrust of those in authority is on the rise. Misleading information about election rigging and voter suppression is now everywhere.
I spoke to my colleagues Kellen Browning and Davey Alba about the spread of rumors and confusion related to elections that were writing on Thursday about local election officials trying to counter bad information:
Shira: How does wrong information or misunderstanding about the election begin? Is it just made up lies?
Trowels: It often begins with a grain of truth that is turned disproportionately.
Henrico County, Virginia, senior attorney told me about two recent cases that made voters fearful. A lot of mail was stolen from PO boxes in the Richmond area, and a power outage in some state offices meant people couldn't register to vote online shortly before the deadline. Each instance made some people believe there was a conspiracy to keep people from voting, even though there was no evidence to back it up.
There's a lot of nonsense out there too. Philadelphia polling officials said some people believed the voting machines were owned by the liberal financier George Soros, while others believed they were owned by the Koch family, the conservative financiers. Neither is true, but when people feel that the "other side" is out to get them, these things can get out of hand.
What have local election officials learned to effectively respond to misinformation or fears?
Trowels: It is important to react quickly to bad information. Sonoma County, California, was looking at tweeted photos of stale and empty ballot envelopes thrown away at a recycling center, and some people twisted this as evidence that votes were being discarded. (That wasn't true.)
The tweet went off overnight, and the next day the county released a statement about what was really going on, what was firm and authoritative. Even so, the false claim of electoral fraud spread widely and not everyone believed the county's statement.
What are the lessons for voters?
Davey: One lesson is that we shouldn't take all of the information we see at face value. Falsehoods spread quickly, often by word of mouth, but aren't. There are repeated examples of online messages from an unnamed “friend” of the person who appears to know something and is passing information like this on. Ballot papers could be invalid if electoral officials write on them. (That's wrong.)
Stay informed about the 2020 election
If you don't know where the information came from, don't republish or redistribute it. Ask your local electoral office and look for communications directly from them.
I worry that focusing on misinformation gives people the wrong idea of election chaos.
Davey: I'm worried about that too. The message to the Americans should be: yes, there will always be isolated cases where ballot papers are mixed up, stolen, or elements of the voting process are botched. However, the data we have collected shows that these cases are rare and generally do not suggest any widespread fraud or a broken system.
Try to become aware of things that could go wrong, pay attention to the information you read and believe, but also that we can trust the reliability of the voting process – and so should we. And vote. Just do it.
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When fear itself undermines the elections
Incorrect information and chatter about individual cases of failed votes are insidious because they can slowly destroy our confidence in elections or other institutions. As Davey said, essential institutions work best when people believe in them.
Nov. 1, 2020, 6:05 p.m. ET
America's enemies know that too. My colleagues David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth wrote about warnings from US officials that hackers and foreign governments are exaggerating minor attacks on local electoral systems or election-related websites in order to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.
The Homeland Security official, who is responsible for securing the electoral systems, says one of its biggest problems is "not a massive attack, but a series of smaller attacks, possibly concentrated in swing states, the effects of which are psychological rather than real," wrote David and Nicole.
These so-called perceptual hacks could include the recent defacement of the Trump campaign website and the threatening, fake emails sent to voters by hackers that U.S. officials said were and were endorsed by Iran Get relatively harmless information about Americans.
David and Nicole also wrote about vulnerabilities in electoral systems, including hackers locking up voter signature verification systems in Gainesville, Georgia, and forcing election workers to manually pull registration cards.
But even here, my colleagues wrote, the point of hacking attacks may not be to jeopardize the vote or to manipulate the election results, but rather to make people believe that the election results have been compromised.
So, like Davey said, be careful when something goes wrong. Be furious when our government officials are unable to manage important things like elections. But also be aware that – in order to steal a line from Franklin D. Roosevelt – one of the things we must fear is fear itself.
Before we go …
This tests how low people can sink in the middle of a pandemic: Nicole writes that the same Russian hackers that US officials fear could cause election problems are also targeting American hospitals for computer attacks that hold their data hostage in order to obtain ransom payments. (I recently wrote an explanation for these so-called ransomware attacks.)
This is what supporters of social media are saying: Many traditional news outlets in Nigeria have been reluctant to report on growing protests in the country against police brutality and the government's sometimes violent repression against them, writes Vice News. But online magazines and protest organizers are using social media to organize demonstrations and inform people about it, Vice said.
Isn't there anything K-pop fans can't do? Bloomberg Businessweek has this funny story about the hyperactive online activity of fans of Korean pop supergroups. Sometimes they swarm people online to harass them or call radio stations to request songs from their favorite boy bands. And sometimes they use their leverage to organize charitable donations and fight dangerous online conspiracies.
Please admire these adorable kangaroos from a sanctuary in Australia. (This Fuzzies Instagram account was recommended by a reader of the At Home newsletter.)
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