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“Outright Lies”: Voting Misinformation Flourishes on Facebook

While the social media giant says it opposes voter suppression, the data shows a stark picture: Nearly half of all top-performing posts that mentioned voting by mail were false or misleading.

Photo illustration: Lisa Larson-Walker; source image: Getty Images

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On April 3, Terrence K. Williams, a politically conservative actor and comedian who’s been praised by President Donald Trump, assured his nearly 3 million followers on Facebook that Democrats would light ballots on fire or throw them away. Wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat, Williams declared, “If you mail in your vote, your vote will be in Barack Obama’s fireplace.” The video has been viewed more than 350,000 times.

On May 8, Peggy Hubbard, a Navy veteran and police officer who this year sought the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, warned on Facebook that the country was heading toward civil war. “Your democracy, your freedom is being stripped away from you, and if you allow that then everything this country stood for, fought for, bled for is all in vain.” The cause? California’s recent expansion of voting by mail: “The only way you will be able to vote in the upcoming election in November is by mail only,” Hubbard said. The video has attracted more than 209,000 views.

On June 27, Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim activist with nearly 1.3 million followers, weighed in. “Mail-in ballots guarantee that the Democrats will commit voter fraud,” she said on Facebook.

There’s no evidence for any of these statements. While California will mail absentee ballots to all registered voters, polling places will also be available. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare, including with mail-in ballots. A recent Washington Post analysis analyzed three states with all-mail elections — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and found just 372 potential irregularities among 14.6 million votes, or 0.0025%.

Facebook’s community standards ban “misrepresentation of who can vote, qualifications for voting, whether a vote will be counted, and what information and/or materials must be provided in order to vote.” But an analysis by ProPublica and First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation, shows that Facebook is rife with false or misleading claims about voting, particularly regarding voting by mail, which is the safest way of casting a ballot during the pandemic. Many of these falsehoods appear to violate Facebook’s standards yet have not been taken down or labeled as inaccurate. Some of them, generalizing from one or two cases, portrayed people of color as the face of voter fraud.

The false claims, including conspiracy theories about stolen elections or outright misrepresentations about voting by mail by Trump and prominent conservative outlets, are often among the most popular posts about voting on Facebook, according to a review of engagement data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.

On Facebook, interactions — the number of comments, likes, reactions and shares that a post attracts — are a proxy for popularity. Of the top 50 posts, ranked by total interactions, that mentioned voting by mail since April 1, 22 contained false or substantially misleading claims about voting, particularly about mail-in ballots.

“We have a long history in this country of voter suppression that goes all the way back to our founding,” said Jessica Gonzalez, the co-CEO of Free Press, an advocacy group focused on media and technology. “This is a new way to suppress the vote, and I don’t know why Facebook wants any part of it.”

In an email, Geller said that “what I wrote was factual and accurate” and that the contention that voter fraud is rare “is ridiculous on its face.” She added: “You’re trying to deceive your readers into not believing what they see with their own eyes.”

Hubbard and Williams did not respond to questions. After ProPublica flagged their posts to Facebook, it deleted them.

A Facebook spokesperson said that the company is “running the largest voting information campaign in American history,” including aiming to register 4 million voters. It plans to create a Voting Information Center — a box on top of user feeds — “to connect people with authoritative information about the elections” and add labels that link voting-related posts to official election information.

“Making sure people have accurate information about voting is especially critical during the COVID crisis,” the spokesperson said.

From March to May 2020, Facebook removed more than 100,000 pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram for violating its policies against voter suppression, according to the company’s website. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month that he stands against “anything that incites violence or suppresses voting.”

ProPublica and First Draft tracked Facebook posts using voting-related keywords — including the terms “vote by mail,” “mail-in ballots,” “voter fraud” and “stolen elections” — since early April, when Trump began attacking voting by mail. Mentions of these voting-related terms nearly tripled on Facebook, with interest in the topic spiking after Twitter attached a fact-checking label to Trump’s false tweets and directed users to a fact-check page on May 26. Twitter’s intervention prompted Trump to claim that Twitter is “interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election” and “stifling FREE SPEECH.” Facebook has refused to take down Trump’s false claims about voting by mail.

Facebook’s inaction on Trump’s posts spurred pushback over misinformation on the site. Gonzalez helped organize an advertising boycott of Facebook that now includes more than 1,000 companies and some of the platform’s biggest advertisers. Among other demands, they’re calling on Facebook to remove voting misinformation.

In a long-awaited assessment of its civil rights record, Facebook was faulted last week for being “far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression.” Also last week, civil rights groups met with Facebook executives, including Zuckerberg, to push their demands and came away disappointed.

“It was all talk, no action,” Gonzalez said. “We hear words like ‘We know we need to do better’ and ‘We’re working on this,’ and yet misinformation still seems to be quite pervasive on the site.”

Facebook expects to meet one of the groups’ demands by hiring a vice president to coordinate civil rights issues internally, according to the company.

The posts identified by ProPublica and First Draft offer outright false claims about voting, blend opinion and factual errors, or mislead users about the reliability of voting methods. Facebook has said it is committed to both free speech and to providing reliable information about voting, but those goals may sometimes conflict.

Facebook has removed more than 90% of false posts referred to it by VoteSure, a 2018 initiative by the state of California to educate voters and flag misinformation, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. In VoteSure’s first election, the 2018 midterms, 272 of 276 posts and tweets reported to social media platforms were taken down.

Still, VoteSure only identifies a small portion of misinformation, and Facebook needs to do more, Padilla said. The platform, he said, has made progress but still has “baseless outright lies, claims about massive voter fraud, and posts that are clearly wrong, or clearly erroneous.”

Trump’s false attacks on voting by mail had a total of 3.8 million interactions on Facebook. Among them, a Trump post that falsely claimed Nevada had illegally sent out ballots had the most interactions of any post that has mentioned vote by mail in the last 12 months in the U.S. Trump’s false claim that California is sending ballots to “anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there” drew the third most interactions of any post that mentioned voting over the same period, ranking behind a post from Obama and a pro-Trump meme.

In recent months, Trump has also claimed on Facebook that “mail-in ballots will lead to a “RIGGED ELECTION!” and falsely said they are “substantially fraudulent”; he made false statements about the legality of actions taken by election officials in Michigan and Nevada; and he misrepresented his own power to deny funding to states that expand vote by mail. Trump continued those false claims last week, arguing a debunked distinction between mail-in voting and absentee voting.

“What is frustrating is that Trump can post or tweet whatever he wants without the proper checks and balances,” Padilla said. “What keeps me up at night is that he’s clearly setting the stage to question election results that he might not like in November.”

Breitbart, a conservative website that has long championed Trump, has had more engagement on its voting-related stories than any other publisher from April until July 1, according to our analysis. In fact, voting-related stories on Breitbart have garnered more interactions since April than equivalent articles by The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC News combined. Many of the Breitbart posts are misleading at best. “Obama ratchets up Democrats’ Cheat-by-Mail scheme!” read one post, linking to a story that misleadingly framed how often voter fraud occurs. Another post declared: “Flooding the nation with ballots that can be stolen, sold, discarded, and forged—THAT’s the path to Leftist victory in November.”

In a video by Fox Nation, Fox News’ streaming service, that has been viewed nearly 500,000 times, host Tomi Lahren said, “I firmly believe the only way Donald Trump loses in November is because of voter fraud.” In the video, Lahren falsely claims that voter fraud is rampant in California. “You think coronavirus is a crisis, wait till you see the voter fraud epidemic we have here in California. And mark my words it’s heading to your state like a diseased bat out of hell.” (There’s no evidence that voter fraud is rampant in California, or in any other state.)

“This is an editorial video, not a news report, which is very clear to any Fox Nation viewer,” said John Finley, executive vice president of development for Fox News Media. The White House, the Trump campaign and Breitbart did not respond to requests for comment.

In a Facebook group dedicated to fans of Candace Owens, a conservative commentator, one post circulated a 2016 video that describes a widely debunked conspiracy theory linking billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros to “rigged” voting machines. The post has received more than 16,000 shares. Soros’ Open Society Foundations donate to ProPublica.

Claims of “stolen elections” were common across the political spectrum. A post by the left-leaning page Ridin’ With Biden contended that Trump and Kanye West were trying to steal the election. A clip of Joe Biden saying that his “single greatest concern” is that Trump would try to “steal the election” was touted as evidence of a conspiracy by Republicans. Other claims of stolen elections have come from Secure America Now, quoting Newt Gingrich; Trump’s former White House doctor Ronny Jackson, now running for Congress; and liberal accounts like StandWithMueller and Occupy Democrats.

Facebook is reportedly considering banning political ads in the days before the election. But our review showed that misinformation or false claims about voting by mail on Facebook are rarer in paid political ads than in posts. The vast majority of ads that used voting-related terms were factual and promoted voter participation broadly, including ads from Democratic and Republican groups, nonpartisan voting organizations and state election offices. However, we did find a handful of ads that pushed questionable claims about voting by mail.

A group called Morning in Nevada PAC, created by supporters of Adam Laxalt, the state’s former Republican attorney general, has launched a handful of ads attacking voting by mail, spending between $14,800 and $20,998 this year, according to a search of Facebook’s political ad library. Some of these ads make unsubstantiated claims that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to fix the election using mail-in voting.

(Screenshot taken by ProPublica.)

A similar ad from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs describes absentee ballots as the “‘tool of choice’ for those who are engaging in election fraud.”

Several posts identified by ProPublica and First Draft seized on isolated incidents to link people of color to voter fraud, a tactic reminiscent of the 1988 George H.W. Bush campaign ad that featured mug shots of Willie Horton, a Black felon who committed a rape while on a weekend furlough, to paint Michael Dukakis as weak on crime. One meme-like post has appeared on at least 136 Facebook pages and groups, including Hubbard’s, as well as groups like “2nd Amendment Hotties” and “Dullards for Trump,” which have produced 100,838 interactions. The post features a headshot of Sherikia Hawkins, a former Southfield, Michigan, clerk. Text on the image reads:

“THE DEMOCRAT CLERK OF SOUTHFIELD, MICHIGAN IS FACING TRIAL ON 6 FELONY COUNTS OF VOTER FRAUD FOR EDITING HUNDREDS OF BALLOTS. PRESIDENT TRUMP HAS BEEN RIGHT ALL ALONG ABOUT DEMOCRATS’ ELECTION TAMPERING AND VOTER FRAUD.”

(Screenshot taken by ProPublica.)

The post is inaccurate. Hawkins was not charged with editing ballots themselves. She was charged in state court with altering voter records used to track ballots. No voters were disenfranchised. Hawkins, who has not yet entered a plea, is expected to face trial this year.

In June, a Patterson, New Jersey, city councilman and a councilman-elect, along with two other men, were charged with illegally collecting ballots from voters and delivering them to an election office. New Jersey prohibits anyone from delivering more than three ballots on behalf of voters. The case is pending, and the councilman and councilman-elect have said they will plead not guilty. On Facebook, Breitbart and several other conservative pages have displayed mugshots of the defendants, all of whom are people of color, to suggest that voter fraud is rampant.

“There is already a sense in the Black community that our votes will be lost and that the election won’t be fair,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, a senior campaign director at Color of Change, a civil rights group organizing the ad boycott. “What this stuff does is just confuse people and sow distrust.”

Though vote by mail was less controversial before the pandemic, misinformation about other aspects of voting also plagued Facebook in 2016. Before Rhode Island’s presidential primary that year, Bernie Sanders supporters wrongly accused its secretary of state, Nellie Gorbea, on social media of suppressing turnout, based on a news report that the number of open polling places would be considerably less than in a November general election.

However, it’s common for states to have fewer polling locations during a primary, when turnout is lower. Rhode Island actually had 15 more locations available than in the 2012 presidential primary. In any case, the state Board of Elections, not Gorbea, was in charge of polling places.

“In 24 hours, we received thousands of comments on Facebook and Twitter,” Gorbea said. “Nothing would quell it.” Her office received angry messages from 36 states and three countries, but just one message from a Rhode Island constituent. Her office has since hired a full-time employee to monitor social media.

Exaggerating the prevalence of voting fraud can backfire. In a study released in June, researchers showed respondents a series of tweets. Some were actual 2018 tweets by Trump, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio that put forth unfounded claims of voter fraud; others were more generic “placebo” tweets. The false claims reduced confidence in elections for everyone, the researchers found, especially Republicans and those who approve of Trump. Those groups “reported significantly lower confidence in elections after exposure to a low dose of voter fraud allegations even when those claims were countered by fact-checks.”

As a result, Trump’s rhetoric may cause fewer Republicans to vote by mail than Democrats, said Brendan Nyhan, one of the authors of the study and a political scientist at Dartmouth College. Still, Nyhan is worried about broader effects of misinformation. “The problem has clearly gotten worse in terms of elite rhetoric,” Nyhan said. “We’ve seen what happens in other countries when there isn’t a shared trust in the rules of the game in democracy and it’s not good.”

For now, misinformation may be difficult to stop before it goes viral. On July 13, conservatives on Facebook pounced on a video in which an unidentified Trump supporter said she was denied the right to vote, apparently in Louisiana. Many of these pages framed it as evidence of voter fraud and a Democratic plot to steal the election. By the time the post was deemed false by PolitiFact, a Facebook fact-checking partner, it had received more than 3.7 million views and been shared more than 170,000 times.

Rory Smith, research manager at First Draft, contributed reporting.

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About Electionland

ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

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