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Keeping Track of Election Disinformation

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Watching President Trump’s election night speech on a smartphone.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

If you visited Google’s YouTube in the days after the election last week, you may have found a video of an anchor from One America News Network declaring victory for President Trump with the unsubstantiated claim that Democrats were “tossing Republican ballots.”

Or a clip from Mr. Trump stating on his own YouTube channel that if all the “legal votes” were counted, he would win easily. Or a video claiming that Real Clear Politics, a political news site, had “rescinded” its call that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. was projected to win Pennsylvania.

All of these videos were baseless and spread misinformation challenging the validity of the election’s outcome. Yet those videos are still available on YouTube while being shared widely on Facebook and other social media platforms.

This is not a glitch or an oversight in YouTube’s policy enforcement. Instead, YouTube has said its policies are working as intended. Its light-touch approach differs from Twitter and Facebook, which have cracked down on misinformation about the election and have more prominently labeled content that they deem to be misinformation.

“Disinformation is being spread on YouTube, but they’re not being transparent at all about how they’re dealing with it,” said Lisa Kaplan, the founder of Alethea Group, a company that helps fight election-related misinformation. “YouTube has been able to stay out of the limelight because of the nature of the platform.”

Video is harder to analyze than text, Ms. Kaplan said, and videos are not shared in the same way that Facebook posts and tweets are shared.

Before the election, YouTube said it would not permit misleading election information, but limited that mainly to the procedures around voting — how to vote, who was eligible to vote or be a candidate, or any claims that could discourage voting. The policies did not extend to people expressing views on the outcome of a current election or the process of counting votes — meaning, in effect, that videos spreading misinformation about the vote’s outcome would be permitted.

“The majority of election-related searches are surfacing results from authoritative sources, and we’re reducing the spread of harmful elections-related misinformation,” Andrea Faville, a YouTube spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Like other companies, we are allowing discussions of the election results and the process of counting votes and are continuing to closely monitor new developments.”

The company removes content that violates its policies, she said, especially any content that seeks to incite violence. She declined to say how many videos YouTube had removed.

YouTube’s actions are opaque. Its most powerful tool is an algorithm that has been trained to suppress so-called borderline content — videos that bump up against its rules but don’t clearly violate them — from appearing high in search results or recommendations. But YouTube does not disclose which videos are designated as borderline so people have to guess whether the company is taking action or not.

Even if YouTube takes steps to make it harder for people to find the videos on its site, it does not prevent a user from sharing it widely elsewhere. As a result, many YouTube videos have found new life on Facebook. The video spreading falsehoods about Real Clear Politics rescinding its projection of Mr. Biden winning Pennsylvania had about 1.5 million views on YouTube and it had been shared 67,000 times on Facebook as of Tuesday afternoon, according to BuzzSumo, a web analytics tool.

YouTube has marked some videos as ineligible for advertising. For the video from One America News, which ran last Wednesday, YouTube said it removed ads from it because the content undermined “confidence in elections with demonstrably false information.” That left YouTube in an awkward position of acknowledging the potentially harmful effects of the video, while continuing to host the video at the same time.

YouTube has also labeled all election-related videos. On Saturday, it changed the label from a warning that the election outcome may not be final to a statement that “the AP has called the Presidential race for Joe Biden” with a link to a Google page with the results. YouTube said it has displayed this information panel “billions of times.”

Provisional ballots were collected on Election Day in Erie, Pa.
Credit…Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News, via Associated Press

A Postal Service worker who made unfounded allegations of ballot tampering inside a facility in Erie, Pa., has disavowed his claims, the post office’s inspector general informed Congress on Tuesday, deflating an attempt by Republicans to suggest there was widespread fraud in Pennsylvania’s voting.

Richard Hopkins, a post office employee in Erie, “completely” recanted allegations that a supervisor was “tampering with mail-in ballots” after investigators questioned him, the inspector general’s office said, according to the Democratic leadership of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Mr. Hopkins had claimed in a sworn affidavit given to the Trump campaign that he overheard what he believed to be a discussion about the backdating of postmarks on ballots that arrived at the postal facility after Election Day.

Ballots must have been postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3, to count. The implication of Mr. Hopkins’s claim was that postal workers had backdated ballots that should have been disqualified.

Under Pennsylvania procedures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, mail-in ballots that arrived at election offices after Election Day have been separated from those that arrived by Nov. 3. They have not been added to the vote tallies for any candidate, and President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has won Pennsylvania without them.

Nevertheless, Republicans, eager to find evidence of wrongdoing to bolster President Trump’s fiction that the election was stolen from him, circulated Mr. Hopkins’s affidavit and amplified it.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has urged Mr. Trump to continue to fight the results of the election, sent Mr. Hopkins’s affidavit to reporters along with a statement that read in part: “I will not allow credible allegations of voting irregularities or misconduct to be swept under the rug.” He later acknowledged in a television interview on Sunday that the claims he circulated were unverified.

Mr. Hopkins did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend.

The inspector general’s office told Congress that Mr. Hopkins had recanted his allegations on Monday but “did not explain why he signed a false affidavit,” according to the oversight committee’s staff.

Nov. 10, 2020, 4:34 p.m. ET

Nov. 10, 2020, 4:34 p.m. ET

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QAnon supporters at a rally for President Trump in Portland, Ore., in September.
Credit…Ron Haviv/VII, via Redux

These are trying times for believers in QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that falsely claims the existence of a satanic pedophile cult run by top Democrats. For years, they had been assured that President Trump would win re-election in a landslide and spend his second term vanquishing the deep state and bringing the cabal’s leaders to justice. Q, the pseudonymous message board user whose cryptic posts have fueled the movement for more than three years, told them to “trust the plan.”

But since Mr. Trump’s defeat, Q has gone dark. No posts from the account bearing Q’s tripcode, or digital user name, have appeared on 8kun, the website where all of Q’s posts appear. And overall QAnon-related activity on the site has slowed to a trickle. (On a recent day, there were fewer new posts on one of 8kun’s QAnon boards than on its board for adult-diaper fetishists.)

There are also signs of infighting among QAnon’s inner circle. Ron Watkins, an 8kun administrator who some believed was Q himself, announced on Election Day that he was stepping down from the site, citing “extensive battles” over censorship and the site’s future. His father, Jim Watkins, a professed QAnon believer who owns 8kun, has sung hymns on his livestream and posted debunked claims about voter fraud, but has not given any indication of when Q might return.

Q’s sudden disappearance has been jarring for QAnon believers, who depend on the account’s posts, or “drops,” for updates and reassurance.

“They feel really defeated by the deep state, even if they’re not admitting it in public,” said Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, 8kun’s predecessor site. Mr. Brennan, who has since left the site and become a vocal critic of Mr. Watkins, said that QAnon believers had bought in to the idea that Mr. Trump was fully in control, even as the polls showed him with a slim chance of winning.

“They were not expecting him to lose, and they were not expecting Fox News to call it,” he said. “It was really psychologically damaging.”

Nov. 10, 2020, 12:02 p.m. ET

Nov. 10, 2020, 12:02 p.m. ET

By

Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, speaking at a news conference in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press

On Monday evening and into Tuesday, a strain of false information that Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. had lost Pennsylvania and his president-elect status began to surge.

High-profile right-wing personalities like Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, and Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, helped set the rumor in motion on Monday when they tweeted, incorrectly, that the political news site Real Clear Politics had “rescinded” its call that Mr. Biden was projected to win Pennsylvania.

The falsehood was then picked up and posted to YouTube by a verified account, The Next News Network; it gained nearly 900,000 views in just 12 hours, largely driven by shares on Facebook. Data from the Facebook-owned social media analytics tool CrowdTangle suggests that 97 percent of Facebook likes and shares happened in private Facebook groups. On Google, search interest in “Biden loses Pennsylvania” jumped 1,150 percent in a little over an hour, peaking at 8:52 p.m., according to data from Google Trends.

“This is false,” Tom Bevan, president and co-founder of Real Clear Politics, tweeted in response to the slew of misinformation. “We never called Pennsylvania, and nothing has changed.”

The false narrative follows other surging falsehoods during election week. From Nov. 3 to Nov. 9, unfounded story lines about widespread voter fraud and ineligible ballots spread across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as votes were tallied in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. On Election Day, more misinformation about allegations of fraud or election-stealing focused on Pennsylvania than any other state, according to misinformation researchers.

Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, tweeted late Monday night that the widespread election misinformation would create big problems for the country.

“If you thought disinformation on Facebook was a problem during our election,” he said, “just wait until you see how it is shredding the fabric of our democracy in the days after.”

The surge of misinformation that calling Pennsylvania for Mr. Biden had been “rescinded” emerged despite stronger policies against false election information at Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In the past week, the companies have aggressively labeled misleading content on their platforms. Last Thursday, Facebook even removed a group called “Stop The Steal” because it had organized around the delegitimization of the election process, violating Facebook’s rules.

On Tuesday, the platforms had labeled many of the posts containing false information about Mr. Biden “losing” Pennsylvania. But they have continued to spread.

YouTube said the viral video flagged by The Times had been labeled but does not violate its deceptive practices policy, which prohibits misleading viewers about how to vote but doesn’t ban expressing views on an election’s outcome. Twitter applied labels to individual tweets and said it would continue to label tweets on the integrity of the election process. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation analyst at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, said those questioning the election’s results framed their thinking as supporting democracy. But, she said, they were truly only supporting President Trump and his allies.

“It’s a detriment to our democracy, misleading the American people about the democratic process and building distrust in our institutions that will linger long after this election cycle is concluded,” Ms. Jankowicz said.

Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation, said that she expected misinformation would continue for as long as Mr. Trump’s campaign “continues peddling the fiction that Trump actually won the election.”

“Because the facts are not on Trump’s side; his campaign only has conspiracies and disinformation to make their argument,” Ms. Ryan said.

Correction: Nov. 10, 2020

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the former Florida attorney general. She is Pam Bondi, not Bondy.

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