As Election Day approaches and the rhetoric and anger mounts, it makes sense to remember Smokey the Bear’s wise and immortal words: “Only you can prevent wildfires.” That’s because everyone online and passes on information, plays a certain role in whether untruths gain in importance.
Now you might be asking, “But I’m only one person — what about Twitter?” What about Facebook? And what about politicians with a large following who constantly spread untruths and misleading claims?”
It is true that our society and many others around the world are facing what some researchers call “truth decay.” Bad actors can and do play social and traditional media to flood the zone with conspiracy theories that sometimes promote violent and extremist agendas.
But in the last decade, the way people consume information has radically changed thanks to social media. And you, the user, have some control over the algorithms that bring you posts, videos, and news in your feed.
With that in mind, there are a few things to keep in mind when sharing any type of news, but especially election news.
Look at the source
This is probably the most important. How does the person posting about this story know what is happening? Is it an election official explaining the process? Is it a reporter from a trusted news organization who is on the ground? Is it an account or news outlet you’ve never heard of before? Here’s a quiz by the nonprofit News Literacy Project to help you assess whether a news source is credible.
Relying on local election officials and local journalists who know how people in your community vote will generally give you better quality information than, say, random Twitter accounts with large followings. Election officials are particularly important in explaining how voting procedures are changing and how ballots are collected and counted, in contrast to political candidates who might try to distort or exaggerate what is happening.
If you see news circulating that seems surprising or in any way off-putting, you should see if other news outlets are reporting the same thing. Do they confirm the news themselves or just attribute it to another source? Is the source attributed credible?
The pace of election results probably reflects different rules
Elections in the United States are incredibly decentralized. This is both a strength and a weakness of our democracy. Election rules and procedures vary from state to state and sometimes even county to county. In some states, absentee ballots received before Election Day can be processed in advance, sometimes even counted. Others allow absentee ballots to be processed and counted until after polling stations close. Local election officials have explained their counting process in advance and attempted to set voter expectations for the pace at which the results will be released.
The results could also shift dramatically over the course of election night depending on which ballots are counted first. As Republicans increasingly focus on voting in person on Election Day, while many Democrats vote early or by mail, the results could shift from one party to another depending on the tabulated stack of ballots. It’s not a sign that the results have been tampered with, just an indication that the way people vote, and with it the way the results come in, has polarized.
Many voters watch election night television coverage and feel that the television stations play some role in determining the outcome when they make election calls. That is not true. What the networks actually do is make predictions about the winner based on the public vote counts released by local and state election officials. State election officials are the only ones who officially declare a winner in a process that can last days or weeks after Election Day.
NPR relies on The Associated Press for its vote count data and uses that organization’s race calls. The AP says it only makes a call when it’s “firmly convinced that a race has been won – defined most simply as the moment when a trailing contestant has no path to victory left.”
Be careful what you want photos and videos to show
They could see photos and videos alleging nefarious behavior or gross injustice. Look for a difference between what the post says you see and what the video or photo actually shows. Often a photo or video is grainy, enlarged, or blurry overall. Sometimes a reverse image search will reveal that the image is years old or from another country! In many cases, there is no evidence in the post or claim to support the premise that someone is, for example, casting a vote illegally, mishandling a ballot, or being denied the right to vote.
In fact, a recent documentary-style film alleging a widespread scam in 2020 used stills of a man dropping a ballot in a Georgia mailbox to claim the man voted illegally. In fact, the man voted legally and is suing the filmmakers for defamation.
Documented cases of voter fraud are extremely rare
The 2020 election was the most studied election in US history. There have been dozens of federal and state court cases challenging various aspects of electoral conduct and, in some cases, alleging organized voter fraud. None of these claims have been confirmed. None of the lawsuits led to changes in the outcome of the election.
Most cases of ballot and voter fraud typically involve an extremely small number of ballots and are quickly identified. The most significant case of voter fraud in the past 40 years occurred in Bladen County, NC, in 2018, when the state refused to certify the results of a US House race after investigators revealed that a political agent working for the Republican Candidates worked, one had mishandled a significant number of mail-in ballots he had collected. The results of this contest were called into question within weeks of Election Day.
Even the most comprehensive database of voter fraud, collected by the conservative Heritage Foundation, shows about 750 documented cases of voter fraud involving about 1,100 people over the age of 40 and billions of ballots cast. Many election researchers criticize the organization’s methodology, which they see as too broad.
Poll workers are your neighbors
The people at your polling station and the people who handle and count ballots live in your city or county. Many are volunteers or are paid relatively little. Many work in understaffed offices. Many do the job because they believe it’s important and work hard to be scrupulously impartial. Sharing material naming poll workers and accusing them of their illegal behavior can result in that person being harassed, even with death threats.
“It turned my life upside down,” Georgia campaigner Shaye Moss said during a hearing before the US House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot in the US Capitol, citing conspiracy theories, directed against her and her mother, Ruby Freeman. “I don’t want anyone to know my name.”
Election workers are human too and can make mistakes. But in today’s environment, an error of any kind can become the stuff of a conspiratorial narrative.
If a message elicits an emotional response from you, pause
It’s okay to react emotionally to the news! There are many things happening in the world that worry many people.
But in our highly polarized society, many actors seek to capitalize on tribal political identities. They share untruths and misrepresentations that evoke an emotional response and short-circuit the instinct to consider whether something can be true or even plausible.
Don’t fall for their tactics.
When you come across a story like this, take a deep breath and ask yourself if it’s worth sharing and further contributing to the wildfires on social media.