Skip to main content

Iowa conspiracy theories are testing Facebook’s misinformation policy

Iowa conspiracy theories are testing Facebook’s misinformation policy


The botched caucus created a vacuum for bad information

Share this story

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

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.

How to fight lies, trick, and chaos online

The internet is full of viral half-truths, honest mistakes, outright lies, and other unreliable information. But in many cases, you can cut through the chaos by following a few simple rules.

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.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 52 minutes ago The tablet didn’t call that play by itself

External Link
Andrew J. Hawkins52 minutes ago
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg. Guests were treated to a champagne and lobster lunch, but also were left wondering why none of VinFast’s machinery was working. They even got to visit the company’s real estate holdings outside Hanoi, where they were greeted by empty swimming pools, dusty construction equipment, and a library devoid of books.

James VincentAn hour ago
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.

Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
The Verge
James VincentAn hour ago
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.

External Link
Elizabeth LopattoTwo hours ago
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
The Verge
Richard LawlerTwo hours ago
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.

The Verge
Richard Lawler1:00 PM UTC
Green light.

Good morning to everyone, except for the intern or whoever prevented us from seeing how Microsoft’s Surface held up to yet another violent NFL incident.

Today’s big event is the crash of a NASA spaceship this evening — on purpose. Mary Beth Griggs can explain.

David Pierce12:54 PM UTC
Thousands and thousands of reasons people love Android.

“Android fans, what are the primary reasons why you will never ever switch to an iPhone?” That question led to almost 30,000 comments so far, and was for a while the most popular thing on Reddit. It’s a totally fascinating peek into the platform wars, and I’ve spent way too much time reading through it. I also laughed hard at “I can turn my text bubbles to any color I like.”

Thomas Ricker10:44 AM UTC
The Simpsons pays tribute to Chrome’s dino game.

Season 34 of The Simpsons kicked off on Sunday night with an opening credits “couch gag” based on the offline dino game from Google’s Chrome browser. Cactus, cactus, couch, d’oh! Perfect.

Thomas Ricker7:29 AM UTC
Table breaks before Apple Watch Ultra’s sapphire glass.

”It’s the most rugged and capable Apple Watch yet,” said Apple at the launch of the Apple Watch Ultra (read The Verge review here). YouTuber TechRax put that claim to the test with a series of drop, scratch, and hammer tests. Takeaways: the titanium case will scratch with enough abuse, and that flat sapphire front crystal is tough — tougher than the table which cracks before the Ultra fails — but not indestructible.

Emma RothSep 25
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.

Emma RothSep 25
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.

External Link
Emma RothSep 25
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.