Biggest Surge of Misinformation May Arrive After Election Day, Researchers Say

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While misinformation has played a consistent role in the midterm election season, researchers are warning that the biggest surge could come after Election Day, as far-right candidates and their supporters seize on ballot-counting delays and misleading narratives to sow doubt about the results.

The surge of false narratives may eventually focus on a few key races, where delays in calling the winner or a candidate’s refusal to concede will spur lawsuits or legislative inquiries, according to a new report by the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of online information researchers.

Several election deniers are running in tight races where it may take days to decide the winner, likely extending the wave of misinformation, researchers warned, allowing additional theories to gain traction.

This year, researchers have also expressed concerns about vote-counting sites, where a large number of partisans in competitive states have registered to become poll watchers. Though poll watchers face several legal limits on their activities, researchers warned that partisans who are hunting for voter fraud may claim they were obstructed from spotting it, leading to confrontations that could spread widely online.

The warnings add fresh urgency for social media companies and online platforms that have worked to address misinformation on their websites, adding pressure to continue special election policies that focus on curtailing misinformation’s spread.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said in a report last week that election misinformation tends to “not only continue but change and worsen in the postelection environment” — a warning that was largely ignored by social media companies in 2020.

“Most of us let our guards down after we’ve voted,” said Adam Conner, the vice president for technology policy at American Progress, adding: “It’s just as important to be aware, and not necessarily trust, everything we hear in the days and weeks after the election, too.”

The warnings also complicate decisions made by Twitter, which is now owned by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and chief executive of Tesla. Twitter announced it would expand its “blue check” system — used to confirm the legitimacy of notable accounts — to anyone willing to pay $8 per month for its subscription service. The decision raised concerns among misinformation watchdogs — and several Twitter employees — that it could help spread election lies.

The company is delaying the program’s complete rollout until after the midterms, according to an internal post viewed by The New York Times and two people with knowledge of the decision.