President Trump's Baseless Attacks On Voting, The Election : Consider This from NPR President Trump used Tuesday night's debate to attack the integrity of the upcoming election with false claims about voter fraud and mail-in ballots. National security officials say claims like those are being amplified on social media by foreign countries — including Russia — and by bad actors in the U.S.

NPR's Shannon Bond and Greg Myre report on how government officials and tech companies are handling that disinformation.

And NPR's Pam Fessler explains why the President's false claims about voter fraud have election experts worried about conflicts at the polls.

NPR's Life Kit has a guide to voting by mail or in-person this election season.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

We're working on an upcoming episode about pandemic precautions and we want to hear from you. Fill out the form on this page and we may follow up on your response.

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Trump's Baseless Attacks On Election Integrity Bolstered By Disinformation Online

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Trump's Baseless Attacks On Election Integrity Bolstered By Disinformation Online

Trump's Baseless Attacks On Election Integrity Bolstered By Disinformation Online

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS WALLACE: Thank you and good night.

(APPLAUSE)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For a lot of people watching Tuesday night...

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JAKE TAPPER: That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.

CORNISH: ...Especially people who do it for a living...

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SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: That was crazy. What was that?

CHUCK TODD: It was a train wreck.

CORNISH: ...The presidential debate didn't exactly bolster anyone's faith in the democratic process.

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ANDREA MITCHELL: I've been watching debates, covering debates since 1976. I've never seen anything like this. I don't think any of us have. This was a disgrace, frankly.

CORNISH: It wasn't just the president's chaotic interruptions. It was his refusal to condemn white supremacists...

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what.

CORNISH: ...And his refusal to ask his supporters to stay calm during an extended period of counting votes.

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DONALD TRUMP: I am urging my people. I hope it's going to be a fair election. If it's a fair election, I am a hundred percent on board.

CORNISH: Instead, he told them to monitor polling places.

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DONALD TRUMP: I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS. The president used his largest platform so far this election season to try and undermine voters' confidence in the democratic process. And he's not the only one trying to do that. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, September 30.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. And let's just take one of the many false claims about voting made by President Trump Tuesday night.

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DONALD TRUMP: As you know, today, there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They were - they're called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren't allowed to watch. You know why? 'Cause bad things happen in Philadelphia - bad things.

CORNISH: The president appeared to be talking about a report from Philadelphia where a woman claiming to be a Trump campaign poll worker was turned away - but not from a polling place. There are no actual polling places open in the city right now. She was turned away from a satellite elections office set up by the city, created as a new form of early voting where voters can pick up and drop off mail-in ballots. Poll watchers appointed by the campaign are allowed at polls but not at offices like that one, which had limited staff to allow for social distancing. And as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, the Trump campaign does not have any poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia at the moment.

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DONALD TRUMP JR: We need every able-bodied man, woman to join army for Trump's election security operation at defendyourballot.com

CORNISH: There are no data to support the president's claims about potential widespread voter fraud, but the Republican Party says they're enlisting 50,000 people to be poll watchers in order to protect against fraud. This campaign video from the president's son Don Jr. is part of that effort.

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DONALD TRUMP JR: President Trump is going to win. Don't let them steal it. Go to...

CORNISH: Talk like that has a lot of election experts worried about voter intimidation and conflicts at the polls on Election Day.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Four more years. Four more years.

CORNISH: Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

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PAM FESSLER: All it took was a group of cheering Trump supporters outside an early voting site in Fairfax County, Va., to set off waves of alarm not only at the polling site, but on social media.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Four more years. Four more years. Four more years.

FESSLER: The crowd waved flags and campaign signs as they chanted. Voters standing in line nearby weren't blocked from voting. But Virginia's attorney general, Mark Herring, said some clearly felt threatened. He issued an opinion reminding everyone that there are federal and state laws against voter intimidation.

MARK HERRING: I wanted Virginians to know that they can go vote and have confidence that they can do it safely and comfortably without fearing for their safety or well-being.

FESSLER: Although in the Fairfax case, Herring, a Democrat, said it wasn't clear that any laws were broken. The rally occurred outside a 40-foot buffer zone. Still, the incident was a sign of how fraught this year's elections have become, with both sides wary about possible disruptions and even violence. Republicans announced months ago that they planned to recruit thousands of poll watchers, but RNC chief counsel Justin Riemer told NPR their main job will be looking for any irregularities that might be used as evidence in later legal challenges.

JUSTIN RIEMER: The Democrats would say that we are there to suppress the vote. That is absolutely not the case. I can assure you that that is not why we have volunteers and attorneys participating in this process.

FESSLER: And indeed, there are very specific rules governing poll watching. Most states allow the political parties and campaigns to appoint people to sit inside polling sites to monitor voting, but they're strictly prohibited from interfering with voters. It's the self-appointed poll watchers - those who might show up at the polls unannounced - that have some people more worried.

JOSH HORWITZ: We're not trying to cause panic or anything like that.

FESSLER: Josh Horwitz runs the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and says the increased presence of armed militia at protests in Virginia and elsewhere is clearly cause for concern or at least preparation.

HORWITZ: All we're asking is that local election officials and state officials do what they can in the remaining month to best protect their polling places and the integrity of their elections.

FESSLER: He notes that most states don't have specific laws prohibiting guns at polling sites, unless they're at places like schools. At the very least, his group wants poll workers to get better training on what to do in case there's a problem. Most election officials try first to de-escalate potential conflicts. In Fairfax, they asked the Trump supporters to move back and not block voters' access. In more serious cases, they might call the police.

KRISTEN CLARKE: In some respects, this could all prove to be a lot of bluster.

FESSLER: Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Her group runs something called Election Protection, a national network of lawyers on call to help voters with problems at the polls. Clarke notes that in the past, threats by vigilantes that they would come to voting sites have often failed to materialize.

CLARKE: This is a pattern and practice that we have seen throughout the years - these wild exaggerations and bold proclamations that often fall flat in the end but are intended to have a particular effect.

FESSLER: Which she says is to discourage people from coming to the polls. She thinks voters shouldn't be too worried, just prepared to report problems if they do occur.

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CORNISH: NPR's Pam Fessler.

Disinformation about the election isn't just coming from the White House. National security officials say Russia is once again working to disrupt the U.S. election, trying to give President Trump a boost with hacking and falsehoods spread on social media, only this election season, they may not have to work as hard as last time. Clint Watts studies disinformation at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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CLINT WATTS: Russia doesn't have to make fake news. They just repeat, you know, what conspiracies are coming out of the White House and the administration.

CORNISH: NPR correspondents Greg Myre and Shannon Bond have been looking into how officials and tech companies are fighting that disinformation this time around. Greg covers national security. Shannon covers Silicon Valley. They spoke to my colleague Ari Shapiro.

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ARI SHAPIRO: So Greg, let's start with you. Is Russia the only foreign threat or just the biggest right now?

GREG MYRE: It's the biggest foreign threat, and the national security officials and analysts who are studying this are really absolutely clear - Russia is the main foreign threat. It wants to help Donald Trump win reelection. And China and Iran are the other countries that are also mentioned but at a much lower level.

Now, there's a big difference this time. The national security establishment, private researchers and the media are all much more prepared for this kind of disinformation this time. Far more eyeballs are looking for fake social media accounts, planted stories. Just to give you one example, in the 2018 midterms, the National Security Agency sent cyber teams to Europe to shut down the Russian troll factory that had been involved in the 2016 elections. So as far as we know, no foreign campaign has gained any real traction.

SHAPIRO: But is it possible that the 2020 playbook is more advanced and sophisticated and may be escaping the notice of people who are looking for the kinds of things we saw in 2016?

MYRE: Definitely a possibility. Microsoft put out a big report. They said it's the same Russian agency - military intelligence - that's at it again, but they are using different tactics. They were using a lot of bots and automated social media accounts last time. This time, they're going to great lengths to hide their tracks. They're trying to hire Americans who unwittingly will write stories for websites. So yes, the playbook has changed.

SHAPIRO: So, Shannon, tell us about what's happening in the United States. What are you hearing from tech companies and the experts who study this?

SHANNON BOND: Well, they're very alarmed. I spoke with Yoel Roth. He's in charge of site integrity at Twitter. And he puts it really succinctly.

YOEL ROTH: The people who know the most about how to mislead Americans are other Americans.

BOND: So what security researchers are warning is that, you know, the atmosphere is just so ripe for disinformation right now. We're living with so much uncertainty, and that opens the door for bad actors to undermine confidence in voting, in the election results, because of the changes that are happening during the pandemic. There's also worries that bad actors could use fears about COVID to discourage voting. And there are real concerns about extremist groups that could use social media to incite violence.

And this also creates opportunity for foreign actors to amplify disinformation that Americans are spreading, like those baseless claims that we keep hearing about voting fraud from President Trump. Both Twitter and Facebook have new rules against misinformation about voting, against casting doubt on results or making premature claims of victory in the aftermath of the election. Both companies say they've gamed out more extreme measures that would stop real-world risks like voter suppression and violence, but they don't give us a lot of details on what those might be.

SHAPIRO: Can we say yet how that's going?

BOND: Well, critics say Facebook especially is still just too slow at this. It doesn't label or remove posts in many cases until after they've spread widely. The Biden campaign sent Facebook a letter this week, condemning it for not just taking down Trump's false claims about voting. It called Facebook, quote, "the nation's foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process." Facebook says it applies its rules impartially. And we should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. But, you know, what I hear again and again about social media platforms - this isn't just a question of, are they setting the right rules? It's, how are they enforcing those rules?

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, Greg, the president of the United States is repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the election and saying things about voting that are just flatly false. How is that shaping this discussion?

MYRE: Yes, this has had an impact. The Russian goal for years and years has been to undermine the credibility of the U.S. political system. And now we have a president declaring at campaign events that mail-in ballots aren't credible, that this is the most corrupt election in U.S. history. It's a sharp contrast from what we hear from officials like FBI Director Chris Wray, who say election systems have been hardened, tested and retested, and it will be extremely difficult to tamper with votes.

SHAPIRO: As we enter this final month, do you expect things are going to get worse?

MYRE: Well, we should be aware of any potential surprises. Violence around the election is one big concern. But another is the fact that officials are saying we may not have a winner on the night of November 3, and the country shouldn't panic if that is indeed the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: NPR's Greg Myre and Shannon Bond. And this is a good time to say if you have questions about voting or how to do it this year, NPR's Life Kit has assembled a guide that you can find in our episode notes.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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