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How Three Election-Related Falsehoods Spread

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By Davey Alba, Kellen Browning and
Falsehoods about Tuesday’s election have overwhelmed local election officials, who said they were dealing with “tsunamis of misinformation,” have lost sleep and were working extra long hours.
The officials told us they were dealing with several common flavors of election-related misinformation. So we decided to track three categories of the rumors they had encountered using CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool, and then focused on the spread of one the lies in each of the categories. We also recorded the volume of tweets about the rumors we followed using BuzzSumo, another analytics tool.
The data showed how a single rumor pushing a false narrative could rapidly gain traction on Facebook and Twitter, generating tens of thousands of shares and comments. That has made the misinformation particularly hard for elections officials to fight.
“The true costs of misinformation are not paid by platform companies,” said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. “They are paid by everyone else who has to deal with the aftermath.”
A spokesman for Facebook, Andy Stone, said that it prohibits voter interference, is working with fact-checking organizations and has introduced a voter information hub of accurate information.
Twitter said it did not create any specific Twitter Moments explaining these particular rumors, but does aim to proactively debunk false claims and provide information about voting by mail.
Here’s what we found.
This misinformation features the unproven assertion that ballots are being “harvested,” or collected and dropped off in bulk by unauthorized people.
In the example we focused on, Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, was falsely accused last month of being engaged in or connected to systematic illegal ballot harvesting.
There were 3,959 public Facebook posts sharing this rumor, according to our analysis. Those posts generated 953,032 likes, comments and shares. Among those who shared the lie were two pro-Trump Facebook groups targeting Minnesota residents, as well as President Trump himself. At least 26,300 tweets also discussed the falsehood.
Jeremy Slevin, a spokesman for Ms. Omar, said in an emailed statement that there was no truth to the claim.
Mail-in ballots and related materials being tossed was another popular falsehood that election officials said they were hearing. We looked at one of these rumors, which was pushed by a far-right website called The Right Scoop. This month, the site published an article with the headline, “Tons of Trump mail-in ballot applications SHREDDED in back of tractor trailer headed for Pennsylvania.”
The article generated 163 individual public posts on Facebook. It was liked, commented and shared 91,000 times on the social network, according to our analysis. It was also shared 1,032 times on Twitter.
Politifact debunked the video on which the article was based. Facebook added a label to posts that shared the rumor saying it contained false information.
The Right Scoop later corrected its post — but its correction did not travel as far as the lie, receiving just a single like on Facebook. The Right Scoop did not respond to a request for comment.
Election officials also said people were confronting them with false assertions that antifa, the loose collection of left-wing activists, and Black Lives Matter protesters were coordinating riots at polling places across the country.
One of those rumors began this month when The Federalist, a conservative outlet, noticed that a liberal activist website called Shut Down DC said people should protest on the streets if Mr. Trump was re-elected. Right-wing commentators then attached inflammatory captions to their posts sharing The Federalist’s article. Many said it was evidence of planned far-left violence on Election Day and after, and stated, without proof, that Black Lives Matter was involved.
The false rumor was then shared in 472 public Facebook posts, according to our analysis. It generated 99,336 likes, shares and comments. On Twitter, the rumor was shared at least 400 times.
Craig Sawyer, a right-wing commentator and Marine veteran, shared the rumor on Facebook on Oct. 16. He said in an email that his post was not a call for violence and that The New York Times should focus on “the key planners and financiers of all the rioting, arson, looting and murder” instead.
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