- Disinformation could keep millions of voters of color out of the midterms.
- Disinformation is “becoming endemic. It’s becoming part of day-to-day life,” one expert told USA TODAY.
- “It’s so much easier to lie to someone than to convince someone they’ve been lied to,” one nonprofit chief said.
- Pastor: “We know there are going to be threats this fall, but we also know our vote is our voice.”
WASHINGTON–Sunlight filtered through stained-glass windows at the historic Campbell AME Church in Anacostia as Pastor Terrance McKinley sat in a pew, thinking of how he’d fight midterm disinformation in communities of color – the kind of community right outside the sanctuary doors.
Since that August day, his first time back to the pulpit after a medical leave, he has spent part of every Sunday sermon talking about the upcoming election.
“There’s a concern about bad actors and voter intimidation, misinformation and disinformation,” McKinley said. “One of our greatest challenges will be the couch. Our democracy is so fragile we can’t afford to have anyone stay home.”
McKinley isn’t just another Black pastor trying to turn out the Black vote. He is on the front lines of a bigger fight to save democracy – and one of the only defenses the country has – against disinformation, which is hard to trace yet powerful enough to swing U.S. elections.
Disinformation is spreading rapidly through America, disseminating intentional lies disguised as truth. Sometimes the lies are designed to prevent people from voting by confusing them on how, when and where to vote. Sometimes the lies play on fears to try to make them vote a certain way.
“It’s becoming endemic,” said Sam Woolley, program director of the Propaganda Research Team at the University of Texas. “It’s becoming something that we’re just accepting in our society. It’s becoming part of day-to-day life. That we’re inured to it almost.”
Who is spreading disinformation?
McKinley doesn’t know who is behind the efforts to spread false information about poll closings or changed locations and hours in Anacostia and other areas around the country. Community members there have received fliers through the years containing lies about how, when and where to vote.
Several researchers across the country studying the issue say it’s hard to trace.
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Inga Trauthig, a research manager at the University of Texas who studies disinformation, has tried to trace disinformation throughout various communities, including communities of color that use WhatsApp.
“The disinfo spreads via their small family and community groups, and I cannot tell you with certainty where it is coming from,” she said.
Some disinformation has been linked to Russian operatives and other foreign enemies.
Some has been linked to groups in the U.S. who undermine elections, using various online accounts.
“The ability to propagandize has kind of been democratized because of social media,” Woolley said. “If you know a little bit about how to build fake accounts online and pull the right levers,” creating and spreading disinformation is no problem, he said.
And sometimes it’s spread by politicians like Laura Loomer, who repeatedly claims her failure to win a GOP House primary this year in Florida was because her election was stolen, Trauthig said. “She keeps calling for people to contest the legitimacy of current candidates and the midterms overall – and is partially successful.”
Her campaign did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement issued Aug. 24, Loomer said she would not concede because there was “theft involved.” She accused the Republican Party of being “an active participant in the voter fraud machine here in American.”
Disinformation received this year on WhatsApp involved an Indian American community receiving messages that said the midterms are unconstitutional due to an unsettled dispute over the previous presidential election.
Mexican Americans in San Antonio received WhatsApp messages ahead of the primary saying they should not vote because it would mean supporting a corrupt U.S. election system where elections are rigged.
Disinformation turns into misinformation
Disinformation – lies told intentionally to deceive – often turns into misinformation, which are lies people believe to be true and spread to others. That’s when it becomes most dangerous.
On elections, that disinformation ranges from telling voters they can cast ballots on their phones to “skip the lines at the polls” to sending lies that their polling place has closed. Some messages have told voters the election would be held on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, according to researchers.
For example, a polling place hoax in 2016 used edited photos across social media platforms that claimed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were arresting voters at the polls. The same false information resurfaced in 2018 and 2020. Researchers believe the effort was designed to intimidate Latino voters.
ICE does not patrol or conduct enforcement operations at polling locations, the agency said.
While voters can cast ballots by mail in many states, they cannot vote on their phones. Federal law ensures the general election is always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. And though polling places can change or move, it’s best to find that information through a county or state website rather than through a text or social media post, according to experts who study disinformation.
These kinds of lies show up on social media, in text messages, encrypted chat rooms, on billboards and telephone polls, and in the mail. They are often targeted at people of color.
“The research shows that, psychologically, lies that come from people they care about are much more potent than lies that come from random politicians or news outlets or whatever,” Woolley said.
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Voices muted by disinformation
The tweet sent on Nov. 1, 2016, a week before Election Day, looked official.
“African Americans for Hillary” read a sign held by a Black woman. The message said to “Avoid the Line. Vote from Home. Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925. Vote for Hillary and be part of history.” The tweeted image, which said in the fine print that it was paid for by Hillary for President 2016, included the hashtags #GoHillary and #ImWithHer.
Voters cannot cast ballots by phone, but at least 4,900 phone numbers texted “Hillary” to the 59925 tweet sent by a pro-Trump activist named Douglass Mackey, who used the social media name Ricky Vaughn. He was arrested and charged in late January 2021 with election interference stemming from a voter disinformation campaign, according to the Department of Justice.
On Nov. 2, 2016, Mackey tweeted, “Obviously, we (Republicans) can win Pennsylvania,” according to federal prosecutors. “The key is to drive up turnout with non-college whites, and limit black turnout.”
Last week, Mackey asked a federal judge to toss his charges and consider the texts to be an exercise in free speech.
What Mackey did was “nothing short of vote theft,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office.
At the time of the 2016 election, Mackey had 58,000 followers on Twitter and was listed by the MIT Media Lab as the 107th most important influencer, ranking higher at the time than the Democratic Party, CNN, NBC News, NYT Politics, Stephen Colbert, CBS News and others, because his posts generated high levels of engagement such as likes and retweets.
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He wasn’t alone. Dozens of other pieces of disinformation like the one Mackey sent circulated on social media leading up to the 2016 election.
“It’s so much easier to lie to someone than to convince someone they’ve been lied to,” said Al Schmidt, a former Republican Philadelphia commissioner who is now president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit that fights political corruption.
The same social media tools and chat apps used to organize the violent attack on Jan. 6 are being used to target communities of color with disinformation, according to university researchers studying the impact of propaganda on democracy.
Non-English speaking and immigrant communities are perfect targets because they have a tendency to mainly seek information from close friends and family, he said.
The goal isn’t necessarily to make communities of color vote one way or another. It’s to keep them from voting at all.
“Because elections seem to turn on a dime now, the margins are so so slim and it matters so much who turns up and obviously who they vote for,” Woolley said.
To put numbers in greater context, the 2016 presidential election in Pennsylvania was decided by about 40,000 votes. The U.S. Senate race there that year was decided by less than 87,000 votes.
The 2020 presidential election was decided by about 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, which clinched the election for Joe Biden. If even 4 or 8 percent of the 1 million targeted voters of color in Pennsylvania were swayed by disinformation, it could have impacted the outcome of those elections.
One of the reasons communities of color are more susceptible to disinformation is because “it’s always playing towards people’s fears” and through repetition, said Trauthig, one of the disinformation researchers at the University of Texas. In immigrant communities, people who receive disinformation are more likely to believe a lie when it’s in their native language, she said.
“The most interesting thing for me was actually that they would often say that they don’t think it’s entirely true, but also they wouldn’t dismiss it completely,” she said. “So the danger in that is just by repetition, they came to believe stuff more and more that’s definitely not true.”
By stoking fears and creating confusion, disinformation keeps voters at home.
“If you’re just not used to living in American democracy, you’re more vulnerable and more easily deterred to just not go vote,” Trauthig said. “I’ve heard a lot from the older interviewees that they said, ‘Well I didn’t want do it wrong.’”
There are no clear stats, however, that show how many votes have been impacted by disinformation, partially because most victims of disinformation don’t realize they have been swayed by lies, researchers said.
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A problem in search of a solution
New disinformation campaigns target voters of color in four main ways: create confusion, tell lies to stoke ideological divisions, use religion to sow doubt about candidates’ views; and oversimplify complex policies to alter voting decisions.
When effective, these disinformation campaigns can change the outcome of U.S. elections.
That is what Russian operatives tried to do in 2016. A Senate Intelligence Committee report shows Russian operatives working for the troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency focused on communities of color. “No single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African Americans,” the report said.
Congress could pass new laws to change this – to make it illegal to lie on any platform about the verifiable truths of how, where and when to vote – but lawmakers are split along party lines.
That’s confounding to Jenny Liu, disinformation policy analyst at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit that fights for civil rights. She thinks it should be a no-brainer for everyone to agree it should be illegal to confuse voters on how, when and where to vote.
“It’s almost as if we live in a reality where there is no longer an objective truth,” she said.
Voters are less likely to take steps to verify information when it comes from someone they know or trust, she said.
Democrats say there are laws and regulations to prevent campaigns from pushing the type of disinformation that keeps people from voting, but no laws apply to memes or bad actors who use online platforms.
President Joe Biden in the spring launched the Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security, but it dissolved in three weeks. Republicans called it an attack on free speech and threatened to defund it.
Also, while disinformation can be flagged online, researchers say only about half of what gets flagged is actually taken down by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Discord. It’s even less likely that disinformation in Spanish and other languages will be taken down, according to researchers.
Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have all shared plans to combat election disinformation this year that are similar to 2020.
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For example, Facebook’s approach will be “largely consistent with the policies and safeguards” from the last presidential election year, according to Nick Clegg, Meta president of global affairs. Posts that get flagged as false or partly false will get a warning label and the company will moderate content that could lead to violence like the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack.
USA TODAY is a partner in Facebook’s global fact-checking program whose work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.
TikTok will also offer fact-checking and block paid political posts and political advertising. Twitter, before Elon Musk purchased it, said it would use warning labels and mark false or misleading tweets.
It’s even harder, if not impossible, to flag disinformation in a text.
Some Republicans also oppose things being removed as censorship and an attack on free speech.
“That’s the issue,” said Ellen Goodman, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University law school who specializes in information policy law. “The First Amendment protects most of this speech.”
The only two GOP members of Congress who attended an April 28 House hearing on the issue argued that even the hearing on disinformation violated free speech.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Illinois, said the government does not have the power to decide what is truth.
“Personally, I don’t think anyone is qualified to be the ultimate authority on truth except for God himself,” he said during the hearing.
Davis did not respond to a request for an interview.
UCLA law professor Rick Hasen said there are empirical, verifiable truths that should require no debate. There are steps that could be taken to protect democracy and the right to vote without infringing on free speech.
He’s the author of “Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics―and How to Cure It.”
“I do think we could pass laws and make it a crime to lie about when, where or how people vote,” he said. “There is a truth right? Election day is Tuesday. It’s not Wednesday.”
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How a thousand pastors are fighting disinformation
On Tuesday, a week before the midterms, McKinley and numerous other pastors were in a virtual Faiths United to Save Democracy training, learning how to be poll chaplains – faith leaders who serve as a calming presence at the polls and ensure voters are able to exercise their constitutional right.
He is one of four coordinators working with Faiths United and will be stationed at a Washington, D.C. command center while more than a thousand pastors work at polls in battleground states.
In the absence of congressional action, they are among thousands of individuals who are fighting disinformation one sermon at a time.
“Lots of folks, they may not trust what they see on social media, or they may not trust what they see on a news outlet, but who they trust is a pastor who was preaching to them every Sunday morning,” McKinley said.
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As of Tuesday, he was still asking through prayer for the right words to say this Sunday, hoping to communicate to millennials, Gen Z and other young voters that they’re not next. They’re now.
“I have not done a whole sermon to discuss the election, but in every sermon I’ve been talking about the importance of the vote, how it’s under threat and that it’s a blood-bought right,” McKinley said.
Despite headwinds, McKinley said he remains a “prisoner of hope,” referencing the words of the late Martin Luther King Jr.
“If people rise to the occasion and make certain their voice is heard through their vote, I think that we have a chance at preserving the principles of our democracy,” he said.
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Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
Story Credit: usatoday.com