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MIT Technology Review

Efforts to undermine the election are too big for Facebook and Twitter to cope with

Experts explain how we're closing in on the end of a long campaign to 'pre-delegitimize' the US elections—and what to do about it.

Associated Press

There have been many conspiracy theories about the 2020 US election, from lies about vote-by-mail fraud to the discredited idea that millions of non-citizens get to vote. But just two weeks before Election Day, the most common disinformation claim is currently the idea that the vote is “rigged,” researchers say. 

The conspiracy theory is so all-encompassing that experts say it’s become uniquely challenging for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to handle.

A big-tent conspiracy

The Election Integrity Partnership, or EIP, is a group of researchers aimed at mitigating the impact of attempted voter misinformation and election delegitimization. In a call with reporters on Tuesday, they pointed out that the most prominent booster of the idea of a “rigged” election is President Donald Trump, who—echoing his rhetoric in 2016—has spent much of the last year warning about a “stolen” election. The narrative has been building to the point where an adherent can now view almost any news through the “rigged” lens.

“The narrative focuses not on a specific falsifiable claim, but on a lot of claims strung together into a conspiracy theory that powerful people in the Democratic Party and the ‘deep state’ were conspiring to kick off a color revolution to steal the election from President Trump,” the EIP’s Renée DiResta says. (A “color revolution” is the name given to some movements to overthrow governments, mainly in former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine, in which the repressive regimes claimed that the protest movements had US support.)

DiResta is the lead author of the EIP’s new report detailing how a conspiracy narrative seeking to preemptively delegitimize a Democratic election victory has been spreading on the fringes of the far right and through international outlets like Russia Today. 

Almost everything can become part of some “vast plot,” she says, from YouTube’s decision to remove channels promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory to expert predictions that slow-to-be-counted mail-in votes will boost Democratic election results. All get pushed under the “rigged” umbrella.

Her work focused on a particular branch of this conspiracy narrative: the idea that an illegal coup is being staged against the president. This is disinformation with no basis in fact, but it’s still been effectively mainstreamed in recent months from blogs and right-wing news websites through to prime-time television interviews on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, which boasts over 4 million viewers.

Disinformation networks

As a “meta-narrative” under which other conspiracies and disinformation can easily fit, this type of disinformation is especially challenging for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to deal with. There is no single incident on which to focus: instead, every incident becomes linked to the grand conspiracy.

“It’s a long-term conspiratorial explanation, not a single viral misinformation incident,” conclude the EIP researchers. “This makes it all the more difficult for platforms to respond: any one post or piece of content may receive negligible engagement, [but] the accumulation of these references is what matters.”

The most crucial moment in the life of this conspiracy comes on Election Day in two weeks. If there is uncertainty, what immediately follows will show the immediate impact of undermining confidence in the election. Among the possible scenarios is that one candidate prematurely declares victory—which would undermine mail-in ballots that are counted more slowly because of security checks. The reaction of both traditional media and social media will be key to whether voters understand that certified results are not coming on Election Day—a timeline that election officials say is just fine

In the event of such an announcement, Facebook says, it would apply a warning label to the candidate’s post on its site. Twitter’s policy gives room for either labeling or outright removing such a tweet. YouTube has no stated policy here. 

From a voters’ perspective, the best strategy is to follow verified state and local election officials on social media and on their websites. You can use canivote.org, which includes a roster of election officials around the country.

This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our daily email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.