Iowa state officials and Democratic Party members are fighting online misinformation and conspiracies alongside widespread technical problems, and the resulting chaos is putting platforms’ newly released misinformation policies to the test.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter take a hard line on some voting-related false information, including posts that give incorrect election dates, encourage people to not vote, or promote fake systems like “voting by text message.” Outside these clear-cut cases, though, the options get much more complicated, and social media companies have long struggled with the distinction between a disputed claim and a malicious falsehood.
Those shortcomings have been on full display in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses. Shortly before the caucuses, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate decried a “misinformation campaign” pushed by conservative activist group Judicial Watch, which inaccurately accused eight Iowa counties of having more registered voters than voting-age adults. Politifact and Washington Post reporter Philip Bump note that five counties have more registered voters than citizens, but that includes registrations explicitly tagged as “inactive,” and the population data is at least two years old. Either way, it doesn’t suggest that any fraud is involved. As Pate pointed out, Iowa even has a voter ID law that restricts who can go to the polls. (Judicial Watch has defended its report, calling Pate’s statement “shameful.”)
But Judicial Watch’s report doesn’t suppress voting or misrepresent voting methods, Facebook and Twitter told Reuters. Facebook told CNN that it’s flagging the info as misleading, so users will be warned when they see it. However, users aren’t prevented from posting false (or potentially false) information on the site, and there’s no visible indication that the original post is fake.
Apparent technical problems have also fueled conspiracy theories. Iowa tried to implement a new app-based reporting system, but the program was a disaster, with some precinct chiefs either having trouble with the app or completely avoiding it. Combined with a more complex reporting process than previous years, it delayed the results until Tuesday, creating a news vacuum filled by claims that the whole process was deliberately rigged. Even President Donald Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale claimed that Democrats’ delay in announcing results is an attempt to manipulate the caucus results — rather than fallout from a botched reporting process.
This was all exacerbated by an earlier incident. A few days before the election, The Des Moines Register scrapped a poll of Iowa voters. One poll operator had reportedly enlarged their computer’s font and accidentally cut Pete Buttigieg from the list of candidates, calling its accuracy into question. But some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang claimed the Register was covering up their candidate’s high polling numbers. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other Republicans repeated the claim.
This isn’t a particularly novel phenomenon. American elections have been awash with conspiracy theories for at least two decades, and these theories are exacerbated by very legitimate security risks that open the door to manipulation. Misleading statistics are also a standard element of political campaigns. But the 2020 election is being fought on ubiquitous social media networks that make spreading bad information easy. This, in turn, has heightened concerns about misinformation and disinformation — putting a greater spotlight on borderline offenses like the voter registration report.
Update 1:45PM ET: An earlier version of this post noted that there was no visible warning label for the Judicial Watch post.