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Tips on countering misinformation as election denial persists

<i>Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</i><br/>An elections worker inspects a mail-in ballot on November 06
Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
An elections worker inspects a mail-in ballot on November 06

By Fredreka Schouten, CNN

A version of this story appeared in the CITIZEN BY CNN newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

As we’ve noted, the midterms went relatively smoothly without major disruptions or the feared violence at polling places after nearly two years of threatening behavior against election workers.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t pockets of lingering drama.

In Arizona, for instance, election denialism has clouded public debate ahead of the state’s early December certification deadline. Several defeated candidates, who embraced former President Donald Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election, have seized on printer problems in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, to claim the election was botched. And two counties — one in Arizona and one in Pennsylvania — on Monday failed to certify their election results, despite legal deadlines to do so.

I reached out to Claire Wardle, the co-director of the Information Futures Lab and professor of the practice at Brown University’s School of Public Health, to discuss ways to counter election falsehoods. Wardle is a leader in the field of misinformation and offers useful advice on how to spot it and how to talk with folks who might be spreading it unwittingly.

Here is our exchange, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Q: What’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

Disinformation is false or misleading content that is created deliberately to cause harm. That might be content designed to divide communities for political gain or influence, or to make money, or just to see if they can cause trouble.

Misinformation is false or misleading content (according to the best available evidence at the time) that someone shares without realizing the information is inaccurate and without meaning to cause any harm.

There’s actually a relatively small number of people creating and sharing disinformation. The problem is misinformation — when many of us share this disinformation unintentionally. So, to help slow down the amount of misleading information, we need to be more discerning about what we share.

Q: You’ve talked about several types of problematic information that you’ve seen circulated about elections. Can you explain more about that?

During an election, we tend to see lots of similar examples of problematic information. We often hear the phrase “fake news,” as if the only problem is websites that look like newspapers, peddling false information.

But, actually, a lot of what we see is old images recirculating. For example, a stuffed ballot box from an election in Russia from previous years ago, but it gets shared in the US, with a caption suggesting that it’s actually from a US election today. Or social media posts or pamphlets giving the wrong information about how you can vote — for example, the wrong day or falsely claiming you can vote via SMS. And in this year’s midterms, we actually saw examples of videos that weren’t false — instead they showed the reality of the messiness of democracy — but this was shared as “evidence” that the election couldn’t be trusted.

Q: How do you spot false information?

When you see something that makes you have an emotional reaction, for example, suddenly makes you angry, or scared or superior (as in, “I always knew that was the case!”), that is often a sign that you might need to slow down and take a closer look.

Check out the source by searching for them online. Do they have a website? What else have they posted? Use a domain site lookup like to check when the site was first created.

Put some keywords from the rumor in a search engine. Often these rumors have been around for a while, and you can find someone else who has debunked it previously. And if it’s an image, do a “reverse image search,” by going to Google Images or and uploading the image. It will tell you if that image is an old one, and what the original context is.

Q: What’s been the effect of its spread?

Election misinformation slowly erodes people’s belief and trust in democratic systems. Over the last few years, we’ve seen so many more people state in surveys that they don’t believe that the ballots in the 2020 election were counted safely and securely. Some people believe the election was stolen. And we saw some of those same narratives emerge around the recent midterms. Having people not trust the system is so damaging because if people lose trust in the system and don’t trust the results of an election, democracy no longer functions.

Q: Are you seeing the spread of more false information about elections right now as counties and states get ready to certify the results of the midterms?

I’m actually less concerned than I expected to be, as some of the major election denial narratives do not seem to have taken hold to the same degree. I think it shows there is more awareness of misinformation now, and the rumors from Election Day didn’t gain traction in the ways we saw in 2020.

Q: What’s the smart way to respond to it? Say, you are at a holiday party with relatives that you don’t see very often and a cousin starts sharing some debunked story about vote-tallying machines switching votes. How do you get through to someone sharing that sort of misinformation?

The best way to have these conversations is to listen, and to ask questions to understand what someone is really saying. Where did they get the information? Why do they believe it’s true?

Answer those questions, with empathy. Underscore how hard to know what is true nowadays as we’re bombarded with information, but suggest that there are people who are deliberately trying to manipulate us, to make us believe the electoral process isn’t trustworthy and we have to be careful that we don’t get manipulated.

Try and stay away from the content itself, as it’s hard to debunk individual claims. Instead, focus on the wider issues of actors deliberately trying to sow confusion and division in the country and talk about what’s at stake if people lost trust in the democratic process.

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