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Unverified Election Claims Are Running Wild On Social Media


All this morning, we're leading with facts. Joe Biden has pulled ahead in Pennsylvania as that state continues its vote count. Biden leads by more than 7,000 votes now, and that lead is expected to continue to grow. Early this morning, vote counting in Georgia put Biden narrowly ahead. Any one of several states would give Biden the presidency now. His lead in Nevada expanded slightly yesterday. Those are facts. Now let's talk through some falsehoods that are circulating on social media. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn has been looking this.

We should just emphasize, again, what we're going to be talking through here are falsehoods. What kinds of misinformation or disinformation are out there?

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah. So researchers have pinpointed two main misinformation campaigns since Election Day. The first is around what's become known as Sharpiegate. Some may have heard of this by now. It's this baseless idea that Trump supporters in Arizona were tricked into using Sharpies to invalidate their votes. Now, election officials there say, yeah, poll workers handed Sharpies out, but it's a perfectly acceptable way to fill out a ballot. This hasn't stopped the hashtag from helping to stoke all sorts of speculation and rumor not just about markers, Steve, but about, you know, really extreme and violent ideas. The second trend that researchers are seeing is around the hashtag #StopTheSteal. And posts around this are - were about the false allegation that the election was being stolen from President Trump. And, of course, the president himself has repeatedly said this, even from the White House.

INSKEEP: Which was completely false yesterday. And I just want to circle back to the Sharpie, just so I'm clear. If anybody listening filled out their ballot with a Sharpie, they fed it into a machine, the machine read it, it's fine. Is that your understanding?

ALLYN: Exactly. That's right.

INSKEEP: OK. And so anybody telling you otherwise is lying to you. That's good to know. What are social media platforms doing about that?

ALLYN: Well, let's look at Stop the Steal. So a Facebook group under that name gained more than 300,000 followers in less than 24 hours. And then Facebook took it down after, quote, "worrying calls for violence." And, you know, for Facebook, it's really rare to see this kind of aggressive response to a controversy around mis- and disinformation. Now, over at Twitter, President Trump's favorite social media - if you go to his Twitter feed right now, you'll see that a good chunk of his tweets, you know, about a third of them, actually, are covered up with a gray square that said, hey, guys, this might be misleading.

So compared to Facebook and Twitter, over at YouTube, meanwhile, they aren't doing very much. There are videos there where right-wing announcers are just saying straight up that Trump won the election, which is not true. And YouTube refuses to take them down, but they are slapping a small, little warning on it that also says this is misleading, but they're not taking it down. And full disclosure here, Steve - Facebook and Twitter are among NPR's financial supporters.

INSKEEP: Are those efforts having any effect?

ALLYN: Right. So a good person to assess this would be Alex Stamos. He used to be the chief security officer at Facebook. And he's now the director of Stanford's Internet Observatory. And he says, you know, these major platforms, broadly speaking, are doing a pretty good job.

ALEX STAMOS: We're always going to have disinformation. I think the goal here for the company should be for them to make sure their product affordances don't make disinformation worse - the things they do around amplification, around recommendations and such.

ALLYN: Right, so Stamos is basically saying, you know, it's going to be impossible to completely get rid of some of these wacky theories on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. But the platforms are trying to make sure they're not being used as a megaphone for them, which hasn't always been the case. And Facebook is even planning additional steps to tamp down the spread of baseless claims and premature claims to victory. It just recently said it would limit the spread of live videos related to the election.

INSKEEP: I just want to mention, when I'm trying to figure out what's true or false, the most vital thing for me is to wait, hold on a second, see if something makes sense, wait for more information to come in, slow down. I think people trying to deceive me try to stampede me. So that's one thing I can advise people is to wait. What do researchers say to be vigilant about, very briefly?

ALLYN: Right. Two things - one, livestreaming really, really, really you have to be vigilant about. I mean, as this stuff is rolling, it's really hard for automated systems to catch it. And another thing is, you know, when the stuff is whacked, it often appears in other places. So keep an eye out for these hashtags and variations on the hashtags because mis- and disinformation, like a lot of things on the Internet, evolves.

INSKEEP: NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn, thanks so much.

ALLYN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.