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'Not a whole lot of innovation': 2020 election misinformation was quite predictable, experts say

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DETROIT – Innovative is not a word that describes disinformation surrounding the 2020 election.

"So much of this actually boils down to just, like, a set of narratives that comes up every time after the election," said Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington. "And now there's just this ability to very quickly amplify them."

Starbird is a leader of the Election Integrity Partnership, a collaboration of security tech companies and universities monitoring disinformation related to the 2020 election.

Starbird and her colleagues, including Washington State University-Vancouver Professor Mike Caulfield, put out a paper ahead of Election Day predicting some of the misinformation and disinformation that would circulate. It wasn’t just predictable in a general sense, Caulfield said. Some very specific predictions the team made came true, including knowing it was possible a video of ballot stuffing from Russia that went viral in 2018 would go viral again. And it did, he said.

“There’s just not a whole lot of innovation, because what they’re doing works,” Caulfield said.

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Election worker Sommer Woods speaks to challengers gathered at an entrance to TCF during vote counting in Detroit.
Election worker Sommer Woods speaks to challengers gathered at an entrance to TCF during vote counting in Detroit.

The Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, also monitored social media on 11 different platforms through election week to identify and correct misinformation about the Michigan vote. This included popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as newer sites such as Parler and Gab, which are popular among right-wing figures.

The Free Press saw false narratives that neatly aligned with what the EIP predicted, narratives focused on Detroit election officials and claiming that Republicans weren't allowed into the TCF Center where votes were being counted and that training encouraged poll workers to make it harder for Republican challengers to monitor the election. Our reporting debunked these claims.

Previously: Internet sleuths use misinformation in attempt to prove dead people voted in Michigan

Here are some of the EIP's predictions and examples of how these played out in Michigan and elsewhere:

Prediction: The misinformation will attack your trust in elections

Every day people are making new claims about dead voters, machines changing votes and biased poll workers.

The broad goal is not that anybody believes in any single false claim, Caulfield said, but to manufacture the feeling there is something new being exposed every day. By the time one claim is debunked, you’re on to the next one, he said.

Someone reading all of these different headlines on Facebook ends up wondering “How could you possibly explain it all?” Caulfield said.

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Prediction: Misinformation spreaders will capitalize on a delay in election results

When a novel event happens, such as a primarily mail-in election, people can build a conspiratorial narrative around the expected confusion, Caulfield said. The confusion is "part of the raw material in developing disinformation campaigns," Caulfield said.

The morning after the election, when votes were still being counted across Michigan and in other states, conspiracy theories about what happened overnight flourished, especially about places where President-Elect Joe Biden made gains and where mistakes were made. A typo in one Michigan county made it appear as though Biden got 100% of newly counted votes; the information was later corrected.

Still, the false idea that votes were snuck into the TCF Center overnight flourished online. Free Press reporter Clara Hendrickson proved the man in a video wheeling a wagon supposedly full of votes was simply a news photographer bringing in his equipment.

While votes were being counted, a state shifting from either red-to-blue or blue-to-red created an opportunity to delegitimize the election results. This was truer this year than in years past due to mail in voting, Caulfield said, “because it is weird for some people to look at a state that seems to be very red and see it going blue days after the election."

It's easy to view these changes as happening after the election, Caulfield said, but all these votes were cast prior to or on Election Day.

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Prediction: False evidence of voter fraud

Another narrative seen in previous elections is the idea that voting machines are tampering with votes. At the center of this idea in 2020 is Dominion Voting Systems and the false claim that deep state operatives used a nonexistent supercomputer, Hammer, and software program, Scorecard, to change votes across the country.

Dominion now owns the company that faced similar accusations in the 2000s, but at the time it was fueled by the left. The Diebold Election Systems CEO, Walden O’Dell, was a Republican who held expensive GOP fundraisers in 2003. After George W. Bush, a Republican, won the presidential race in 2004, some on the left claimed Diebold as a corporation had created a way to syphon off votes in Ohio, Caulfield said.

A difference between what happened then and what is happening now is Democratic leadership rejected the Diebold conspiracies in the 2000s, Caulfield said, whereas now GOP leaders are promoting the idea of machines changing votes.

"The left sort of drop-kicked the Diebold conspiracists out of its communities," Caulfield said.

Diebold rebranded in 2007 as Premier Election Solutions, according to a news release from that year. It was bought by a competitor in 2009 and then sold in 2010 to Dominion Voting Systems. In the sale, Dominion secured the intellectual property, software, firmware and hardware of Premier's voting systems, according to a 2010 Dominion Voting Systems news release.

Prediction: Voting problems will be overemphasized to mislead voters

"Sharpiegate," the crowds at Detroit's TCF Center on Election Day and hoaxes about ballots being destroyed all contributed to people's fears of votes not being counted. The big things Caulfield and others saw on Election Day were posts about altercations with poll workers.

“The underlying narrative that you’re trying to build here, on the right, is for the most part built around the idea that it’s institutional fraud,” Caulfield said.

For Michigan this was more of an issue the day after the election, when videos began to appear of frustrated Republican poll watchers and challengers outside the TCF Center. The videos made the false claim that election officials blocked Republicans from the absentee ballot counting area. The videos lacked context and did not explain that earlier in the day, too many challengers from both parties were on the floor and the video showed elections officials reducing the numbers.

According to state law, the number of people per party and per independent organization was to be no more than 134, the same as the number of absent-voter counting boards set up to process and count ballots.

“The underlying narrative that you’re trying to build here, on the right, is for the most part built around the idea that it’s institutional fraud,” Caulfield said.

These narratives don't just undermine the legitimacy of the election, they also hijack real conversations about flaws in the system, Starbird said. This is something disinformation experts have to evaluate when reviewing the claims that come up — whether or not it is someone with a genuine concern about the voting system.

“Being able to separate criticism of a process that's there to help us make the process better in the future and to make it work better," Starbird said. "Criticism that's meant to better enfranchise people, versus criticism that's just there to undermine trust in the results."

Prediction: Affidavits about voter fraud will be filed

In lawsuits contesting the election, people will assert, in affidavits and under penalty of perjury, that something illegal happened at a polling location, Caulfield said. But what they saw and what they’re reporting is their interpretation of what happened, not necessarily the truth, he said.

“Affidavits add a level of authority that people ascribe to the statement that isn’t necessarily always validated once everything is investigated,” Caulfield said.

The flurry of lawsuits happening now are creating noise to work with for people, he said.

Election lawsuits: Most Republican lawsuits challenging election results in battleground states haven't gone far

Forces backing Republican President Donald Trump have filed at least five lawsuits in state and federal courts in Michigan seeking to delay or stop the state's certification of 16 electoral votes for Biden. Despite legal missteps in these lawsuits, such as being filed in the wrong courts and naming the wrong defendants, the affidavits prop up false narratives about mass voter fraud in Detroit being spread by people such as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel called out these attempts to spread misinformation about the election in a news release on Monday. Plaintiffs dropped a federal court case claiming voting irregularities and fraud in Wayne, Ingham and Washtenaw counties. Michigan held fair and transparent elections, Nessel said.

“This case was clearly designed to spread misinformation about the security and integrity of Michigan elections,” Nessel said.

Backstory: We investigated claims of voter fraud in the election. Here's what we found.

What’s next?

What is to come is less clear, Caulfield said. It is hard to imagine the current level of interest in the election will be sustained through January.

Still, many who believe in the voter fraud claims see what is happening as a real attack on democracy, he said. People talk about this as information, but for people who are seeing these videos and seeing these posts, they believe they are experiencing real life, Caulfield said.

“This is being felt as an event, and that is not something to be trifled with,” Caulfield said.

Follow reporter Ashley Nerbovig on Twitter: @AshleyNerbovig. This project was produced with support from a grant from the American Press Institute.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 2020 presidential election misinformation was predictable, experts say

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