UW social media expert: Election misinformation is an ‘attack on democracy’

KING COUNTY, Wash. — With the election only days away, social media experts are doing all they can to stop misinformation on social media.

Kate Starbird is an associate professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She’s part of the Election Integrity Project studying social media and Election 2020.

Starbird says there are two kinds of false information shared online: misinformation and disinformation.

“Misinformation is information that’s false but not necessarily false. Whereas disinformation is information that is false or misleading but has an intent or purpose behind it, often a political objective or something like that,” explained Starbird.

She described the amount of misinformation and disinformation days before the election as an “all hands on deck” kind of moment for individuals who study information toxicity.

This year the pandemic has created more anxiety and also has people spending more time online.

“We have this really toxic information space, and part of that is because we’re so vulnerable right now,” explained Starbird.

The Election Integrity Project teams researchers up with government agencies, civil society organizations and social media platforms. Their objective is to detect and mitigate the impact of attempts to prevent or deter people from voting or to delegitimize election results.

Starbird says this year most of the misinformation and disinformation is domestic, coming from groups on the right and left inside the U.S.

“Foreign agents just can’t wait to jump on these narratives of voter fraud. This is a weakness they would love to exploit and make worse,” Starbird said.

The Election Integrity project reports false content to social media platforms. They have been successful with having posts removed or tagged.

“We’re going to see so many efforts to take little things that go wrong in the election and make them seem big and systematic,” said Starbird.

To balance out the misinformation, she says people should share their positive voting experiences online.

Researchers say President Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a notorious spreader of disinformation. This is the first election when content is being labeled as misleading by the social media platforms.

Starbird says people need to be prepared for election night and understand it is unlikely we will know who won the presidential race.

“Some people are going to try to connect that uncertainty with illegitimacy. They’re going to say, oh, because we don’t know there must be something nefarious happening. Don’t fall for that. That’s a false narrative.”

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