Misinformation's Limited Impact On The Midterms : The NPR Politics Podcast Election observers were concerned misinformation would have an outsized impact on the 2022 elections, as it did in 2020. But, that ended up not being the case. Why?

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, voting correspondent Miles Parks, and disinformation correspondent Shannon Bond.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Fact-checking by Katherine Swartz.

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Misinformation's Limited Impact On The Midterms

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I'm Miles Park. I cover voting.

KEITH: And we have Shannon Bond with us today. Shannon is part of the disinformation team at NPR. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, guys.

KEITH: We have you both back on the pod today for something of a postmortem on the election. There were a lot of fears heading in that it could be a repeat of 2020 with election lies and misinformation literally putting election workers and even voters in danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Stop the count. Stop the count. Stop the count.

KEITH: Let's start by going back in time, back to 2020 as votes were being counted. We heard those people saying, stop the count, stop the count.

PARKS: Yes. And that audio was from this absentee ballot counting center in Detroit in 2020, where people started gathering due to claims going viral on social media that were telling them to go out and protest. So you see dozens of people gathering, banging on the window, saying, stop the count. And then you see the election workers getting really scared, putting up poster board to try and protect themselves and protect their identities.

None of that happened in 2022. You know, I think that, to me, was one of the starkest differences, was just looking at what happened in 2020 where you had all these people screaming, and then 2022 - I was just talking to the secretary of state of Michigan. And I asked her, what was the scene like at that same counting center in 2022? She said it was calm. It was easy to work. She even called it serene - serene in 2022 elections. You know, I think that, to me, really stuck out.

KEITH: Yeah. So what does that tell you? You know, just this one center in Detroit, what does that tell you more broadly about and what should that tell us more broadly about how the midterms went in terms of, like, actually counting votes and the conspiracy theories around that?

PARKS: For two years, election workers nationwide were terrified leading up to this election. In this new environment, they are - have been receiving death threats. And, you know, the public has been so polarized around elections that you couldn't really get a good answer from anyone when you asked, what are you expecting? - because election workers were saying, we're expecting anything. You know, we're preparing for the absolute worst. So I think there has been this broad kind of sigh of relief, honestly, in the time since the election, while at the same time a lot of the election workers I'm talking to have been still kind of knocking on wood at the same time and saying, you know, we are still kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

BOND: I mean, I think what's really interesting is to think about - they did have two years to prepare, right? And so, like, the past two years, on the one hand, we've seen so many of these conspiracy theories, and there's this - it's, like, beyond a conspiracy theory, right? This just sort of broad narrative of election fraud among a significant portion of the right, you know, has really cemented into place. But in that same two years, election officials - as, you know, Miles has mentioned - but also, I think, to some degree, the media and to some degree the social networks have had time to prepare as well. And I think we saw that pay off in interesting ways during the midterms.

And probably the best example of that was in Maricopa County, Ariz., right? This is Arizona's most populous county. And in 2020, it was the focus of some of the most viral fraud conspiracy theories. Probably - Miles, it's probably Sharpiegate (ph), right? This...

PARKS: I would say Sharpiegate has to be the peak - right? - of, like, it happened in a couple hours after voting ended. And then that was kind of the thing. I mean, yeah, in many ways Maricopa was, like, the epicenter.

KEITH: I hate to ask, but now you're going to have to explain.

BOND: It was this idea that if you used a Sharpie to mark your ballot, that was somehow going to make it invalidated. And, like, there was no evidence for this, but people became convinced that this was a way that they were going to be throwing out, especially, Republican votes, right? That was the idea here. And that, like, - right? - basically started bubbling on Election Day and just, like, went viral. And I think we saw - you know, it was hard for anyone to get ahead of that.

And that's one of the things that happens. We see over and over again on the internet - right? - like, baseless claims, rumors, you know, they spread much more quickly than accurate information and fact checks. And so that's what happened in 2020. Now, this year, Maricopa was in the spotlight again because there were actually some issues on Election Day.

KEITH: Like something with a printer.

BOND: Yeah. So what happened was, you know, early on the Tuesday morning of the election, you know, these reports started emerging that some of the ballot tabulation machines, like, those scanners, weren't working. And it seemed to be possibly an issue with how the ballots were printed. And it was, you know, a little confusing what's going on. There were lots of rumors going around. And we saw almost immediately right-wing figures, right-wing influencers, people like Charlie Kirk, the conservative activist and media personality, sort of jumping on the - you know, these reports that some of the ballot scanners weren't working and saying, look, this is evidence. Like, there's something going on here. They're trying to disenfranchise Republicans and - you know, just, you know, without any sort of basis in reality. But there were these actual problems, right?

But the difference was we saw Maricopa officials - who, again, have had two years to think about, you know, how to get ahead of this stuff - react really quickly, you know, be really responsive, get out there, say, yes, we're having problems, telling people, your vote will be counted. This is what you should do. And then, you know, as they figured out during the day, it was about how the ballots were printed and directly pushing back on some of these online rumors saying, you know, this is just absolutely not accurate. And, you know, I think it was really interesting.

We took a look at data collected by social media researchers, and our colleague Huo Jingnan, who we work with on the disinformation team - you know, took a look at the posts, especially going around on Twitter, and found they just - you know, these posts claiming fraud or claiming that what was happening in Maricopa was somehow evidence of, you know, malfeasance, just didn't get the same kind of traction as, for example, Sharpiegate had gotten. And I think that is - you know, I think there's a lot of dynamics there, but I just think it's a really interesting example where we can sort of see, you know, they were more - the officials were more prepared, you know, quicker to push back. And, you know, I think also there's just been a lot more education. People are a bit more skeptical, I'm hoping, of what - you know, when they see unverified information online.

PARKS: Yeah. And then the last thing on that is Republicans did try to sue in Maricopa County using this tabulation issue to say that some people were disenfranchised. And at the end of the day, a judge said, no, we are not going to extend voting because there is no evidence that any voters actually were not able to vote because of this. Because election officials were so clear in communicating that there were multiple solutions for voters who ran into this issue, a judge even said, we're not going to extend hours.

KEITH: So while we are in Arizona, if you will, you know, about a week before the election - and we talked about this on the podcast - there were reports of people in tactical gear camped out at ballot drop boxes, videotaping or otherwise documenting people trying to drop off their ballots. They were there looking for mules, which is a reference to the "2000 Mules" conspiracy theory movie about the 2020 election. And I'm just wondering, what ended up happening there with those ballot drop boxes, with those people? And is there a lesson from that about why things didn't escalate in the same way this time?

PARKS: I think so. I mean, I think it also ties back to how the justice system does play into, you know, solving this problem. Because shortly before the election, a judge came out and put some limits on what one conspiracy-minded group could do around these drop boxes. And then we also saw in Maricopa County - going back to Shannon's point about how much time election officials had to think about this election and prepare and the partnerships they made with law enforcement over the last two years - I think that's one of the points that I'm not sure anyone focused on enough - that election officials were really getting to know their county sheriffs.

And we saw this video pop up shortly after voting ended in Maricopa County that I thought was really stunning, where there were a few protesters out. But then there were also 10 police officers on horseback riding around the vote counting center. And I think there was a lot of deterrence from law enforcement. So when we think about why didn't violence break out this election cycle in the way so many people feared, I do wonder how much the deterrence had something to do with that.

BOND: I would add here - I mean, this - it wasn't just in Maricopa, right? I mean, you had Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser to Trump, you know, openly calling for people to do ballot box monitoring, you know, all over the country. This has been one of his big pushes. And largely - you know, I mean, there were - like as it happened in Arizona, there were some groups that turned up and were doing this. But kind of these larger scale calls for, you know, tailgate parties and monitoring of counting centers, especially on Election Day, just didn't materialize. Like, people just didn't turn out.

And I think - you know, I spoke with Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center, which monitors extremist groups. And, you know, she was saying - you know, she credited in large part this kind of communication we heard from election officials, the presence of law enforcement officers, sort of this reasserting of norms and boundaries - right? - saying this is just not acceptable. Like, this is not an acceptable way to participate in democracy. Like, it's one thing to, you know, to sign up to be a monitor, but, like, you can't be essentially intimidating people at voting centers. And, you know, she was saying that seems to have borne out. There was a lot of talk about protest. Even, you know, on Election Day itself, we heard former President Donald Trump calling for protests in Detroit, and people just didn't show up.

KEITH: One more difference is that the lead election denier wasn't on the ballot or in the Oval Office. More on the Trump effect after this break.

And we're back. And former President Trump, in the lead-up to the midterms and since the midterms, has certainly been toying with the idea that there's something fishy or that because it has taken a long time for results to come in and for races to be called, that there was something wrong, but it hasn't really, truly stuck. So I'm wondering, what is different with his influence at this moment that he isn't able to, you know, launch a conspiracy that a lot of people are willing to get behind?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the factors we just can't ignore here is that he has been - he's banned from Twitter and Facebook, right? And those were big megaphones. He had more than a hundred million followers on those two platforms. And, you know, as you remember, he was kicked off after January 6.

You know, he's now posting on his own social network, Truth Social, where he has about 4 1/2 million followers. And look, let's be clear. I mean, his posts will get screenshot and shared on Twitter. It's not like he's invisible on the platform. But I think there is a difference when he doesn't have that direct connection in that, you know, he's posting directly. And I think people are maybe - some people, at least, are a little more wary about sharing that. And I think you saw that - you know, he was posting a lot during Election Day. And like we said, just a lot of the claims he was making or urging people to protest or saying, you know, why is this taking so long? - didn't really kind of catch on.

And this is not to say that there were - you know, look, there were a lot - there was a lot going around. There was plenty of baseless fraud accusations, conspiracy theories, rumors on mainstream social platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But the - it shows how the landscape has changed on social media, right? You do have these fringe platforms like Truth Social, like GETTR, which was, you know, started by a former Trump aide, that are, you know, pretty friendly to the right and have siphoned off some of the more sort of louder spreaders of disinformation and lies. And, you know, I think that has kind of changed the dynamics, you know, as well as the mainstream platforms expanding their policies, you know, against this kind of misleading claims, you know, and doing things like fact checks and labels. I mean, those have not always been perfect, but the whole landscape of social media is different than it was in 2020.

PARKS: Yeah. I think the other thing about just not - Trump not being on the ballot, I mean, he - I've heard this from so many people the last couple of years - that he is the singular force in motivating people to action. The other thing is not having, more broadly, the president as something to vote for on the ballot. I do wonder how much that played into this in terms of just taking the temperature down of the feeling that this is an existential thing that I need to act upon. If you do truly believe that voter fraud is happening, but it's in the attorney general's race or it's in, like, even a governor's race, I do wonder about how much that plays in. And when you think about what motivates a person to get up off their couch and actually show up at an absentee ballot counting center and bang on the windows or, you know, storm the Capitol, even - you know, I think the president's race in the United States, at this point, is just viewed in this very, very existential way in a way that down-ballot races just maybe aren't.

KEITH: Right. And I also think that Trump is a unique figure, sort of, the mythology around him. The same mythology does not exist around a state assembly candidate or even a gubernatorial candidate.

PARKS: And we've seen those candidates try to gin up. It's not like there were not election deniers running this election cycle, it's just they haven't been able to gin up the same sort of energy around these claims.

KEITH: Which gets to my next question - concessions. And we've talked about this on the pod a bit. But there were election deniers. Many of them have conceded. That's something Trump never did.

PARKS: Yeah. And it's - I mean, I think a lot of election officials look at the concessions landscape as the clearest sign that their work has been successful the last couple years. We have seen a lot - I would say it's fair to say more concessions this cycle from election-denying candidates than we assumed we would. There's still been quite a few outliers. You know, the secretary of state of Michigan, who we mentioned earlier, her opponent has not conceded, but she lost by 600,000 votes. So the conspiracies she's tried to lob around the election system being rigged, maybe they've fallen flat because of that as well.

KEITH: One last big question, here - is the fever broken or are elections officials just as worried about 2024 as they were headed into 2022?

BOND: I mean, I think it is too early to say that the fever is broken. And I also just think, like I said, there are still plenty of people out there, you know, who really - this idea of election fraud has been baked in. They're going into voting expecting it. They're looking for it. And I think the difference is, like, what kind of impact does that have? But, like, we are now operating in an environment where these kind of conspiracy theories and beliefs are just baked in, to some degree. And so, you know, the question is - for the election officials, for, you know, the media and the social media networks and for the broader voting public is, you know, what can we do to build resilience to keep these kinds of lies from eroding the systems?

PARKS: Yeah. And I asked basically the same question you just asked us, Tam, to the secretary of state of New Mexico, Maggie Toulouse Oliver. Here's what she told me.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: It's been really nice to have a return to what I consider, you know, the norms of our democracy - you know, accepting election results, peaceful transitions of power. And it makes me feel hopeful for the first time in quite a while.

PARKS: I think that's - that characterizes how election workers are feeling, that they do not think the fever is broken. You can hear in her voice that she's still kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. But I think they are allowing themselves to feel a little bit of hope.

KEITH: Well, let's leave it there for today. Shannon Bond from NPR's disinformation team, thanks so much for joining us.

BOND: Thanks for having me, guys.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH & TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: Hey, everyone. One final note - since we taped this podcast, the owner of Twitter, Elon Musk, tweeted out that Donald Trump would be allowed back on the platform. Though Trump's account is now back online, back on Twitter, the former president is not tweeting yet. We'll be sure to update you if that changes. Thanks again.

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