Posted in Behind the News

Understanding the election: How AP combats misinformation

, by Patrick Maks

With misinformation swirling ahead of the U.S. presidential election, fact-checking, a central function of AP for decades, has never been more important.

Fact Check Editor Karen Mahabir explains what AP will be watching for leading up to, on and after Election Day:

How much election-related misinformation – and what kind – have you seen so far?

We’ve seen a lot of misinformation around the U.S. election, and I’m sure we’ll see more as we move even closer to Election Day – and perhaps afterward. We’ve seen a lot of false messaging around the voting process, including claims that refer to a difference between mail-in and absentee ballots, or the prospect of fraud or foreign interference in the vote-by-mail process. We've also seen false claims about missing or discarded ballots, such as college students throwing away President Donald Trump voters’ absentee ballots; a state destroying over 1 million ballots; and a federal judge ordering another state to have all ballots counted on the night of the election. These are all false. One photo that was shared thousands of times on social media purported to show mail bins and envelopes on the side of road with discarded ballots, but it was in fact from 2018.

We've also seen misinformation around the coronavirus pandemic intersect with claims around the U.S. election. For example, after President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, we saw an explosion of misinformation online, including tweets claiming Democrats may have somehow intentionally infected him with the virus during the debates and other posts that claimed he was faking his illness.

Other misleading and false claims we’ve seen have focused on the candidates themselves and their ability to run or hold office. For instance, we’ve seen claims around former Vice President Joe Biden’s physical and mental health, as well as Sen. Kamala Harris’ eligibility to serve as vice president. And we’re seeing claims being made in a variety of formats – not just text – such as memes, photos and videos that have been selectively edited or manipulated in some way to mislead viewers.

How does it compare to the 2016 general election?

What makes this election different from the 2016 election is that we’re going into it with a greater understanding of what misinformation is and the impact it can have.

The 2016 election, and all the reporting that was done afterward to understand how misinformation was used and reached people, left us with something of a blueprint for understanding this crisis. We also now have so many more people working within the field of misinformation and disinformation, including public and private experts, fact-checkers and investigative journalists who know what to look for, how to uncover strategies and trends in misinformation and make use of online tools that can aid in forensic verification work. Also, the technology and social media platforms are taking actions to curb misleading and false news.

That said, the uncertainty and questions Americans have about the coronavirus and the voting process this year have created a prime breeding ground for misinformation to thrive. The fissures we’ve seen created through the pandemic, racial politics and the protests could leave people vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories. There are also more people on social media now, which can create a challenge. And of course, this election night will be different because voting has already begun and we may not see results for days, or even weeks, after Election Day, leaving space for misinformation to percolate.

What will you be watching for on election night?

On election night, we’re going to have a robust operation of fact-checkers and misinformation reporters scanning social media platforms for any misleading and false claims around the voting process itself – such as problems with ballot machines, lines at stations, voter intimidation and suppression, or fraud – and any other irregularities. We’re also going to be paying close attention to what the candidates are saying in person and online about the voting process and how the races are going. And we’ll generally be looking to see what sort of other misinformation might be gaining traction online – and why.

Find all AP Fact Checks here.

Mahabir explains how AP debunks misinformation in this AP video:

Follow AP’s coverage of the 2020 election.