Don’t Be Duped by Voting Misinformation Before the Midterms

The midterm elections are just a few days away. Though historically the president’s party takes a beating in the House and Senate, that’s far from assured this year. Will the midterms be a rebuke or an endorsement of the Trump administration? On November 6, you will decide.

As 2016 emphatically demonstrated, elections are also a major battleground for information warfare. Coordinated misinformation campaigns focus not just on individual candidates but also the electoral system itself. And though political operatives have used misleading tactics for years, the amplification and network efforts of social media have been like gasoline to a fire. Misinformation now spreads farther, faster, and ensnares unwitting accomplices who share bad information without realizing it.

Tech companies and governments are slowly beginning to realize that the information war is on and they need to respond. But you still need to be aware, and be informed.

The Facts

The balance of the House and the Senate will be decided on Tuesday, along with 36 governorships, 30 state attorneys general, many state legislative seats, and crucial local ballot initiatives on everything from a new tax to fight homelessness in San Francisco to recreational marijuana to climate change to drug sentencing reform.

To find out accurate information about where you can vote, whether you can still register, and who and what is on the ballot in your area, you can consult your local election officials. The US Election Assistance Commission lists the phone numbers and websites for every state and US territory on its website. There are also third-party tools supported by nonpartisan organizations like Ballotopedia, Democracy Works, and Vote411.org, which allow you to input your address and receive individualized voter information for your area.

What People Are Saying

There’s a ton of misinformation out there, and it’s always evolving, but there are a few general themes that come up every election cycle.

Voter Fraud

Voter fraud is a constant boogeyman. In the months leading up to the 2016 election, for instance, President Trump warned that millions of undocumented immigrants would vote. After he won the presidency but lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, he said that voter fraud was the reason. None of this, said the state authorities whose job it is to maintain the integrity of elections in the US, was true. In fact, when all the votes had been tallied—137.7 million of them—states investigating claims of voter fraud found “next to none,” according to Tthe New York Times.

Still, months into his first term, President Trump created a commission explicitly to study voter fraud. After intense criticism from experts who called it unnecessary, as well as legal challenges, it was dissolved in January, having released no evidence to substantiate the president’s allegations that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election. That hasn’t stopped people from claiming it’s a major issue, or from imposing restrictions like voter ID.

To support claims for widespread voter fraud, many point to states and counties where there are more registered voters than eligible adults. In California, for example, the claim that 11 counties have more people registered than are eligible to vote has spread from a conservative activist group called Judicial Watch to Alex Jones to Breitbart all the way to secretary of state candidate Mark Meuser, who regularly records and tweets out videos alleging widespread registration fraud in the state. This argument is misleading, as The Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and The San Diego Union Tribune have all reported, because they combine “inactive” and “active” voters lists. In California, inactive voters—who, for example, may have moved but not returned an address confirmation notice—are still eligible to vote, according to state law; they just need to show proof of residency when they arrive at the polls. A January report from the California secretary of state noted that only 75 percent of eligible voters in the state are registered.

Fraudulent claims of voter fraud don’t always come in the form of misleading numbers; they can be photos, too. Doctored or out-of-context photos and videos that purport to show voter fraud taking place were shared during the 2016 election—such as one Photoshopped image that combined two separate photos to make it look like ICE was arresting people in line to vote—and as recently as last week during the presidential election in Brazil. As with other misinformation campaigns, real images taken out of context are often used as fake “proof.”

What makes this kind of misinformation so intractable is how it has the trappings of verisimilitude—a lawsuit from a Washington, DC-based group, the buy-in of political candidates and mainstream-adjacent news organizations. It also feels right to many people, who have been primed for years to suspect that fraudulent votes are a huge problem.

It’s not that voter fraud never happens; it does. But very rarely, and nowhere near the levels suggested by right-wing conspiracy theories or the president. Here’s where you can find these numbers yourself: The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, run by the New York University School of Law, has put together lots of research on the persistent myth of voter fraud.

Voter Suppression

Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, states are required to accurately maintain their voter rolls. The rules by which states purge voters vary by jurisdiction, and they are incredibly confusing. Errors in the process and inaccurate data have led to the disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters. And some states have become far more aggressive in purging voter rolls since the Supreme Court struck down aspects of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.

Georgia, in particular, is facing ongoing lawsuits for voter suppression over its practices. Other states have drawn national scrutiny for moving polling places miles out of town or implementing voter ID laws that disproportionately affect certain communities.

But the issue of voter rolls can be complicated and varies by state, making it a perfect topic to sow confusion along party lines. For instance, one viral stat going around says that 700,000 voters have been removed from the voter rolls in Colorado; some have suggested this is part of the nationwide effort to purge legitimate voters. The Colorado government has pushed back, pointing out that these voters were purged over the course of a decade, according to the Republican secretary of state, Wayne Williams, for legitimate reasons.

Voting Machines

There’s also misinformation swirling around the actual hardware we use to vote. Again, this is nothing new. In the 2016 election, a video that purported to show a “rigged” machine not allowing a vote for Trump in Pennsylvania went viral, at least in part after being promoted by Russian operatives. The malfunction turned out to be user error, but it was shared as proof of voting fraud by thousands of people.

During early voting for this year’s midterms, reports emerged of machines in parts of Texas switching US senate race votes if people vote the straight party ticket. This is actually happening; according to the Texas secretary of state’s office, only 20 or so people have reported such a problem, and the government and the voting machine company blame the issues on user error. But voting experts say the problem lies with the machines themselves, which have been known to be unreliable when voting a straight party ticket for years. And while experts have also said that the machines are insecure, there does not appear to have been hacking in this case. Nevertheless, claims that this is the work of hackers or a coordinated conspiracy by Republicans have flourished.

Stories about voting machines are ripe for misinformation. After 2016, the US is on high alert for election interference: More than half of Americans say they are not too confident or not at all confident that the US election system is secure from hacking or other technological threats, according to a recent Pew survey. In both of the above cases, though, quirks of the voting machines themselves turned out to provide the more likely explanation—something to remember before drawing quick conclusions. And while progress has been uneven, it’s worth noting that election officials have taken steps to shore up the electoral system in the past few years.

Bad-Faith Campaign Messaging

Spreading misinformation and uncertainty about elections is another unfortunate electoral tradition, whether it’s by candidates, parties, or more anonymous actors. Historically, these tactics often target specific communities, such as robocall campaigns intended to suppress the black vote or fake flyers distributed on college campuses or in communities of color. This week, North Dakota’s state Democratic Party affiliate posted on its website and Facebook a warning to hunters that they may lose their licenses in other states if they vote in the election.

Politicians and their campaigns are engaged in direct disinformation targeting people likely to vote for their opponents, as The New York Times notes. This includes everything from the wrong date for election day being sent out to voters, to text messages that seem to come directly from the president. These texts are made to look like the presidential alert that went out a few weeks ago, though in this case they are telling voters that their early vote has not been recorded. The purpose seems to be merely to confuse, as the Daily Beast reported, noting that state governments aren’t sure the messages are illegal but are looking into it. Fake text messages have also popped up this campaign season, too.

Why It Matters

Voting in America is hard. It happens on a work day. People aren’t automatically registered when they hit voting age or even when they get a driver’s license in most states. The early voting process is different in every state. All of this contributes to low voter turnout, particularly in non-presidential elections.

Researchers trying to understand why people don’t vote point to myriad factors, including confusion about how to vote and whether people are eligible. It’s this problem that misinformation can so easily exacerbate. In 2007, then senator Barack Obama and Senator Chuck Schumer introduced the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, after high-profile cases of misleading voter tactics in the 2006 midterms. It didn’t pass, and subsequent attempts haven’t been any more successful. California recently passed a law creating an Office of Elections Cybersecurity to explicitly counter online misinformation intended to discourage voting. Facebook also recently announced a new policy to try to address misinformation on its platform that is intended to suppress the vote.

To help you recognize fact from fiction, familiarize yourself with the many sites and sources devoted to identifying misinformation. There are fact-checking sites like Snopes, where you can look up specific stories. The nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica runs a coalition of newsrooms called Electionland dedicated to accurate reporting on the midterms, which is a fantastic resource for finding real news that matters. (WIRED is a partner on ProPublica’s Political Ads Collector project.) You can also arm yourself with tools, such as the new bot-catching Chrome extension BotCheck, which will reveal bots in your social feeds, and reverse-image-search tools, which let you figure out where an image actually originates.

With voter turnout during midterms historically low, each vote can have a large impact—particularly when it comes to local elections, which can be decided by a handful of votes. If misinformation, intentional or otherwise, can dissuade one person from showing up, that matters.


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Trump’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Tweet Is Odd, but Trademark-Infringing? Probably Not

Of all the apparatuses presidents have at their disposal for making pronouncements—press secretaries, official statements, televised addresses from the Oval Office—the one President Trump used to trumpet forthcoming sanctions on Iran is by far the strangest: a Game of Thrones meme.

On Friday morning the president posted the image below on Twitter. It’s a picture of himself emblazoned with the phrase “Sanctions Are Coming” in a typeface not that dissimilar from the one used in the Game of Thrones logo along with the date “November 5.” Subtle, it was not.

As soon as it went up, and as soon as it was clarified by the White House that the sanctions in question were indeed the ones that had been relaxed during the Obama administration and which Trump had been seeking to reimpose, Twitter went nuts. Folks began responding with memes of their own—”Indictments Are Coming” etc.—and even the show’s cast got involved. Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark, replied “Ew,” and Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), in perhaps the best Twitter drag of the day, retweeted the president and just added “Not today.” (“Not today,” for those who don’t remember, is what Arya Stark’s swordfighting instructor, Syrio Forel, told her is what she should say to the god of death.)

Then HBO got in on the action, sending out a tweet reading, “How do you say trademark misuse in Dothraki?” Reached for comment the network added, “We were not aware of this messaging and would prefer our trademark not be misappropriated for political purposes.” Trump evoking the show’s logo and slogan, it seems, doesn’t sit very well with the people who actually make the show.

But could the network or creators successfully sue? Probably not. First off, it doesn’t seem likely that HBO actually wants to make a legal claim of trademark infringement. At most, the network is playing along. Trump referenced the show; they responded. Simple as that. But the response, and subsequent online chatter, did raise some questions about whether or not the president went too far.

Most likely, he didn’t.

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If HBO were to bring a claim, it would probably be for what’s known as trademark dilution, says Daniel Nazer, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s intellectual property team. Typically, these are the kinds of claims companies make when they feel their very-famous trademarks are being used in ways that deplete the uniqueness, or dilute, their intended message. A company can’t, say, put something that looks like the Nike “swoosh” logo on the side of a commercial plane or use “Just do it.” to sell condoms.

A dilution claim also generally requires that the entity claiming infringement be able to prove the public was genuinely confused. Because Trump’s tweet wasn’t being used in commerce, and because it’s unlikely anyone thought he was legit affiliated with Game of Thrones, dilution would be a hard argument to make. “I think this would be a tough, a tough case,” Nazer says. “No one is likely to be confused that HBO is endorsing this tweet or sponsoring sanctions against Iran. My view is that this shouldn’t be a viable suit.”

Instead, Nazer says, Trump’s tweet would be treated more like a parody—legally speaking. If, for example, Saturday Night Live did a sketch about waiting for a train in New York titled “The G Train Is Coming” that pokes fun at MTA tardiness and references Game of Thrones, that’s not an infringing use. (It’s also a funny idea, SNL. Please make that sketch and credit Nazer.) As for Trump’s use of the Thrones font, the files used in typefaces can be protected, as is (presumably) the actual logo, but because Trump just uses a script that looks like the GoT emblem, the image the president tweeted is likely not infringing. It’s ironic, but the bottom line is that the man who likes to take shots at the media is protected here by the First Amendment.

The parody aspect, though, is compelling, because the metaphor doesn’t quite align. In Game of Thrones, “winter is coming” is a call to remain vigilant, and a warning that White Walkers could come and threaten the living when winter arrives. Yet winter has been coming on the show since the pilot; it’s a slow march that’s taken seven years. Trump’s “November 5” warning promises something he intends to do in a matter of days. Also, one presumes, Trump thinks the sanctions are a good idea, but the coming of winter in Game of Thrones is something most sane people in Westeros fear. It’s possible Trump wants Iran to be afraid of the sanctions, but the wordplay still doesn’t quite land.

“It’s kind of riffing on it, but it’s hard to know what the satirical or parodic intent is here,” Nazer says. “Winter in the Game of Thrones universe is kind of terrible, so I’m not sure if they really thought it through. There’s probably nothing much beyond it looks cool.”

Half an idea without any sense of its viability? Sounds about right.


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