Updated Nov 18, 2022 - Technology

Why misinformation didn't wreck the midterms

An illustration of the statue of liberty holding an umbrella.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Misinformation about voting and election denialism didn't swamp the midterms as many experts had feared — and many election deniers on the ballot, particularly for the crucial secretary-of-state roles, lost their races.

How it works: Platforms, governments and the media took countermeasures that were at least partially effective, based on their lessons from 2016, 2018 and 2020.

  • "Denialism narratives are still out there circulating," Jared Holt, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told Axios. "The difference here is that they just don't seem to be exciting people like they did in 2020."
  • "It's hard to say how much of that is attributable to [actions from] tech platforms, and how much is just general public sentiment," Holt said.

Details: Experts say voting mis- and disinformation didn't have the same impact on this year's contest compared to the 2020 election.

  • Though misinformation remains present in large quantities, this time it had less reach, was more spread out and was harder to find.

What they're saying: "The amount of content we saw that you could call kind of election disinformation was actually larger than what we saw in 2020 — but overall, the effects were much more muted," said Alex Stamos, director at the Stanford Internet Observatory, on Stanford Law School's "Moderated Content" podcast last week.

  • Stamos, who runs a non-partisan coalition called Election Integrity Partnership, said he and his colleagues expected a much more fractured environment this year for online misinformation, especially on right-wing platforms.
  • For the most part, he said, there were few calls to violence on major platforms, but many on alternative platforms like Telegram, where poll workers were doxxed and there were calls for protest and "coded calls" for potential violence.

Yes, but: The internet and Congress are both still full of people who believe and maintain, falsely, that the 2020 election was stolen, and there's still way too much intentional or accidental bad information about elections.

Be smart: Factors that helped curb the impact of online mis- and disinformation included:

  1. De-platforming. Efforts by big tech firms to explicitly ban misinformation about voting helped push falsehoods to small platforms where those narratives couldn't spread as widely, Stamos said. Researchers saw a shift in where false stories originated, from Twitter to Telegram. "That doesn't mean we don't see this stuff on Twitter, but it has a slightly different cadence now," Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public, told Axios.
  2. Too many new apps. A slew of new social and messaging apps have sprung up since the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, making memes and content around voting misinformation harder to spread to the masses quickly. That's partly because "key influencers have been sent to alternative platforms," Moran said.
  3. An overall rejection of election deniers. Election deniers were rejected in the midterms, with notable wins for secretaries of state Brad Raffensperger in Georgia and Katie Hobbs in Arizona, who defeated the Trump-endorsed Kari Lake in the governor's race. Public concessions by many of the losers in these races took wind out of the idea that the elections were rigged, Holt said.
  4. Defamation fears. Fox has faced a major defamation lawsuit by voting machine company Dominion after it broadcast conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was rigged, and that inspired more caution on cable TV. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who spread the narrative that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was fake, was recently fined $1.44 billion in a lawsuit brought by victims' families.
  5. More education: Nonprofits, departments of state, media organizations and campaigns ran voter education initiatives in an attempt to "pre-bunk" misinformation ahead of the midterm elections. "It was heartening to see election officials being really on the ball about being on top of errors happening," said Moran.

What to watch: Whether former President Donald Trump's 2024 re-election campaign continues to push false narratives about voting and the results of the 2020 election.

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