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Digital vote suppression efforts are targeting marginalized groups, report warns

With less than 65 days before the election, disinformation experts are on high alert for the efforts of bad actors to manipulate voters through social media.
Image: Primary Election Day in Louisville
A voter completes her ballot on the day of the primary election in Louisville, Ky., on June 23, 2020.Bryan Woolston / Reuters

Bad actors trying to trick voters into throwing away their votes are hard at work spreading vote suppression disinformation online, according to a report published Wednesday by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

With less than 65 days before the November elections, disinformation experts are on high alert for efforts to manipulate voters through social media. And with questions and confusion about voting brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, including about vote-by-mail procedures and the safety of polling locations, the report says marginalized groups are at a greater risk of voter suppression based on bad information.

“These are pretty complicated questions and have the ability to affect different communities differently,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, and author of the new report.

"There was a time when 'Vote on Wednesday' seemed so dumb that no one could be tricked, but now we have a global pandemic and the idea of talking about postponing the election is not as crazy," Vandewalker said.

Voter suppression strategies often hone in on vulnerable communities like Black people, low-income people and immigrants, the report said. The predominantly Black residents of the largest city in Jefferson County, Alabama, got texts with false information abut polling locations being changed during Alabama’s U.S. Senate special election in 2017. In Maryland in 2010, African-American households were flooded with robocalls sent by gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich’s campaign manager claiming Governor Martin O’Malley had won the vote.

The playbook is already getting re-used in 2020. The report highlighted several recent examples of real-world vote suppression by disinformation attempts.

A tweet on Super Tuesday targeted supporters of Kentucky Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin and said, inaccurately, "Bevin supporters do not forget to vote on Wednesday, November 6th," the day after the election. During an August Congressional primary in Florida, some voters were texted links to a YouTube video that falsely represented itself as an announcement that one of the candidates had dropped out of the race.

The coronavirus has also been weaponized to scare voters away from the polls. During the primaries, messages spread on Twitter falsely claiming "that everyone over age 60 that #coronavirus has been reported at ALL polling locations for #SuperTuesday."

In the past, geographically targeted voter suppression was achieved by means like deceptive flyers on telephone polls in certain neighborhoods. Now bad actors can use powerful digital microtargeting tools — made easy by social media platform advertising toolkits — to zoom in on a target group at little cost, the report warned.

Adversarial foreign countries have also stirred the pot, attacking frontrunner candidates and amplifying the false narrative that elections are "rigged." The FBI and Homeland Security warned in late 2019 that Russia might try to disrupt the election by discouraging voters from casting ballots.

And it doesn't help that President Donald Trump has made and amplified misleading and false claims about the voting process, especially casting doubt on the safety and efficacy of mail-in ballots. During the Iowa Democratic primary when the Democrats' vote tabulation app malfunctioned, many close to the president claimed, without evidence, that the results were being manipulated.

"The pandemic has caused massive change to election procedures in a short amount of time; and for bad actors, that's a perfect environment to sow confusion and disinformation, because voters are looking for direction, and they may not know where to find information," said Eddie Perez, global director of technology development for the Open Source Election Technology Institute (OSET), a nonprofit that conducts election technology research. NBC News has collaborated with the OSET Institute since 2016 to monitor U.S. election technology and voting issues.

The time to make major improvements before the November elections has passed, but there are still a few steps that can be taken to shore up defenses against voting disinformation, the report and its author recommended.

The report recommends that election officials build trust and make sure the public knows about their verified social media accounts and to correct misinformation when it arises; social media platforms need to swiftly remove all copies of false voting information while protecting official accounts; and the federal government needs to be proactive about sharing intelligence about disinformation.

And the public needs to do a better job of using critical thinking skills and find voting information from trusted official sources, not their online "friends" and anonymous accounts, Vandewalker said.

"As people home quarantine they have less access to info besides the online world. Being susceptible to rumor is as old as human beings are, but social media allows rumors to travel very fast, very far," he said. "Some are unintentional by otherwise well-meaning people and some are bad actors trying to affect elections by spreading lies."

As operatives both foreign and domestic attempt to sway the election one way or another, it's especially important to watch out for attempts to discourage or mislead voters in specific categories.

"It's really hard to persuade people ... to convert or convince the disinterested, but it's easy to suppress turnout if you target people who are marginalized, like non-whites and female and younger voters," said Young Mie Kim, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied misinformation networks on social media. "All you need to do is make sure they don't turn out to vote."

You do that by targeting people not satisfied with candidates and who are cynical about mainstream politics, attack mainstream candidates and promote third-party candidates, Kim said.

"That's what the Russians did."