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States Are Bracing for Social Media-Enabled Election Violence

(Bloomberg) -- State elections officials say they’re seeing an uptick in a new kind of social media-fueled danger to US midterms: online anger that threatens to spill over into real-world violence.

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In Arizona, online conspiracy theories resulted in so many harassing phone calls to the secretary of state’s office, employees had to take a break from answering. In Michigan, officials have seen such a flood of violent rhetoric online that this week they sent letters to tech company CEOs pleading with them to do more to control their platforms. In Maine, a state where Election Day is associated with patriotic pie-eating, a poll worker last year received a credible death threat on Facebook.

Bloomberg reached out to all 50 secretaries of state and spoke with representatives of 12 offices, from Texas to Hawaii. All of those who commented said they’ve seen an increase in online suspicion about the electoral process, which in many states has led to threats for staff or poll workers and resignations of these crucial employees.

Narratives that drove the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol, such as false claims of voter fraud, have lingered online. The chatter escalated most during primaries in states that had close contests in 2020 or where former US President Donald Trump backed candidates for office. Social media platforms have ramped up their election-related security measures, adding channels for state governments to report posts more directly. But rules on misinformation and harassing content are applied inconsistently, if at all, the officials said.

“Things that we might see as directly threatening, the social media company might not,” said Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state and Democratic candidate for governor, who regularly receives harassing posts online, as well as calls to her office phone.

A recent voicemail reviewed by Bloomberg falsely claimed Hobbs cheated through the primary, and suggested she be “hunted” for her “betrayal.” Other missives threaten her family or call her a traitor. People are so convinced of online election conspiracies, Hobbs said, that they “will see the need to take action in their own hands. And that is a scary place to be.”

Overall in the US, one in six election officials have experienced threats because of their job, according to a March survey of local election workers by the Brennan Center for Justice. In some states, it’s worse: 77% of Oregon election workers said they have experienced harassment, threats or intimidation while doing their jobs in the past five years, according to a January survey by the secretary of state office. One anonymous respondent said they and their colleagues deactivated their personal social media accounts, after a coworker was targeted with vulgar attacks on Facebook.

In Tarrant County, Texas, the elections administrator received social media threats to hunt him down, hang him and end his bloodline following the 2020 election, according to an Aug. 11 election disinformation report from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform. In Gillespie County, Texas, the elections administrator and her entire three-person staff resigned effective Aug. 16 due to threats she was receiving, including on social media.

During primary elections, which have taken place in all but seven states, multiple state officials said they were working to proactively educate citizens about the electoral process via their social media accounts, to try to avoid online anger bubbling into real-world threats. In Texas, for instance, the secretary of state’s office invites the public and media to a demonstration of how voting machines work, explaining clearly that they aren’t connected to the internet and can’t be easily tampered with. But the reassurances only go so far.

“These days, there are people calling about whether their vote is safe, and you go through all the details of the process and they don't believe you,” said Sam Taylor, the assistant secretary of state for communications in Texas. “They just want to be angry at someone and point their finger at someone and accuse someone, saying they're rigging the election.”

Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc. explained that the company divides the country into five regions and staffs state- and local-level representatives to each region. Since 2018, the state and local government outreach team has operated a 24/7 email line where states can directly report content they think violates standards. In an interview with Bloomberg, a Facebook representative said that receiving context from local officials can be helpful, but everything submitted is reviewed against the same set of standards, and then decreed either in violation of the social network’s Community Guidelines -- or not.

YouTube said government officials can join a “trusted flagger” program, to bring misleading content to reviewers’ attention more directly. In the first three months of the year, the Alphabet Inc.-owned video platform removed over 60,000 videos for promotion of violence and violent extremism. Twitter Inc. said instead of addressing each and every instance of misinformation on its site, it will aim to educate its users with an information alert at the top of users’ feeds, explaining the kinds of falsehoods they may encounter during election time.

The decision-making process is not transparent enough, several of the state officials said. In Michigan, the frustration led to sending formal letters, signed by the secretary of state and attorney general, asking for more open communication with the platforms. They mailed paper copies of the letters to heads of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube at their corporate addresses; a shot in the dark, but one that was necessary because the office didn’t have direct contacts at any platform besides Facebook, a spokesperson said.

“We would like an opportunity to meet with you or your designee,” the letters ask. “We are concerned by the unprecedented speed with which election lies and falsehoods travel and take root due to social media platforms such as yours.”

It adds: “In far less time than our offices can review and disprove them, the lies are eroding faith in America’s elections and weakening our democracy.”

Taylor, in Texas, said it’s particularly frustrating when the state reports problematic content to the social media companies and waits for a response, only to hear, ultimately, that it’s not a violation of their policies.

In May, for instance, a Twitter user replied to the official Texas secretary of state’s account falsely claiming that the office obstructs poll watchers, calling the legal director a “traitor” and saying she should be fired. Taylor said the tweet was misleading and an apparent attempt to target the agency’s legal director for explaining the correct law on poll watchers in Texas elections. Taylor’s multiple reports of the tweet went nowhere.

“On one hand that is free speech. You can call someone a traitor or treasonous,” Taylor said. “But these days, calling an election official treasonous usually invokes more violent action or at least calls people to get organized against that person. And more often than not, those things go viral.”

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