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Researchers Prepare For Deluge Of Election Night Misinformation


As the candidates prepare for this Election Day, researchers on the West Coast are preparing for the deluge of information and misinformation and uncertainty that is likely to come Tuesday night. Non-partisan analysts are clear - we may not know the next president on election night. Because of record-shattering absentee voting, early voting and vote-by-mail ballots to sort and count, as well as the legal challenges that are already being made, it could be days before a definitive winner is announced.

So what should we expect on election night? And how can we prepare for what experts say will be a flood of misleading and outright false claims? To help us get ready, we've called Kate Starbird. She is a professor at the University of Washington and one of the lead researchers with the Election Integrity Partnership. That is a research coalition that reports on election-related misinformation.

Professor Starbird, thank you so much for being with us.

KATE STARBIRD: Oh, thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, your team released a report this past week titled "Uncertainty And Misinformation: What To Expect On Election Night And Days After." So let's get right into that. What are some of the main takeaways? And for those of us who will be following election night news closely, what can we expect?

STARBIRD: Yeah, the first thing that we just wanted to drive home was this fact that we are probably going to experience uncertainty on election night and uncertainty in the results. We might not know both at the presidential level and other down-ballot races. And just to really stress that that uncertainty doesn't mean that it's illegitimate - the uncertainty is expected. It's normal, and it will eventually be resolved.

And there are going to be efforts to try to delegitimize the results because of the uncertainty. And I just want to stress that we shouldn't fall for those kinds of narratives that are seeking to say because it's slow, then there must be something wrong. Because - it's slow because we're doing the things the right way.

MARTIN: There is this expectation in some states that early votes will likely show former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat in the lead, for example, and then votes on Tuesday could flip that to Trump. And it could go vice-versa. But the narratives that seem to be arising - for example, Trump adviser Jason Miller said on ABC News this morning that Democrats could be behind in some states on election night - and I'm going to quote him here - "then they're going to try to steal it back after the election." What do you make of that?

STARBIRD: This is an attempt to pre-delegitimize the results and pre-delegitimize actually something that we know - it's very likely it's going to happen - is a shift in voter share from leaning red to leaning blue in some states that have a lot of mail-in ballots because the mail-in ballots were more likely to be used by Democrats, and so there is likely to be a shift from red to blue in some states. It's actually likely to be from blue to red in other states.

And there actually - it's expected. It's easily explained by the different trends in voting. But there's going to be an attempt to try to claim that those changes are representations of cheating, that the change or the shift is some kind of voter fraud, when in reality it's just due to people voting at different times using different methods.

MARTIN: As you mentioned in the report, there is likely to be amplification of alleged fraud, of faulty machines, of long lines, of protests. The reality of it is, there are in some places legitimate issues around hour-long waits and faulty machines. But in this heightened atmosphere, how do you recommend that people make sense of that?

STARBIRD: One of the things that you point out is, there are reasons to be critical of some of the things that are happening in the election. There's going to be reasons to be critical of those long lines. They're there for a reason. We could do better. People shouldn't have to wait in lines that are so long. And so when we see criticism about things. It's, like, we're doing this a wrong way. We need to fix this. I think that's really healthy criticism.

When we see criticism that's just meant to undermine our trust in the results, I think that's where we should recognize that that's part of the strategy. And that's part of the strategy that may even be building towards legal cases, where they're going to try to throw out votes - to recognize the difference between constructive criticism of what's going wrong so we can fix things and just sort of this nihilistic criticism that's just about undermining our trust in what's going on.

MARTIN: How do you recommend people deal with the information that is being directed toward them? I mean, you've said several times that a lot of misinformation is intended to manipulate. Like, how would you know? Is there some sort of exercise you would encourage people to apply to themselves as this is going on?

STARBIRD: When we see ourselves being manipulated, a lot of times, that's through our emotions - not through our knowledge or our logic, but through our emotional systems. And that's not to say that we shouldn't be outraged about some of the things that we're seeing, but just be careful as we're experiencing that outrage. I know that when I've shared misinformation, it's often because I felt outraged and whatever I saw really fit with this feeling of, like, oh, we're being wronged by the other side. And that's when we're really susceptible to sharing misinformation.

MARTIN: I'm trying to figure out how to ask this question. This is the feeling I think some people have, is that this is a moment where it's not, like, on the one hand, on the other hand. The president of the United States is promulgating certain views which are not based in fact. And other people who want to react to that - like, you know, on the one hand, you can say, well, that's not in the interest of democracy.

It's not - rumormongering passing on information without knowing whether it's true, overreacting to what may be simple, you know, human error or technical failure is fair. But if one side feels they're being continually disadvantaged by the other side's lack of interest in observing these protocols, what's the argument for playing by those rules, then?

STARBIRD: Yeah. I mean, it is. It's this hard - it's like it's horrible double standard. And we feel that in the project that we've been working on, as we're desperately trying to hold on to trust in the systems and trying to prop them up and trying to keep them strong, even as, you know, this whole political party is trying to take them down.

And we're trying to be non-partisan in our work. And at the same time, how do you be non-partisan when the value of democracy is no longer sitting in between the two sides? It's more on one side than the other. The gamble is to try to salvage what's left of our hope for how America's supposed to work.

And clearly, it's flawed. There's so many flaws. But we're working on those flaws. And we're angry, but we're trying to make things better, then we're on the right track. When we're looking at those flaws, and we're just trying to break everything down and create division and distrust, then that's not a well-meaning actor, right? That's not somebody who's sincerely part of this process. That's somebody that's just involved in trying to grab power.

MARTIN: That is professor Kate Starbird. She is one of the lead researchers with the Election Integrity Partnership.

Professor Starbird, thank you so much for joining us.

STARBIRD: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "T.I.B.W.F.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.