2020 Election

How to Spot Disinformation Around Election Day—And What to Do About It

8 minute read

With Election Day well underway, unreliable and false information around the U.S. election process is swirling. A recent report from media watchdog group NewsGuard found that misinformation related to election security and voting has been “flourishing” online, and experts expect that could intensify further in the run-up to Election Day.

There are, however, several steps you can take to protect yourself and your community against false and misleading information.

First, a quick rundown of terms. Misinformation means false information that people share without realizing it’s false. That “can be like your mom shares something with you out of love because she’s worried about you,” but that information is still wrong, says Aimee Rinehart, U.S. deputy director of First Draft News, a nonprofit that works to fight mis- and disinformation online.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is false information that’s intentionally spread to mislead people, such as the falsehoods spread by Russian operatives in the 2016 general election.

Misinformation and disinformation may continue to proliferate during and after Election Day, due in part to the unique circumstances in which Americans are voting. Due to changes made to election systems to protect Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, many states might not be able to report their completed results by Election Night, or even for several days after Nov. 3.

For those trying to sow chaos or doubt in the U.S. electoral process, uncertainty is an opportunity. “Be prepared for some serious uncertainty on Election Day, moreso than probably any election in our lifetime,” says Jevin West, an associate professor at the Information School at the University of Washington and the Director of the Center for An Informed Public. “It’s during uncertain times when misinformation or disinformation propagate the most.”

What are some common types of election misinformation or disinformation?

False information about how to vote

Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the nonprofit Center For Democracy and Technology (CDT), which analyzes how disinformation spreads online, says they’ve seen a lot of what they label “voter suppression information”—false information about how, when, and where to vote as well as related to other rules and procedures around voting. (Voters cannot cast a ballot after Nov. 3 and cannot submit a vote via phone, text, email or tweet, for example, contrary to some of the false information being shared.)

Read more: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Voting

Since so many people are voting a new way this year, “some of this stuff doesn’t sound so crazy anymore,” says Jesse Littlewood, vice president of campaigns at the nonpartisan nonprofit Common Cause. “And we have unfortunately seen some bad actors weaponize that and say, ‘because of the coronavirus or because of social distancing, certain people need to vote after the election has concluded.’” Littlewood recommends consulting the nonpartisan National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS)’s website canivote.org for up-to-date information on your state’s rules.

False information about election integrity

Littlewood cites a growing trend in mis- and disinformation calling into question the security of vote-by-mail systems. Despite false claims by President Donald Trump and others that vote-by-mail is prone to fraud, evidence shows that vote-by-mail is safe and secure, he stresses.

West at the University of Washington says his center has also tracked false narratives around ballot harvesting and mail-dumping that are “all feeding into this [false] idea that we may not be able to trust the election.”

He recommends readers be especially skeptical about cherry-picked images presented as evidence of ballot-related fraud, such as of a pile of mail sitting in a ditch or a voter dropping multiple ballots off at a drop-box. Those images are oftentimes presented out of context, and could be from a different election, a different time or even a different country, he says.

False information about safety at polling places

Llansó of CDT says false information that might raise voters’ concerns about safety at their polling location is also proliferating, whether because of COVID-19-related concerns, threats of political violence or an excessive law enforcement presence.

“There’s a long history of information about potential violence at polling places being used as a tactic to discourage people from going and casting their ballot,” she explains. She recommends being skeptical of reports and to make sure to check them with trusted, nonpartisan news sources.

False information about election results

On Election Night itself, be selective about who you trust to project winners, West says. Whether you’re seeing information from a social media connection or a candidate themselves, be sure to cross-check any call with official election administrators, particularly before sharing it.

“There will be armchair pollsters and predictors, so be careful [to not] spread something that doesn’t come from an actual official,” he urges.

How can I spot election misinformation or disinformation?

“It really comes down to language,” says Rinehart of First Draft News.

What type of language does the post use? Is it alarmist? Are there exclamation points? Reliable news sources don’t tend to use those in headlines. “Maybe it makes you angry or makes you laugh out loud,” Rinehart continues. “Those are signs that something in there is meant to trigger you and it’s meant to have you share it.”

First Draft News offers a free 14 day SMS course on how to protect yourself from online misinformation in English and in Spanish, as well as a newsletter that pre-bunks (or preemptively de-bunks) false information they see spreading online.

A best practice is to pause and ask yourself: Does this make sense? Who is behind this information? How outlandish does it seem? Consult fact-checking websites such as Snopes or Politifact, or the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)’s “Rumor Control” webpage that pre-bunks areas of potential disinformation.

Read more: How a Road Trip Through America’s Battlegrounds Revealed a Nation Plagued by Misinformation

Also keep an eye out also for fake accounts, says Maria Bianchi, vice president of program and product at the nonprofit Democracy Works. If an account looks like someone famous or official but it isn’t verified, proceed with caution. If it’s a brand new account, that’s another reason to be suspicious.

Put more trust in new sources with stronger journalistic standards, Common Cause’s Littlewood says. “There is a cottage industry of websites, Facebook pages and other social media assets that appear to be journalists and news organizations, but really are partisan operations designed to push a particular point of view,” he explains.

What should I do if I spot misinformation or disinformation?

The main thing is not to amplify it, Littlewood urges. If it’s online, don’t share it—not even to point out it’s wrong. If it’s something a friend or family member shared, you should also consider reaching out and let them know it’s false.

Instead, report the false information to the platform on which you saw it—most social media companies and search engines have some form of a reporting process—as well as to an elections official who can get an alert out to voters to pre-bunk it.

You can also report it to a nonpartisan voter protection group’s tracking system like Common Cause’s reportdisinfo.org. You could also call the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition at 866-OUR-VOTE, or bring the information to a local newsroom or fact-checking website.

If the disinformation is threatening, says Rinehart, you can also involve the authorities.

How can I know if I can trust election information?

One of the best ways you can inoculate yourself from election mis- and disinformation is to learn how the election works in your state in advance, says Bianchi of Democracy Works. Check election information with the government agency that oversees the election in your jurisdiction—this could be your local Board of Elections, elections official or Secretary of State. Be aware that election laws and rules vary by state, so what you read about one state might not apply to your situation.

NASS’s website canivote.org has reliable information on how to vote in your jurisdiction, and the CISA’s “Rumor Control” webpage pre-bunks areas of potential disinformation.

Littlewood also suggests checking the URL of the website you’re consulting. If it has a “.gov” URL, that means it’s part of the U.S. government and is a trustworthy source. (Not every county elections website has a “.gov” URL, but that’s a good sign you can trust that website.)

And if you have any questions about voting, you can always call the nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com