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How to be a good citizen online

How to avoid sharing bad information about the election

Rules to guide you through a turbulent election week.

November 2, 2020
printouts from russian-linked trollsprintouts from russian-linked trolls
AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File

Election Day misinformation will have two big goals, with the emphasis shifting over the course of the day. First it will attempt to keep people away from the polls, and then it will undermine the integrity of the election results. As experts and reporters track, verify, and debunk the onslaught of online rumors about voting, it’s likely that you, the well-meaning feed refresher, will encounter quick-moving and questionable videos, claims, and dispatches before the work can be done to figure out their truthfulness and context. 

Although major, persistent conspiracy theories like QAnon have attached themselves strongly to the US right wing, anyone can be vulnerable to sharing misinformation. Moments of urgency or crisis can give misinformation more fuel, even among people who should know better. 

Misinformation is already overwhelming local election officials. President Trump has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of mail-in voting, boosting narratives that feed the conspiracy-laden claims of a coup staged by Democrats. A candidate could claim victory before mail-in ballots are fully counted in states where those votes could change the result. The potential for extended uncertainty feeds concerns ranging from the prospect of voters’ being discouraged from going to their polling places to the possibility of violence.  

So how do you avoid the trap of sharing bad information when everything feels terrible and urgent? Here’s some election-specific advice, building on our existing guide to protecting yourself from misinformation. 

Your attention matters: “People often think that because they’re not influencers, they’re not politicians, they’re not journalists, that what they do [online] doesn’t matter,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, told me. But it does. Sharing dubious online trash with even a small circle of friends and family can help something catch. Things can trend on Twitter when regular users join in and amplify something that is being engineered to gain attention. So, you know, give yourself some credit. 

So does your engagement: During an urgent and developing news story, well-meaning people may quote, tweet, share, or otherwise engage with a post on social media in order to challenge and condemn it. Companies like Twitter and Facebook have introduced a lot of new rules, moderation tactics, and fact-checking provisions to try to combat popular misinformation. But interacting with misinformation on social media at all risks amplifying the content you’re trying to minimize, by signaling to the platform that the thing you’re interacting with is interesting. 

Many of the things that experts expect to see spreading on Election Day are going to be interesting but false. Misinformation’s goal is to “evoke an emotion,” says Shireen Mitchell, the founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, who has long studied how misinformation targets and harms Black communities online. “The minute it evokes an emotion, you have to hit pause.”

Identify (and share!) some reliable sources and context beforehand: Lyric Jain, the founder of the UK-based verification app Logically, said he’s found it can be helpful to know “where your north star is” in the information landscape: figure out “which organizations and which publishers you can more or less trust most of the time.” 

You can help others, too.

“Right now, you can start spreading good information on what to expect. Right now. We know the sorts of things that are likely to happen,” Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert, told me. We know, for instance, that vote counting procedures vary state by state, which will factor into the uncertainty around the final results. On Election Day, “when people try to spin these events, the people in your network say ‘Oh, I remember Jill sharing something about that.’” 

Do your research, but carefully: One of the tricky things about telling people to research the things they see online for themselves is that there are a ton of traps out there waiting for would-be truth seekers. It’s not just about doing your research; it’s about doing it well, learning how to put isolated bits of information into context, and not trusting unreliable sources with good Google optimization. 

Caulfield’s method for addressing misinformation has the helpful acronym SIFT: “Stop. Investigate the source. Find better coverage. Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.” When I asked him how SIFT might apply to election week, he offered a useful tweak: 

“There’s gonna be some stuff that you’re just not going to be able to check in the moment,” he said. Realistically speaking, most people aren’t going to—and shouldn’t—turn themselves into fact-checking operations to address all these claims as they filter through their feeds. 

“I really would encourage people to think about their role in social media as not running around sharing things they can’t verify, or arguing back and forth with a bunch of people who don’t want to hear what they say,” Caulfield said. Instead, you can share things that provide context and clarity: resources on your state’s voting rules, information on how the swell of mail-in votes is being handled in key states, or reporting on when, based on those rules, experts expect final tallies. Although many things are uncertain about this week, experts have also flagged some long-running misinformation threads designed to undermine the integrity of the elections. Some of those have already been debunked. 

Don’t become a bot hunter: Although the threat of misinformation on Election Day is serious, “I don’t want people to spend their day online thinking that everybody is a Russian troll,” says Camille Francois, the chief innovation officer at the social-network analysis company Graphika. And it’s not just because there are people like her who are literally experts in tracking and understanding how cyber conflict works. Foreign actors, she notes, often depend on people believing their false or exaggerated claims of interference and impact, so “if [you] see a foreign actor come and say they successfully hacked the election, [you] should take it with a grain of salt.” 

“Stay away from becoming a bot hunter or fact checker,” says Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group that has been tracking far-right misinformation campaigns. 

People can do two things instead, he says. “They can slow the speed of lies, but they can also slow the speed at which tensions escalate.” 

Beware of your expectations: Multiple experts I spoke with expressed variations on a similar concern: that well-intended efforts to highlight election-related violence could lead people to believe that violent unrest is significantly more widespread than it is. This has left some organizations with a quandary of how to inform the public without overhyping isolated incidents or ignoring moments that deserve more widespread concern and attention. 

“I don’t think we’re going to get this one right. I think we’re going to err on the side of over-discussing violence,“ Carusone says. “I think that it’s almost impossible to talk about the threat of misinformation, disinformation, or the integrity of the election without the specter of violence.” 

But you should be careful about any claim in this area. It’s really uncertain right now what, exactly, will happen in the days ahead, and you shouldn’t really trust anyone who is claiming to have the gift of prophecy here. That impulse, to settle on certainty, is one you should also keep an eye on within your own mind. 

Consider logging off: When every day feels like a year and every week feels like a century, it’s easy to get frayed and overloaded and burned out on the river of online content. While it’s important to pay attention to things like the future of democracy, it’s also a good idea to stop doomscrolling.