Tracking Viral Misinformation About the 2020 Election

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Nov. 10, 2020, 12:02 p.m. ET

Nov. 10, 2020, 12:02 p.m. ET

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Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, speaking at a news conference in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press

On Monday evening and into Tuesday, a strain of false information that Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. had lost Pennsylvania and his president-elect status began to surge.

High-profile right-wing personalities like Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, and Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, helped set the rumor in motion on Monday when they tweeted, incorrectly, that the news site Real Clear Politics, a political news site, had “rescinded” its call that Mr. Biden was projected to win Pennsylvania.

The falsehood was then picked up and posted to YouTube by a verified account, The Next News Network; it gained nearly 900,000 views in just 12 hours, largely driven by shares on Facebook. Data from the Facebook-owned social media analytics tool CrowdTangle suggests that 97 percent of Facebook likes and shares happened in private Facebook groups. On Google, search interest in “Biden loses Pennsylvania” jumped 1,150 percent in a little over an hour, peaking at 8:52 p.m., according to data from Google Trends.

“This is false,” Tom Bevan, president and co-founder of Real Clear Politics, tweeted in response to the slew of misinformation. “We never called Pennsylvania, and nothing has changed.”

The false narrative follows other surging falsehoods during election week. From Nov. 3 to Nov. 9, unfounded story lines about widespread voter fraud and ineligible ballots spread across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as votes were tallied in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. On Election Day, Pennsylvania saw the most misinformation around allegations of fraud or election-stealing before the polls closed than other states, according to misinformation researchers.

Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, tweeted late Monday night that the widespread election misinformation would create big problems for the country.

“If you thought disinformation on Facebook was a problem during our election,” he said, “just wait until you see how it is shredding the fabric of our democracy in the days after.”

The surge of misinformation that calling Pennsylvania for Mr. Biden had been “rescinded” emerged despite stronger policies against false election information at Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In the past week, the companies have aggressively labeled misleading content on their platforms. Last Thursday, Facebook even removed a group called “Stop The Steal” because it had organized around the delegitimization of the election process, violating Facebook’s rules.

On Tuesday, the platforms had labeled many of the posts containing false information about Mr. Biden “losing” Pennsylvania. But they have continued to spread.

YouTube said the viral video flagged by The Times had been labeled but does not violate its deceptive practices policy, which prohibits misleading viewers about how to vote but doesn’t ban expressing views on an election’s outcome. Twitter applied labels to individual tweets and said it would continue to label tweets on the integrity of the election process. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation analyst at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, said those questioning the election’s results framed their thinking as supporting democracy. But, she said, they were truly only supporting President Trump and his allies.

“It’s a detriment to our democracy, misleading the American people about the democratic process and building distrust in our institutions that will linger long after this election cycle is concluded,” Ms. Jankowicz said.

Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation, said that she expected misinformation will continue for as long as Mr. Trump’s campaign “continues peddling the fiction that Trump actually won the election.”

“Because the facts are not on Trump’s side; his campaign only has conspiracies and disinformation to make their argument,” said Ms. Ryan.

President Trump and many of his supporters complained over the weekend that “software glitches” undermined the vote counts in Michigan and Georgia and argued that the problems portended wider issues in other counties and states that used the same software.

But issues in the unofficial vote counts in Michigan’s Antrim and Oakland counties were caused by human error, not software glitches, according to reviews by the Michigan Department of State, county clerks and election security experts. Officials concluded that they were isolated cases that did not signal wider issues with vote counts elsewhere.

And in Georgia, software issues only affected how poll workers checked in voters in two counties and delayed the reporting of results in another. The issues did not affect the counts.

“Anyone trying to falsely connect the situations in the two states is spreading misinformation in an effort to undermine the integrity of our elections system,” said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of State.

In Antrim County, Mich., a Republican stronghold, unofficial results initially showed President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. beating Mr. Trump by roughly 3,000 votes — a sharp reversal from Mr. Trump’s performance there in 2016.

Local officials caught and fixed the error. In the revised count, Mr. Trump beat Mr. Biden by roughly 2,500 votes. The problem, election security experts and state officials concluded, was that an election worker had configured ballot scanners and reporting systems with slightly different versions of the ballot, which meant some results did not line up with the right candidate when officials loaded them into the system.

In Oakland County, Mich., the result of one local race was changed after election officials spotted an error in the unofficial counts. The first tally said an incumbent Republican county commissioner had lost his seat, but the corrected tallies showed he kept it. County election workers had mistakenly counted votes from the city of Rochester Hills, Mich., twice, according to the Michigan Department of State. The workers later spotted the error.

“As a Republican, I am disturbed that this is intentionally being mischaracterized to undermine the election process,” Tina Barton, the clerk in Rochester Hills, said in a video she posted online. “This was an isolated mistake that was quickly rectified.”

Michigan officials added that the errors came in the counties’ unofficial tallies and that they were fixed before another layer of checks that is designed to catch such mistakes. In that review, two Republican and two Democratic “canvassers” certify the vote counts in each county, checking poll books, ballot summaries and tabulator tapes.

Antrim County relied on widely used election-management software made by Dominion Voting Systems. That led conservative publications like Breitbart and The Federalist to falsely suggest that the mistakes were with Dominion and could mean wider issues elsewhere.

Yet three out of the other four counties that experienced issues in Michigan and Georgia did not use Dominion. Oakland County, Mich., used software from Hart interCivic. And in Georgia, only one of three counties that had problems, Gwinnett, tied the issues to Dominion, said Harri Hursti, an election security expert on the ground in Georgia.

The issues in Gwinnett County delayed the reporting of vote counts but did not affect the tallies. The other Georgia counties, Spalding and Morgan, had issues with the systems that check-in voters at the polls. Those so-called Poll Pads were made by a company called KnowInk.

“People are comparing apples to oranges in the name of Dominion,” Mr. Hursti said. “This was a glitch in the way that KnowInk Poll Pads interacted with ballot-marking devices, not with Dominion, period.”

Yet Twitter and Facebook posts from Mr. Trump and Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, suggested the issues in Michigan and Georgia illustrated much wider problems with the election. Since Friday, there were more than 3,700 Facebook posts that mentioned “election,” “software” and “glitch,” and they were collectively shared more than 250,000 times. Right-wing news sites echoed those complaints.

Two Republican senators from Georgia, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, citing what they said were “failures” in Georgia’s elections process, called on Brad Raffensperger, the state’s Republican secretary of state, to resign on Monday. Mr. Raffensperger later responded, “That is not going to happen.”

The Michigan Department of State said the fact that election workers caught the issues with the counts showed the system of checks worked.

“Municipal and county clerks are dedicated public servants who work hard and with integrity,” the department said in a statement. “Sometimes they make honest mistakes, and when they do there are many checks and balances in the election system to ensure they can be identified and corrected.”

Ben Decker contributed research.

Nov. 9, 2020, 7:44 p.m. ET

Nov. 9, 2020, 7:44 p.m. ET

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Stephen K. Bannon, center, after his arrest on fraud charges in August. On Monday, Facebook said it had removed a network of Stop the Steal pages affiliated with Mr. Bannon.
Credit…Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

Facebook said on Monday that it had removed a network of pages affiliated with the former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon that worked together to push false information about the presidential election.

The company said it had removed seven pages associated with the Stop the Steal hashtag, a reference to conservatives’ unfounded accusations that Democrats stole last week’s election. The pages had amassed a following of roughly 2.5 million people.

“We’ve removed several clusters of activity for using inauthentic behavior tactics to artificially boost how many people saw their content,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. “That includes a group that was originally named Stop the Steal, which later became Gay Communists for Socialism and misled people about its purpose using deceptive tactics.”

The move is the latest example of Facebook’s wide-ranging crackdown on misinformation about the election. In recent weeks, the company has removed more types of content and taken more steps to clamp down on falsehoods, though it has said the measures are temporary and focused on the period around the election.

Conservatives, emulating statements from President Trump, have used the Stop the Steal idea to form groups and coordinate protests across the internet. On Thursday, Facebook took down the largest Stop the Steal Facebook group, which had attracted more than 320,000 followers in less than 24 hours.

But other groups popped up. Facebook took action on them late last week after Avaaz, a progressive nonprofit that monitors digital disinformation, contacted the social network about their proliferation.

Some of the pages were linked to Mr. Bannon’s page on Facebook, the company said. It has temporarily halted some of his Facebook permissions, including the ability to create posts, but his account has been allowed to remain on the site. The Washington Post earlier reported the action by Facebook.

A spokesperson for Mr. Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The moves did not go as far as one by Twitter, which suspended an account belonging to Mr. Bannon on Thursday after he posted a video suggesting that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease expert, and Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, should be beheaded. Mr. Bannon made the comments during a livestream of his show, “War Room: Pandemic.”

“The @WarRoomPandemic account has been permanently suspended for violating the Twitter Rules, specifically our policy on the glorification of violence,” a Twitter spokesman said at the time.

Mr. Bannon, 66, lost his job at the White House eight months after Mr. Trump’s inauguration. In August, he was arrested on charges of defrauding donors to a campaign to privately fund a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, one of Mr. Trump’s signature political promises.

Kate Conger contributed reporting.

Correction: Nov. 9, 2020

An earlier version of this article misstated when Facebook removed pages linked to Stephen K. Bannon. It acted late last week, not on Monday, when it confirmed the removals.

Nov. 9, 2020, 5:23 p.m. ET

Nov. 9, 2020, 5:23 p.m. ET

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Election week was a misinformation event of Super Bowl-size proportions.

Most false and misleading narratives about the election focused on baseless allegations of voter fraud or Democrats stealing the election. Those false accusations often spiked when President Trump and his allies — including his family members — shared those claims on social media.

But there were also plenty of misleading storylines to go around.

Zignal Labs, a media insights company, analyzed topics related to the election in which misinformation was a major part of the storyline. The company tallied all the mentions of those topics on social media, cable news and print and online news outlets. Here are the Top 10 misinformation storylines it found from Nov. 3 to Nov. 9:

Voter fraud in swing states far and away generated the most mentions among the topics Zignal Labs studied. Within this category, Zignal found stories about software glitches in Georgia voting machines and suitcases full of ballots being wheeled into a Detroit polling site being falsely pushed as proof of widespread voter fraud.

Mr. Trump and other Republicans amplified the call to count all “legal votes” in their battle to reverse an election outcome.

“Stop the steal” became a rallying cry for people to falsely claim that the ballot count for the presidential election was being manipulated against Mr. Trump.

Another motto by pro-Trump supporters, chants of “Stop the count!” were heard at protests over ballot tallies across several U.S. cities, in spite of overwhelming evidence that instances of voter fraud is rare.

On Wednesday, unfounded accusations about how the use of felt-tip pens invalidated people’s votes in Arizona spread widely. State officials quickly rebutted the claims.

The sharp rise in absentee ballots in this year’s election has led to unsupported claims that many ineligible ballots were being counted. But election officials processing ballots have found that fewer of them were actually being rejected this year.

Mentions of missing or magically found ballots have soared in the past week, with people pointing to incidents like the one in Michigan, in which Joseph R. Biden Jr. appeared to have suddenly received 138,339 votes in an update of the state’s vote tally. But this was attributable to a clerical error that was quickly fixed.

Rumors of how the “deep state” — a so-called secret cabal of elites — must be involved in manipulating the election became popular in the last week, pushing mentions over 300,000. The deep state plot ties in with the baseless but still wildly popular conspiracy movement QAnon.

A video of Mr. Biden deceptively edited to make it appear as though he were admitting to voter fraud was viewed more than 17 million times before Election Day, and circulated anew from Nov. 3 to Nov. 9, in spite of being debunked.

Among a number of other examples, a lawsuit about dead people on voter rolls and run-of-the-mill clerical errors have been used as false evidence of voter fraud in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Nov. 6, 2020, 8:11 p.m. ET

Nov. 6, 2020, 8:11 p.m. ET

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On Friday, a viral claim that Pennsylvania had 21,000 dead people on its voter rolls spread across the internet. In some versions of the rumor, those deceased people had voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Breitbart News, the right-wing publication, wrote an article about it. Others then cited it as evidence that Democrats were trying to steal the election.

Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, shared the article on Twitter, collecting 74,800 likes and shares. Diamond and Silk, the popular pro-Trump social media duo, posted about the rumor on Facebook. And Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, tweeted: “The dead vote appears to have swung overwhelmingly for Joe Biden.”

Altogether, Facebook posts about the rumor reached up to 11.3 million people, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

The problem: It wasn’t true that 21,000 dead people had voted in Pennsylvania.

The claim stemmed from a lawsuit that was amended on Thursday, an action that fueled the rumor’s spread on Friday. The conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation had filed the lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, on Oct. 15 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The suit accuses Ms. Boockvar, a Democrat, of improperly including 21,206 supposedly deceased Pennsylvanians on voter rolls. The group asked for an injunction to stop the dead people from voting in the election.

On Oct. 20, the court’s chief judge, John E. Jones III, who has the case, said he was doubtful of the suit. He noted in a ruling that the Public Interest Legal Foundation was asking the court to accept its findings that dead people were on the voter rolls but said, “We cannot and will not take plaintiff’s word for it — in an election where every vote matters, we will not disenfranchise potentially eligible voters based solely upon the allegations of a private foundation.”

Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the legal foundation, said in an email on Friday it had evidence from the 2016 and 2018 elections for its suit. “Evidence and exhibits are filed under seal with the court,” he said. “The lawsuit is not a rumor, and the methodology is explained in the amended complaint, filed yesterday.”

A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office said: “The court found no deficiency in how Pennsylvania maintains its voter rolls. There is currently no proof provided that any deceased person has voted in the 2020 election.”

Ms. Boockvar’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Dead people whose identities were used to vote appear to be a popular subject for those who are spreading unsubstantiated claims of fraud about the election. Assertions that the dead had voted in Michigan also surfaced on Twitter and other social media this week. But The Times found that the Michigan voters were alive and had voted legally, and that in some cases their birth dates had shown up inaccurately because of clerical errors.

Nov. 6, 2020, 5:10 p.m. ET

Nov. 6, 2020, 5:10 p.m. ET

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President Trump’s Tweets

Since Election Day

Labeling increased after Mr. Trump began making claims about voting fraud.

Labeled misleading or disputed

12:21 p.m.

“STOP THE FRAUD!”

President Trump’s Tweets Since Election Day

First tweets after polls closed.

Labeled misleading or disputed

Labeling increased when Mr. Trump made claims of fraud after polls closed.

4:56 p.m. Wed.

“…..there was a large number of secretly dumped ballots as has been widely reported!”

President Trump’s Tweets Since Election Day

First tweets after polls closed.

Labeled misleading or disputed

Labeling increased when Mr. Trump made claims of voting fraud after polls closed.

4:56 p.m. Wed.

“…..there was a large number of secretly dumped ballots as has been widely reported!”


Twitter flagged half of President Trump’s 14 posts on Thursday for including disputed or misleading information, as the company takes a far more aggressive approach to battling misinformation on its platform.

In the hours and days after the election, the president repeatedly lashed out about vote counting and lobbed unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Through Friday afternoon, Twitter labeled 15 of the 44 tweets and retweets Mr. Trump posted since the first polls closed on Election Day, according to a New York Times analysis.

Before the election, the company had flagged only a handful of his tweets for violating policies against the glorification of violence and misinformation about the civic process.

In the early hours of Friday, Mr. Trump fired back, referring to a law that provides a legal safe harbor to Twitter and other social media companies.

For months, Twitter has been locked in a fight with the president over what he can and cannot tweet. In May, the company began adding fact-checks and labels to his posts as a way to demonstrate that Mr. Trump had broken its policies. (Twitter does not require world leaders to delete tweets that break its rules, as it does regular users.) Mr. Trump responded by signing an executive order intended to chip away at the protections of Section 230, which is part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Twitter has broken ranks with other social media companies in its persistent effort to moderate the president. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has said he has no desire to fact-check Mr. Trump. Facebook said it would caution users about premature claims of victory with a notification that the election had yet to be called, and took action on some of Mr. Trump’s posts in which he claimed the election was being stolen.

The battle between Twitter and Mr. Trump has become a round-the-clock event since the election, as the president has increasingly, without evidence, questioned the voting process and the results.

Twitter’s labeling of Mr. Trump’s tweets meant that people needed to click through their warnings to see the posts, making each one harder to share. In the past, those actions by Twitter have helped slow the overall spread of false or potentially misleading tweets, according to an analysis by the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of misinformation researchers.

The Trump campaign said Twitter was working to “silence the president.” A Twitter spokesman said the company planned to continue to take action against tweets that prematurely declared victory or contained misleading information.

Members of Mr. Trump’s family and staff have also tested Twitter’s boundaries, forcing the company to keep pace as they claimed that he had won the vote in Pennsylvania, a race that had yet to be called by Friday afternoon. And as key states appeared to tip in favor of Joseph R. Biden Jr., Twitter also added labels to tweets from Democrats who pre-emptively claimed Mr. Biden had won the presidency.

With votes still being counted, Twitter’s challenge isn’t over. And even when a winner is declared, Twitter may continue its effort to moderate Mr. Trump. He has indicated that he plans to contest the election results if he is not declared the winner, and is likely to take to Twitter to air his grievances.

Nov. 6, 2020, 2:34 p.m. ET

Nov. 6, 2020, 2:34 p.m. ET

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Research is finding a strong correlation between state polls that underestimated President Trump’s chances and a higher-than-average volume of QAnon activity in those states.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Polls in several key states underestimated the breadth of support for President Trump before the Nov. 3 election, just as they did in 2016.

But why?

Early results from a study by researchers at the University of Southern California indicate that pollsters may not have captured support for Mr. Trump among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory that has spread widely on Twitter and other social networks in recent months.

The researchers identified a strong statistical correlation between state polls that underestimated Mr. Trump’s chances and a higher-than-average volume of QAnon activity in those states, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

“The higher the support for QAnon in each state, the more the polls underestimated the support for Trump,” said Emilio Ferrara, the University of Southern California professor who is overseeing the study.

The study draws on an analysis of more than 240 million election-related tweets from June through September, which included widespread activity involving QAnon, a conspiracy theory that falsely claims that President Trump is facing down a shadowy cabal of Democratic pedophiles. The researchers then compared this data to election predictions made by the popular website FiveThirtyEight.com.

Mr. Ferrara suggests that QAnon believers were not properly captured by the polls because such conspiracy theorists tend to distrust mainstream media organizations like FiveThirtyEight or The New York Times. “If you distrust institutions,” he said, “you are less likely to participate in polls.” Participants are typically recruited by phone and in online surveys.

Joshua Dyck, an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said we still do not have a full picture of how well the polls performed, because many votes are still being counted. But he also said the hypothesis laid down by Dr. Ferrara and his colleagues was entirely plausible, pointing out that such distrust for mainstream media is well documented.

“This is something we can measure and actually adjust for in our surveys,” he said.

Among people who said they “hardly ever” trusted the mainstream media, 78 percent were Trump supporters and only 17 percent supported Mr. Biden, according to a recent nationwide poll by Dr. Dyck and the Center for Public Opinion.

Dr. Dyck said that significant polling errors in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio may also be related to the coronavirus pandemic. Voters who supported Mr. Biden were more likely to stay at home during the pandemic, which, he said, meant they had more time to respond to polls, either by phone or online.

“Because the pandemic is a politicized issue, the polls may be undercounting Trump supporters,” Dr. Dyck said.

He also said that polling errors could involve all these groups. “The QAnon hypothesis is reasonable. And the Covid hypothesis is reasonable. And they may overlap,” he said. “We may be talking about the same people.”

Nov. 5, 2020, 5:33 p.m. ET

Nov. 5, 2020, 5:33 p.m. ET

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[Read more on Joe Biden’s president-elect acceptance speech.]

Throughout his term, President Trump has relied on Twitter to be his bullhorn. But since early Tuesday morning, the company has stepped up its effort to fact-check the president, labeling 38 percent of his 29 tweets and retweets (not 39 percent, as reported here earlier) with warnings that said he made misleading claims about the electoral process, according to a tally by The New York Times.

In September, Twitter said it would take aggressive action on tweets that misled readers about the voting process, discouraged people from voting, or pre-emptively declared victory for a candidate. So far, Twitter’s enforcement actions have focused on the president and people in his immediate circle, like family members and staff members.

Although the president’s Twitter usage was fairly subdued on Tuesday, he quickly escalated his volume and rhetoric in the early hours of Wednesday. He continued on Thursday, using Twitter to make unfounded claims about election fraud and to imply that he had won the races in states where no victor had been confirmed.

Twitter added labels to 11 of Mr. Trump’s tweets or retweets (although one tweet that Mr. Trump had shared was later deleted by its author). Most of the labels said Mr. Trump had shared content that was “disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” But one tweet, in which Mr. Trump preemptively claimed to have won Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina, was marked with a small reminder that those races had not yet been called.

“Big tech interfered against President Trump before Election Day, and they are now continuing that interference in the days after as they silence the president on their platforms,” said Samantha Zager, the deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign. “The American people deserve to know what is happening with this election, but big tech is only interested in stopping the flow of information to voters.”

A Twitter spokesman said the company planned to continue to take action against tweets that prematurely declare victory or contain misleading information.

Nov. 5, 2020, 12:42 p.m. ET

Nov. 5, 2020, 12:42 p.m. ET

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A crowd gathers and bangs on windows as workers counted absentee ballots in Detroit on Wednesday.
Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Protesters who stormed a vote-counting site in Detroit on Wednesday, banging on windows and shouting “Stop the count!” appear to have had one thing in common: They organized themselves online.

A New York Times analysis found 32 public and private Facebook groups with a total of 301,000 followers organized an “urgent call to action in Detroit,” asking Republican poll challengers to watch the vote counting at the downtown site, TCF Center. The call was also shared on less popular social networks like Parler and the pro-Trump website TheDonald.win.

The earliest call for additional Republican poll challengers was posted to Facebook at 7:27 a.m., according to The Times’s analysis. “Come to TCF Center,” read the post in a group called Michigan for Donald Trump. “Help needed to protect our lead. Tell others.”

By around 3 p.m., there were dozens of calls posted on Facebook, and people responded by showing up; over 100 people were at the vote-counting site by then.

NBC News earlier reported on a private Facebook group, Stand Up Michigan to Unlock Michigan, that was part of the calls; Facebook removed the group shortly after.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the protesters arrived, workers began to cover the site’s windows, leading to unfounded rumors about their motivations. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, shared one such video, and captioned her post, “SHADY …” It collected 62,000 likes and shares on Twitter, and 7.3 million video views. On Wednesday evening, President Trump tweeted about the falsehood, generating more than 350,000 likes and shares.

Lawrence Garcia, the city of Detroit’s corporation counsel, said the windows had been covered because poll workers inside had expressed concerns about people taking unauthorized photographs and videos of their work.

“Only the media is allowed to take pictures inside the counting place,” he said, “and people outside the center were not listening to requests to stop filming poll workers and their paperwork.”

Jake Rollow, the communications director for the Michigan Department of State, vehemently opposed the misleading narrative. “Michigan’s absentee ballot counting processes are meticulous, fair and transparent,” he said. “The bipartisan boards of county and state canvassers will review the processes and results in the coming 12 days.”

Nov. 4, 2020, 4:57 p.m. ET

Nov. 4, 2020, 4:57 p.m. ET

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Voters at the Willow Elementary School in Lansing, Mich., on Tuesday.
Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Early Wednesday, images of an election map suggested that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had suddenly received 138,339 votes in Michigan, or 100 percent of the newly counted ballots in an update of the state’s tally.

The images quickly set off claims of election fraud across social media, amplified by President Trump, who shared them on Twitter with the caption: “WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?”

In reality, Mr. Biden didn’t receive those votes. They were briefly added to his unofficial totals on an election map because of a typo in a small Michigan county that was caught and corrected in roughly half an hour.

“All it was is there was an extra zero that got typed in,” said Abigail Bowen, the elections clerk in Shiawassee County in Michigan, just northwest of Detroit. “It was caught quickly,” she added. “That’s why we have these checks and balances.”

When Ms. Bowen and her team sent the county’s unofficial vote counts to Michigan officials early Wednesday, they accidentally reported Mr. Biden’s tally as 153,710, when it should have been 15,371, she said. About 20 minutes later, she said a state elections official called her to ask if the number was a typo; Shiawassee County doesn’t even have that many residents. Ms. Bowen said she corrected the figure and the number was updated.

“All of these numbers are unofficial, so even if it wouldn’t have been caught last night, it absolutely would have been caught before we would have submitted our official results,” she said. A team of two Republican and two Democratic canvassers review all of the county’s poll books, ballot summaries and tabulator tapes to confirm the results before they are finalized, she said.

“As far as Shiawassee County, I feel the election went very well,” she said.

Yet on social media, the county represented a stark example of voter fraud. Posts that highlighted the apparent sudden boost in Mr. Biden’s count in Michigan were shared more than 100,000 times, and conservative websites posted stories with headlines like: “Very Odd: Michigan Found Over 100,000 Ballots and Every Single One Has Joe Biden’s Name on It.”

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican consultant, posted the screenshots of the election map on Twitter and watched them quickly go viral, eventually shared by the president himself. Twitter eventually labeled Mr. Mackowiak’s post as disputed or misleading, and the company stopped people from sharing it as easily.

Mr. Mackowiak said in an interview that after posting the screenshots, he saw other Twitter posts suggesting the data was the result of a typo. He deleted his original tweet and posted a correction. “I certainly wasn’t intending to make a typo appear fraudulent,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me that it could be a typo, but of course we’re all going on very little sleep.”

Yet his correction was read by a small fraction of the people that his initial post had reached, and thousands of people continued to cite his images as evidence of a stolen election hours later. He said that he wished Twitter could help his correction reach all the people who saw his original post, but that is not an option on the site.

Mr. Mackowiak said that he didn’t think that he had shared misinformation, because the election maps were indeed wrong for a moment, but he added that he also didn’t think the election was being stolen.

“I haven’t seen a lot of reasons to doubt the integrity of the election,” he said.

Mr. Mackowiak took the screenshots from an election map by Decision Desk HQ, an election-data provider. Posts from the company on Twitter showed that it removed the votes from Mr. Biden’s count by 5:45 a.m. Michigan time on Thursday, shortly after they were added.

“We accurately reported what was provided at the time by election officials. When corrected data was available, we reported that,” said Drew McCoy, Decision Desk’s president. He said there were layers of security to ensure that the final counts were accurate. “This is a complex and large endeavor, reporting on a national election with thousands of races and thousands of counties,” he said.

Nov. 4, 2020, 4:36 p.m. ET

Nov. 4, 2020, 4:36 p.m. ET

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Several categories of election misinformation emerged after the counting of votes began on Tuesday, much of it targeting the swing states that remain too close to call.

Here are three types that are making the rounds on social media.

As the vote count got underway, unproven claims of ballots being found or lost — falsely held up as evidence of widespread voter fraud — began to emerge on Facebook and Twitter.

Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said these posts “repurposed user-created content from Election Day, which documented one-off incidents” then aggregated them “to support claims of fraud and illegitimacy.”

This type of post sometimes used pictures to lend an air of legitimacy to the false claim. On Tuesday evening, for example, a Twitter user commented on a news article with photos showing election workers in Fairfax County, Va., carrying sealed ballot boxes. The caption falsely stated that the batch of ballots had been found “once Virginia was looking red.”

Twitter labeled the post with a notice that let people “learn about U.S. 2020 election security efforts.”

Another common type of misleading post: that fraudulent votes were added in swing states overnight, leading to a suspicious jump in vote counts, mostly for the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Posts reviewed by The New York Times included specific mentions of Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia.

In reality, there is nothing out of the ordinary about this process. “Processes for state elections were determined long before the first ballot was cast,” said Lisa Kaplan, the founder of Alethea Group, a company that helps fight election-related misinformation. “It’s normal to see vote count change as states follow the procedures that they determined from the outset.”

“While allegations of voter fraud should be taken seriously, those allegations are rare,” Ms. Kaplan said. “Any such claim should be taken seriously and matched with facts and evidence.”

A baseless narrative alleging that Arizona poll workers gave voters Sharpies to mark their ballots so their votes would be invalidated received more than 36,000 mentions across cable television and social media on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to an analysis by Zignal Labs, a media insights company.

Individual tweets were posted beginning on the morning of Nov. 3, according to Zignal’s data, then rose sharply after midnight on Nov. 4.

Many of the posts viewed by The Times mentioned Maricopa County and Pinal County in Arizona, among other places, and raised fears about votes not being properly counted because of the way voting machines read ballots with marker ink bleeding through the paper.

But both Arizona counties quickly debunked the idea of this being systemic voter fraud. Pinal County said people did not hand out Sharpies at polling places, and Maricopa County said using a Sharpie was safe for ballots there. Facebook said it had blocked the hashtag #Sharpiegate by early Wednesday afternoon, meaning it is not searchable on its platform.

President Trump spoke in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Hours before President Trump falsely claimed to supporters at the White House early on Wednesday that he had already won the presidential election, he prefaced his argument with a tweet. “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election,” he wrote.

Twitter clamped down on the statement, which lacked evidence, in about five minutes. The social media platform added a label saying the tweet contained disputed or misleading information, and largely blocked users from replying, liking or sharing it.

But that didn’t stop more than 750 other Twitter accounts from trying to amplify Mr. Trump’s claims with the exact same message.

“Everyone must tweet what @realDonaldTrump did before getting suppressed by Twitter,” all of the accounts posted, before sharing Mr. Trump’s message verbatim.

The accounts, which had at least 1.5 million combined followers, copied Mr. Trump’s claim into more than 1,000 of their own tweets that collectively accumulated 9,000 retweets and quote tweets over a 7.5-hour time period Wednesday morning, according to a New York Times analysis.

Some of those who amplified Mr. Trump’s false assertion were established right-wing personalities with hundreds of thousands of followers, like Raheem Kassam, the British political activist and editor in chief of The National Pulse, a conservative news site. But many of the accounts were far smaller: The median account had just 342 followers, and some had zero. More than 150 were created in 2020, according to The Times analysis.

The accounts tweeted in English, Portuguese, Chinese, German, Spanish and Arabic, and about 50 accounts that featured Brazilian flag emojis in their user name or user biography appeared to be supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s populist president, according to the analysis.

Isabella Garcia-Camargo, an organizer of the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of misinformation researchers, said on a call with reporters on Wednesday that although accounts with large followings that shared Mr. Trump’s message were labeled and restricted by Twitter, some of the smaller accounts “didn’t get that action.”

A Twitter spokesman said the company took “quick action” to limit engagement on tweets that violated its policies, and continues to monitor tweets “that attempt to spread misleading information about voting, accounts engaged in spammy behavior and tweets that make premature or inaccurate claims about election results.”

Twitter said tweets that copied Mr. Trump’s message would receive warning labels, but it would take some time for all of them to be discovered.

Lisa Kaplan, the founder of Alethea Group, a company that helps public officials and private clients fight misinformation, said the copy-paste method was a common strategy.

“Sophisticated actors have shown they’re flexible when it comes to circumventing automated detection by platforms,” she said. “There is a lot of gray space outlined in the community standards — meaning disinformation efforts continue to occur.”

Mr. Trump posted an identical statement on Facebook on Tuesday night, which remained shareable and had received 59,000 comments and 23,000 shares as of Wednesday morning. Facebook added a label noting that “final results may be different from initial vote counts,” which a spokesman said was consistent with its policies about declaring a premature election victory.

Nov. 4, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nov. 4, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET

By

Voters waiting in line on Tuesday to cast their ballots at the Paradise Valley Community College in Maricopa County.
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

On Wednesday, Republicans looking to cast doubts on the legitimacy of election results in Arizona, where former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was running ahead of President Trump, began circulating a conspiracy theory about the use of felt-tip pens at the state’s polling stations.

The viral rumor, which was shared by one of Mr. Trump’s sons, Eric, and other prominent Republicans, including some who called it “Sharpiegate,” alleged that poll workers had provided Trump voters with felt-tip pens to mark their ballots, which some claimed invalidated those ballots by making them unreadable by voting machines.

But Arizona officials said that there was no truth to that claim and that votes recorded with felt-tip pens would still be counted.

“Those ballots are being counted,” Arizona’s secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, said in a local TV interview on Thursday.

Ms. Hobbs said that officials in Maricopa County, the state’s largest county, had deliberately offset the columns on their ballots to prevent misreadings from a mark bleeding through to the opposite side of the page. And she said that the state’s election authorities had processes in place to ensure that ballots with stray marks would be counted.

Maricopa County officials also said that voters were given fine-tip markers at polling places not to invalidate their votes, but because “they have the fastest drying ink, therefore preventing smudges when put through the Vote Center tabulation equipment.”

Officials in Pinal and Pima counties also refuted the claims, saying that the state’s tabulating machines can read ballots marked with felt-tip pens.

“No ballots will be discarded because of the method used to color in the ovals,” Pima County’s official Twitter account said.

Ms. Hobbs said in an interview on Wednesday that the claims about felt-tip markers distorting vote counts were completely false.

“This is a conspiracy theory,” she said. “Valid ballots are going to be counted.”

Patrons watch returns on election night in the parking lot of Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta.
Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

The worst-case scenario for the proliferation of misinformation about the election is playing out, disinformation researchers said Wednesday morning.

The presidential race is extremely close, it could take days to get final results, and President Trump has falsely declared his own victory early — leaving a gray zone with a huge information gap that is ripe for exploitation.

“Many are still glued to social media streams hoping to glean any new information, which makes them likely to encounter misinformation,” said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.

The range of Election Day misinformation was pretty much what the social networking companies expected, said two Facebook employees who work on the company’s election team and one Twitter employee. Foreign disinformation actors were largely booted off the major social networks, leaving the Russians and others to work for crumbs of engagement on less popular online forums like Gab and Parler, said the employees, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

But Wednesday and the ensuing days will probably be much more chaotic if the race remains too close to call, they said.

In particular, misinformation researchers and the Facebook and Twitter employees said they were concerned that candidates and their advisers would start to share misleading information and distorted narratives, or continue to call the election prematurely.

Some of this began to play out on Wednesday morning. Twitter applied a label to a post by Ben Wikler, head of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which asserted prematurely that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had won in the state.

“Some votes may still need to be counted,” Twitter’s label reads. The company also limited users’ ability to like and share the post.

“As votes are still being counted across the country, our teams continue to take enforcement action on tweets that prematurely declare victory or contain misleading information about the election broadly,” Trenton Kennedy, a Twitter spokesman, said in a statement. “This is in line with our Civic Integrity Policy and our recent guidance on labeling election results.”

But even more worrisome than posts sharing misleading information is the erosion of the public’s trust in the democratic process beyond this specific election, said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation analyst at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think thank.

“In countries I’ve worked in where there is a history — and evidence — of voter fraud, citizens’ distrust in the democratic process lingers long even after several cycles of clean, well-run elections,” Ms. Jankowicz said. “We need our political leaders to step up right now and assure voters that all votes will be counted.”

Ms. Jankowicz suggested that people look at official sources of information like state and local election boards, and tune out politicians and pundits for now. If posts provoke an emotional response, she said, there is a good a chance it was from people trying to be emotionally manipulative.

And Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation, advised: “If something you see online seems too good — or too terrible — to be true, take extra care to verify it. Don’t share anything online that you can’t personally verify.”

Nov. 3, 2020, 10:48 p.m. ET

Nov. 3, 2020, 10:48 p.m. ET

By

[After warnings it could go off the rails, the election actually ran smoothly.]

Pennsylvania saw more misinformation on Election Day, especially around allegations of fraud or election stealing, than other states before the polls closed, according to misinformation researchers.

Zignal Labs, a media insights company, tracked keywords related to “steal” or “stealing” the election during the first 18½ hours of Tuesday. The keywords were mentioned together with Pennsylvania at a rate 6.4 times higher than the next-highest state, Kansas (which was followed by Texas, Michigan and Florida), the company found.

During that period, Zignal found that keywords related to “stealing” and the election hit 119,000 mentions across cable television, social media, and print and online news outlets. One viral hashtag in particular, #StopTheSteal, made the mentions spike from a few dozen to over 2,000 in 15 minutes on Tuesday morning, researchers found. It was mentioned over 12,800 times on Twitter by noon.

Within this set of mentions, Pennsylvania saw 8,150 related to Democrats stealing the election, buoyed by articles published on right-wing outlets such as The Gateway Pundit and National Post. Notable figures like Mike Roman, the Trump campaign’s director of Election Day operations, also pushed mentions up.

“ILLEGAL campaigning INSIDE of a polling location in Philly,” Mr. Roman said in a post that was shared 13,200 times on Twitter. “Man in blue is handing out DEM literature to voters IN LINE TO VOTE.”

An analysis by The New York Times’s Visual Investigations unit found that the two photos Mr. Roman shared did not appear to match. Twitter labeled the tweet “misleading” and later “manipulated,” and a spokeswoman said the company had labeled the tweet and several others by Mr. Roman under its Civic Integrity Policy.

A separate analysis by Zignal showed that Pennsylvania was the subject of more likely voting misinformation than other states on Tuesday, too. Of around 15,000 voting misinformation mentions from midnight to 7 p.m., 3,449 were tied to Pennsylvania, which was followed by Michigan, Florida, Washington and Wisconsin.

Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes, is one of the largest battleground states.

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