“‘Outright Lies’: Voting Misinformation Flourishes on Facebook”


On April 3, Terrence K. Williams, a politically conservative actor and comedian who’s been praised by President Donald Trump, assured his nearly 3 million followers on Facebook that Democrats would light ballots on fire or throw them away. Wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat, Williams declared, “If you mail in your vote, your vote will be in Barack Obama’s fireplace.” The video has been viewed more than 350,000 times.

On May 8, Peggy Hubbard, a Navy veteran and police officer who this year sought the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, warned on Facebook that the country was heading toward civil war. “Your democracy, your freedom is being stripped away from you, and if you allow that then everything this country stood for, fought for, bled for is all in vain.” The cause? California’s recent expansion of voting by mail: “The only way you will be able to vote in the upcoming election in November is by mail only,” Hubbard said. The video has attracted more than 209,000 views.

On June 27, Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim activist with nearly 1.3 million followers, weighed in. “Mail-in ballots guarantee that the Democrats will commit voter fraud,” she said on Facebook.

There’s no evidence for any of these statements. While California will mail absentee ballots to all registered voters, polling places will also be available. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare, including with mail-in ballots. A recent Washington Post analysis analyzed three states with all-mail elections — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and found just 372 potential irregularities among 14.6 million votes, or 0.0025%.

Facebook’s community standards ban “misrepresentation of who can vote, qualifications for voting, whether a vote will be counted, and what information and/or materials must be provided in order to vote.” But an analysis by ProPublica and First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation, shows that Facebook is rife with false or misleading claims about voting, particularly regarding voting by mail, which is the safest way of casting a ballot during the pandemic. Many of these falsehoods appear to violate Facebook’s standards yet have not been taken down or labeled as inaccurate. Some of them, generalizing from one or two cases, portrayed people of color as the face of voter fraud.

The false claims, including conspiracy theories about stolen elections or outright misrepresentations about voting by mail by Trump and prominent conservative outlets, are often among the most popular posts about voting on Facebook, according to a review of engagement data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.

On Facebook, interactions — the number of comments, likes, reactions and shares that a post attracts — are a proxy for popularity. Of the top 50 posts, ranked by total interactions, that mentioned voting by mail since April 1, 22 contained false or substantially misleading claims about voting, particularly about mail-in ballots.

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