A lot depends on Pennsylvania in the U.S. Presidential Election 2020. It offers 20 electoral college votes that can decide the outcome of the presidential race. The other reason why Americans are looking at Pennsylvania is that it's one of the states where the result will take days to come due to the huge number of mail-in ballots (over 2.5 million), thanks to a Supreme Court decision. However, the gap between poll and result has opened the floodgates of misinformation on social media platforms.
For the first time, Pennsylvania, a key swing state, will not be able to declare the results on the election night mainly due to the mail-in ballots. As per the Supreme Court order, those ballots can arrive as late as Friday and will be counted if they are postmarked by Tuesday. But interestingly, the main source of misinformation is President Donald Trump's camp.
For a long time, the incumbent president has been against mail-in ballots and has called the process voter fraud while refusing to accept results declared after election day. For Democratic challenger Joe Biden, it's a crucial state to get to the 270 magic number and has betted heavily on mail-in ballots due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite trailing on the election day by over 14 points, the former Vice-President may surge ahead as the majority of the Democratic party supporters have preferred mail-in ballot. In all, the misinformation campaign can be divided into two sections: election day and mail-in ballots.
"We are seeing a big wave of false claims on social media about Pennsylvania voting, including voter fraud allegations. The most bizarre is the allegation that the CIA is involved in a plot to alter voting counting machines to give Joe Biden extra votes in Pennsylvania," Alan Duke told CNN. He is the editor-in-chief of a fact-checking website named Lead Stories.
Election Day Misinformation
On Election Day, (November 3), Trump's director of election day operations, Mike Roman's tweeted, "Bad things happening in Philly." He tweeted a picture of a polling station in Philadelphia where a poster endorsing Democratic candidates was hung on the building. His tweet was shared thousands of times with his followers claiming that it was a violation of election law. It was promptly flagged and removed spreading misinformation. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office called the tweet "deliberately deceptive".
Yet it wasn't the only incident. After one voting machine stopped working at Scranton on Tuesday morning, thousands of posts on both Twitter and Facebook were claiming that several machines had been jammed. The Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news website with nearly 350,000 followers, shared a tweet from Philly GOP claiming that it saw someone stealing a ballot box. However, an investigation showed that the worker was carrying a box not stealing it.
Another tweet from a self-described activist Mike Coudrey claimed that an Erie County poll worker allegedly discarded 100 ballots that were cast for Trump. But investigation from PolitiFact and other journalists found that that individual wasn't an election worker.
"The person making the statements does not work in any way with Erie County or have any part of Erie County's election process. In fact, the individual is not a registered voter and is not believed to be a resident of Erie County, Pa," said Carl J Anderson III, the Chair of the Erie County Board of Elections.
It was just a few examples as Twitter and Facebook took immediate action to stop the spread, flagging several posts from Philly GOP. According to Emerson Brooking, who is a disinformation fellow at the Washington thinktank Atlantic Council, the problem was the understandable delay in announcing the results.
"The fact that we are unlikely to know the result of that pivotal race tonight means that any incidents will receive disproportionate attention because there won't be a resolution to the race," he told the PBS.
Mail-In Ballot Disinformation
The other area of misinformation was regarding the hotly debated mail-in ballots. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, a large number of voters — nearly 64 million — opted to send their ballots by mail. Due to the huge number of mail-in ballots, the counting process has already been delayed but Trump and other Republican politicians have complained that it was a Democrat ploy to steal the election.
The fact that most of the mail-in voters are presumed to be Democratic supporters, Trump over the last few months has been against it and deliberately undermined the U.S. Postal Service who would deliver the ballots. Twitter and Facebook both flagged several posts regarding mail-in ballots from Trump as misleading. Trump said that accepting mail-in ballots after Tuesday was dangerous and undermined the system. However, despite assurances from election officials, Republican voters have continued to spread misinformation against the process.