Misinformation about election fraud has flooded the internet. Here's how to spot false reports

Don't be a victim of bad election information.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
5 min read

A demonstrator holds a sign with stickers of the US flag on the back, outside a Pennsylvania facility where votes were still being counted several days after the general election. Election security experts warned for months that after Election Day, misinformation would ramp up to cast doubt on the vote.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden has beaten President Donald Trump in a contest for the White House punctuated with wild rumors, false reports and premature declarations of victory. The end of the election, however, hasn't meant an end to the misinformation.

Social media posts from the sitting president that falsely claim the election was stolen from him have swept across the internet. And Trump has continued to tweet and retweet items that contain disputed information, prompting Twitter to slap warning labels on those posts. Additionally, baseless claims of election fraud from a variety of sources have also appeared on Twitter , as well as YouTube and Facebook. 

Misleading reports flew that Republican voters in Maricopa County, Arizona, were given Sharpie pens that wouldn't work with ballot scanning machines. The county election agency said the pens work with the ballot readers. A false report of a dead man voting in Detroit, Michigan, that spread on Facebook, Reddit and YouTube was debunked when a city official said the real voter was a man with an identical name. That ballot was first recorded as belonging to the dead man, but the error was fixed, the official said. And misleading reports about destroyed ballots in Oklahoma were debunked by the state's election agency. The ballots were "spoiled," meaning voters made a mistake on them and returned them to a polling place to have them destroyed in order to receive a new ballot.

Inaccurate reports are likely to keep coming. Some of them will be disinformation, or deliberately false and misleading content. Misinformation is a broader term that describes incorrect information regardless of whether the person sharing it knows it's false.

In addition to posts on social media platforms, which have implemented tools to combat misinformation, there are other common ways falsehoods can spread and get magnified, including group messages on WhatsApp and Telegram; political commentary on YouTube; podcasts; talk radio shows and television.

Read moreHere's how social media companies are fighting election misinformation

Chris Krebs, the country's top election security official, urged people to be cautious about election reports, saying at a cybersecurity conference, "Think before you share." His agency, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, launched a website called Rumor Control to help voters sort out whether claims of election fraud and vote tampering are accurate.

You don't have to get caught up in the flood of speculation and outright falsehoods, though. Here's how you can spot information that doesn't pass the smell test.

How can I recognize election misinformation?

You can't stop your Uncle Mike from posting misleading memes, but you can keep yourself informed. That way you'll be well positioned to avoid spreading misinformation yourself. 

Media literacy experts suggest several techniques for vetting information you find online. First, check out the source of the information itself. You can look online for information on potential biases or political affiliations that weren't obvious from the original post. Some services have created bias ratings for news outlets and individual stories, including AllSides, NewsGuard and Ad Fontes Media. The Pew Research Center has mapped the political leanings of news consumers to the outlets they trust most, which can give you added context.

If you see the information from news sources on social media, check that it's the verified account of the news agency or reporter. On Twitter, look for the blue check mark next to their name, and on Facebook, check for a "verified" badge. That by itself doesn't make the information correct, but it's a good indication that the content is coming from the source it's claiming to come from.

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

Next, see if you can find the same information reported somewhere else -- and not just a news story based on the first one you saw. If you can't confirm the facts somewhere else, it's a good idea to see if you can find any indication that it's a false report. 

If the content contains a picture, like memes often do, you can run a reverse Google image search on the photo and find out more about where it comes from and what it really shows. You may find the photo is taken out of context, or actually came from an old news story on a totally different topic. You can also check sites like Snopes, which debunks or verifies stories and memes, or a political fact-checking website, such as the Poynter Institute's PolitiFact, that can tell you if a post or story is likely false.

If you want to dig deeper, you can call the reference desk at your local library.

Wasn't election misinformation already a problem?

Yes, it was already bad. According to academic researchers and US intelligence agencies, both state-sponsored actors and shady, click-seeking website owners have created and spread misleading or flat-out false information for years. These intentional efforts are called disinformation. 

But it's been getting worse. "The easiest prediction I can make for you is that we're going to see a whole lot more misinformation," Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University, said of the 2020 election. And it won't just be troll farms sponsored by the Russian government this time, he added. "I can see many countries deciding that it's worth it for them to manipulate us."

Between the coronavirus pandemic and our extremely polarized politics , we're desperate for information. Just as research shows emotional arousal makes younger and older people more prone to financial fraud, this mindset could make us worse at sorting out fact from fiction. And it could lead to someone unwittingly passing on the bad info, adding to the giant pile of misinformation that already exists on the internet.

People who create made-up news reports, misleading memes and conspiracy theories know we're all susceptible. Getting us to share their posts may have become even easier as the voters scream (inside their hearts, at least) about the election results.

What's in it for people who start misinformation after the election?

If the votes are already cast, you might wonder whether it matters when your Uncle Mike posts a false report of election fraud on Facebook. Here's the problem: Misinformation can still do damage after the polls are closed. Most importantly, election security experts say, it could cause people to lose faith in the election's results.

The embrace of absentee voting for this year's election led to false reports of rampant voter fraud before Election Day even came. It also intensified worries about limited access to ballot drop boxes and polling places. The rising tide of misinformation aims to delegitimize the voting process in general, according to July research from academics with the Election Integrity Project.

As a result, the public is primed for reports of irregularities in voting.