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How election interference, voter fraud misinformation could discourage voting in U.S. election

Click to play video 'US election misinformation: How foreign interference, voter fraud conspiracies could affect the polls' US election misinformation: How foreign interference, voter fraud conspiracies could affect the polls
Misinformation part 2: How foreign interference, voter fraud conspiracies could affect the polls – Oct 29, 2020

Mounting evidence shows election interference and targeted disinformation campaigns on voter fraud are a real threat in the upcoming U.S. election.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and intelligence community officials say Iran and Russia have “taken specific actions to influence public opinion” in the upcoming presidential election.

On Oct. 21, John Ratcliffe, the U.S. Director of National Security said that Iran is behind a series of emails and other messages to voters containing both intimidating threats to vote for particular candidates, as well as false information about voting.

Read more: U.S. officials say Iran, Russia actively interfering in 2020 election

The emails were sent after Iran obtained “some voter information” from U.S. databases, he said.

Ratcliffe said Iran is posing as the far-right group Proud Boys and sending emails about voter fraud. He also said Russia has obtained some voter information as well, but did not specifically say what that country’s actions were.

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“This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy,” Ratcliffe said during a press conference.

Click to play video 'Fears rise in U.S. about who can’t vote, and whose votes won’t count' Fears rise in U.S. about who can’t vote, and whose votes won’t count
Fears rise in U.S. about who can’t vote, and whose votes won’t count – Oct 20, 2020

We’ve seen similar tactics in the past. In the 2016 election, U.S. intelligence says Russia used Facebook and sophisticated hacking techniques to promote Donald Trump.

Russia used Facebook troll accounts to spread fabricated articles and misinformation online. There was also a sophisticated and targeted effort to hack voter databases and leak sensitive information from the Democratic National Committee and the Hilary Clinton campaign.

Read more: Russia targeting Biden, voter confidence ahead of U.S. election: FBI

The goal, as determined by U.S. intelligence: to damage the Clinton campaign, boost Trump’s chances and create distrust in American democracy overall.

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“Posting of fake news of emotional messages that aim to stir up anger makes it much harder for people to communicate politically online in a healthy way,” said Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at UCLA.

“Societies that were already divided on economic grounds, on racial grounds, will end up even more divided.”

But Treisman says this is not just a problem of foreign actors. Social media is being used en masse to spread misinformation about voter fraud, which could potentially discourage voting and cast doubt on the democratic process.

Click to play video 'America Votes 2020: Social media pressured to prevent confusion and chaos' America Votes 2020: Social media pressured to prevent confusion and chaos
America Votes 2020: Social media pressured to prevent confusion and chaos – Oct 29, 2020

Read more: What is QAnon, the conspiracy theory supporting Trump in the 2020 presidential election?

Fringe conspiracy QAnon followers allege foreign governments are printing millions of fraudulent mail-in ballots and that “deep state” leaders are raiding nursing homes to tamper with senior citizens’ mail-in ballots.

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Click to play video 'US election misinformation: What is QAnon and how much of a threat is it to democracy?' US election misinformation: What is QAnon and how much of a threat is it to democracy?
US election misinformation: What is QAnon and how much of a threat is it to democracy? – Oct 28, 2020

President Donald Trump has not condemned this false information, suggesting he won’t leave office, regardless of the election’s outcome.

“His latest call is for people to monitor the polling stations where they exist, which is I think it’s really dangerous call for intimidation at polling sites,” said Barbara Perry said, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.

Of all the election misinformation this year, false and misleading information about voting by mail has been the most rampant on social media, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company.

Read more: Trump says mail-in ballots are ‘biggest risk’ to his re-election

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have made combating false information about voting a priority, including highlighting accurate information on how to register and vote. But experts say the platforms have struggled.

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The beast behind a lot of this boils down to algorithms, the automated-computer calculations that determine what you see on your feed, that promote and accelerate the spread of false information.

— With files from Sean Boynton, Global News


emanuela.campanella@globalnews.ca