As Georgia heads towards a highly anticipated runoff election, it begs the question: Why do some states have runoffs? And what’s the purpose of them?
The Senate runoffs in Georgia have become the nation’s latest battleground against election misinformation as false and misleading posts swarm Facebook and Twitter.
A report from human rights group Avaaz found a dozen false claims on Facebook, including voter fraud and intimidation, spread through 204 posts in English and Spanish that generated 643,000 interactions. Sixty-percent of the posts slipped through undetected and reached voters without fact check labels, the report found.
Among the unfounded claims: that Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock – who is running against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler – supported Fidel Castro and that the NAACP issued a warning that white supremacists and other fringe groups planned to target Black men.
Avaaz campaign director Fadi Quran said the onslaught of falsehoods before early voting began Dec. 14 could further erode public trust in the election process and suppress voter turnout.
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Another report provided exclusively to USA TODAY found that Twitter averaged 1.5 million posts a day on the Georgia race, and conversations were dominated by predictions that the runoffs would be fraudulent.
Four of the top five posts on Twitter in the week before the report’s release, including three from President Donald Trump, made unsubstantiated claims about the election, according to the report from Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest research group that studies disinformation.
Voters cast ballots on July 26, 2016, in Atlanta. (Photo: David Goldman, AP)
Five of the top 10 hashtags used in conversations about Georgia insinuated voter fraud. Among those hashtags is #fightback, which was promoted by attorney Lin Wood who urged a crowd of Trump loyalists during a “Stop the Steal” gathering in Alpharetta, Georgia, not to vote Tuesday for either of the two incumbent Republican senators, Loeffler or David Perdue, who is running against Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Seven of the top 10 most shared links in Twitter posts about Georgia sent users to websites promoting election fraud claims, Advance Democracy found.
Playing a role in the spread of falsehoods are followers of QAnon conspiracy theorists, said Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy.
“Conspiracy theories about the runoff elections in Georgia are pervasive on Twitter and are driven almost exclusively by President Trump and lawyers who support him,” Jones said. “Claims of widespread election fraud by the president, his most prominent supporters, as well as a community of QAnon followers, are clearly having an impact – and sowing massive distrust in the democratic process.”
Tech companies pledge to curb misinformation
During a Senate hearing in November, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey pledged to take rigorous action against misinformation during the two Senate runoffs.
“We share Avaaz’s goal of limiting misinformation,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told USA TODAY in a statement. “We remain the only company to partner with more than 80 fact-checking organizations, using AI to scale their fact-checks to millions of duplicate posts, and we are working to improve our ability to action on similar posts. There is no playbook for a program like ours and we’re constantly working to improve it.”
Twitter said that from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11, 300,000 tweets were labeled as disputed or misleading, 0.2% of all election-related tweets. Twitter limited the spread of 456 tweets that bore a warning label.
Approximately 74% of the people who viewed those tweets saw them after Twitter applied a label or warning message, the company said.
“Twitter continues to take enforcement action on tweets that contain misleading and disputed information whether on Election Day or in the lead up to the Georgia runoff elections,” the company said in a statement.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger pushed back last month at conspiracy theories spread by Trump’s allies.
“There are those who are exploiting the emotions of many Trump supporters with fantastic claims, half-truths, misinformation, and frankly, they’re misleading the president as well, apparently,” Raffensperger said at a news conference.
Trump, who has blasted Raffensberger and Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp over the recounting process, refuses to concede the election despite signing off on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition, leveling unfounded claims of voter fraud to argue the election was stolen from him.
“We’ve been waiting for senior Republican officials to show some leadership and call the president’s statements what they are: dangerous and wrong,” Jones said. “We need all of our elected officials to stand up and stand against the rampant spread of disinformation that threatens our democracy.”
Contributing: Joey Garrison
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