Facebook, Twitter will have their hands full with misinformation during election week

If you thought the social networks' handling of a New York Post story on Joe Biden and his son Hunter was chaotic, Election Day could be worse.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
5 min read

Facebook and Twitter will have to make several important decisions on Election Day -- just like they did with a New York Post story on Joe Biden.

Image by Pixabay; illustration by CNET

Twitter and Facebook went through a major test of how they'll handle potential misinformation on a grand scale when they took action Wednesday against a New York Post article about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. Though it's still too early to judge the social networks' responses, their moves set the stage for what's to come on Election Day and during the chaos that's expected to follow. 

Millions of Americans are expected to vote by mail this election because of the coronavirus pandemic, which means it'll take longer than usual to count all the votes coming in. The delay in getting the results presents a ripe opportunity for misinformation on social networks, and it'll be a critical test of how Facebook and Twitter react. Their decisions are bound to raise further questions about their role in controlling the information on their platforms.

They've already seen backlash. Some lawmakers are criticizing Facebook and Twitter for their actions, comparing the moves to censorship. The social networks limited the spread of the New York Post article, which alleged that leaked emails show Biden's son introducing a Ukrainian energy executive to the former vice president. Multiple disinformation experts have called out the article as highly suspicious and potentially mirroring a hack-and-leak operation similar to what Russian actors did to Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016

Watch this: Big tech explains how it will fight foreign government hacks in US elections

Facebook and Twitter have taken stronger stances against political misinformation, but the steps they took Wednesday grabbed national attention, and Trump supporters and Republican lawmakers are arguing that the companies are interfering with the election. 

It's a stark contrast to three years ago, when Democratic lawmakers criticized Facebook and Twitter for not doing enough against Russian disinformation campaigns. 

Whether you think the social networks are stopping misinformation or interfering with politics, you can expect things to get much more chaotic on Election Day, or, as many election officials are starting to call it, Election Week.

Post-Election Day

Misinformation following Election Day is a top concern among election security officials. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the FBI have been putting out regular warnings against online political hoaxes that could come in several ways, including websites created to declare fake results, or networks of fake accounts on social media arguing that the official results aren't legitimate. 

"The increased use of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night," the FBI and CISA said on Sept. 23. "Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections' results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections' illegitimacy."

For months, the Trump campaign has laid the groundwork for disinformation on the election's results, making false claims about mail-in voting fraud and declining to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Trump loses. 

A network of supporters have committed to amplifying, on social media, Trump's claims of a rigged election, according to NBC News

Because of the delay in counting mail-in votes, the results on Election Day won't reflect what the final ballot count is. Though some states allow for ballot counting to begin the moment ballots are received, others don't start counting until polls close. 

That's potentially millions of votes that need to be counted, so you shouldn't expect  an answer to come by the end of Election Day. 

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's secretary of state, estimated it could take 80 hours to count all the votes, meaning that the battleground state's results may not be known until the end of the week.

Even in states that have been doing vote-by-mail for years, like Washington, you should expect a delay. About 60% of Washington's ballots come in by mail during election week, and they can take a few days to fully process, said Kim Wyman, Washington's secretary of state. 

"You may have slower results," Wyman said. "That is normal. It is part of the process, and it's making sure that we are accurately counting our ballots."

Facebook's and Twitter's plans

Facebook and Twitter have already made moves against Trump's tweets about mail-in voting, and they expect to take action regarding any political candidates who declare victory before all the results are counted. 

"Per our updated Civic Integrity Policy, people on Twitter, including candidates for office, may not claim an election win before it is authoritatively called," a Twitter spokesperson said in an email.  

Tweets that claim victory before all the results are in will be labeled for misinformation. Twitter said it requires an announcement from state election officials or a public projection from two authoritative news outlets before a candidate can declare victory. The social network doesn't clarify what it would consider a trustworthy news outlet. 

In September, Rob Leathern, Facebook's director of product management, said the social network would prohibit ads making a premature declaration of victory, but that the ban wouldn't extend to normal posts. If a candidate declares victory before the results are final, Facebook said, the company will label posts to note that counting is still going on.

Trump has often called out Facebook and Twitter for their labels on posts, claiming that the tech companies are censoring his campaign

The social platforms' actions against the New York Post article takes things a step further by limiting the spread of a news article from a major publication. Though both social networks have bans against posting hacked content, coverage of leaked material is allowed. 

Facebook's and Twitter's moderation decisions stretched their own policies, indicating that the same could happen on Election Day. 

"If anything, yesterday was a signal that the platforms are still spitballing and there's an incredible amount of risk in the system," said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies social media. "They moderated the press. That's a big deal." 

Facebook and Twitter encountered a flood of criticism over how they handled one story from the New York Post on Wednesday. During election week, they'll have to make many important decisions on a wave of misinformation.