PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Video on Fox News showed a Wisconsin poll worker initialing ballots before they were released to voters. This is the normal procedure on polling day.
On Tuesday, someone posted the clip on social media and instead claimed it showed a Philadelphia election worker tampering with ballots.
On Wednesday, the false claim was shared by QAnon believers and far-right figures like Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to former President Donald Trump. Some noted that the worker was wearing what looked like a regular face mask.
“Masked man cheats in front of cameras on mainstream media,” read a post containing the clip, which urged users to repost it. “Extend to standards.”
It’s an example of Election Day misinformation that reveals how misleading claims emerge and travel, and how innocent events can be turned into the latest viral election hoax. It also shows the kind of baseless rumors and conspiracy theories that rippled across the internet Wednesday as candidates and far-right influencers sought to explain the losses and closer-than-expected races.
Online mentions of Pennsylvania and voter fraud dominated online conversation early in the day on Election Day, according to analysis by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm that tracks online content.
Many claims in Pennsylvania since the election have centered on misleading explanations for how long it takes to count votes.
In Pennsylvania, a woman who said she was a poll worker on a QAnon bulletin board claimed that ballot counting was over and that delays in vote counting are a smokescreen to cover up fraud. This example was identified by the SITE Intelligence Group, a company that monitors disinformation and extremism.
But content from Pennsylvania was quickly overtaken by mentions from Maricopa County in Arizona, which began to surge early Tuesday morning just as news of the county’s voting machine problems spread.
Maricopa County remained the epicenter of voter misinformation on Wednesday after problems with voter tabulation machines in the Arizona county spawned conspiracy theories about vote rigging. The demands spread despite explanations from local officials – including those from both parties – and assurances that all votes would be counted.
It’s understandable that people take to social media to complain about long election lines or faulty voting machines, said Kate Starbird, a University of Washington professor, disinformation expert and member of Election Integrity. Partnership, a nonpartisan research group.
“The problem is when their audience gets this with this supposed implication of voter fraud,” Starbird said. “It’s being picked up and reframed as election fraud as it spreads.”
The United States has a long history of political races going unsettled on Election Day, and those occasional delays have only increased in recent years given the growing popularity of mail-in voting. In major battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, election officials cannot begin counting mail-in ballots until after Election Day, guaranteeing delays.
In the weeks leading up to November 8, election officials, voting advocates and disinformation researchers closely monitored social media content, given the role that misleading claims of voter fraud have played in the January 6, 2021 deadly attack on the US Capitol.
Misinformation about the elections has also been accused of deepening political divisions and even increasing the threat of political violence.
In some cases on Tuesday, conspiracy theories about voter fraud prompted violent threats, especially on fringe platforms and websites popular with far-right groups. But in general, Election Day has come and gone with few major issues reported.
Vote counting in several key races continued Wednesday in Arizona and Pennsylvania, two battleground states that have featured prominently in election conspiracy theories in 2020 and again this year.
Both states also had prominent Republican election deniers vying for governor: Kari Lake of Arizona and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania. Mastriano lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro but has not conceded yet. Lake trailed Democrat Katie Hobbs on Wednesday night; final results are not expected for several days.
One of the most harmful aspects of misinformation about voting and elections is that it can erode trust in democracy itself.
It’s true that candidates pushing misleading claims about elections win or lose, and especially when it comes to candidates for secretary of state or other positions that have power over elections, said Bret Schafer, senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan organization that tracks misinformation.
“If they lose, it just reaffirms beliefs that everything is rigged,” he said. “And if they win, you have people running elections who have some pretty crazy ideas about how elections should be run.”
Several Republican candidates for secretary of state had backed Trump’s failed efforts to reverse his 2020 defeat. Tuesday’s election results were mixed.
It will take days, if not weeks, to begin to gauge the true impact of misinformation on Election Day and the weeks leading up to it, Starbird said. But early assessments suggest there was slightly less overall online engagement with viral and misleading content about elections and voting.
“Which is a bit of a relief,” she added.