The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Arizona ‘audit’ is a big problem. Online disinformation will make it worse.

Ballots cast in Maricopa County, Ariz., are examined and recounted by contractors working for the Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas. (Matt York/AP)
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It is obvious to anyone who is paying attention that the sham “audit” of 2020 votes underway in Arizona is not about actually reaffirming the vote count. It’s about furthering the spread of more disinformation about the outcome in the state — and about the 2020 outcome overall.

Here’s something that could make this problem even worse: The proliferation of disinformation online.

The Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit that tracks online disinformation, is seeking to put this idea on the agenda in a new way. We talk about the Arizona audit as a huge problem, in that bad actors are using comically dubious tactics to find fake “evidence” of fraud, undermining people’s faith in the electoral system. We also talk about online disinformation as a huge issue in and of itself.

But the combination of these two things could create an even more toxic situation, with online disinformation grotesquely amplifying the Arizona nonsense and bringing it to a much larger audience.

“The Arizona audit is really the ground zero for where a lot of this election misinformation started,” Katie Paul, the director of Tech Transparency Project, told me. Paul noted that for the Arizona audit, “online misinformation is absolutely serving as a major megaphone.”

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What’s truly alarming here, Paul noted, is that as disinformation about the Arizona audit spreads online, “it’s imprinted in digital history forever.”

The Tech Transparency Project is releasing a new report on disinformation about the Arizona audit that has been spreading on Facebook. It concludes that such disinformation has “run rampant on its platform.”

The report documents copious disinformation on the platform about other big lies about 2020, including nonsense about the Georgia results and absurdities about the hacking of voting machines. And it finds that this sort of disinformation is also hastening a “proliferation of conspiracy theories” not just about the Arizona audit, but also “copycat efforts in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania.”

As Paul noted to me, this points to another distressing phenomenon — that online disinformation is helping the Arizona audit become a national phenomenon.

“It’s no longer a one-off thing,” she said. “It’s spreading across the country in part because of the online web.”

Karen Kornbluh, a disinformation expert at the German Marshall Fund, told me it’s hard to say how influential this particular disinformation truly is, but noted that the broader issue identified here is real and serious.

“This group is pointing to a legitimate problem,” Kornbluh told me. “The Arizona audit is being used to fuel more and more disinformation online.”

Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, pointed to the platform’s work in policing harmful content, in particular “limiting content that sought to delegitimize the outcome of the election.” Stone added: “There is no playbook for a program like ours and we’re constantly working to improve.”

Stone also confirmed to me that Facebook has removed all the groups in the report.

All this points to a new dimension to a still broader problem that’s becoming distressingly obvious: The nexus between online disinformation and efforts to undermine faith in our electoral system that are becoming an important tool of political warfare on the right.

Members of Congress recently grilled heads of numerous tech companies — Google and Twitter, as well as Facebook — about the role of disinformation on their platforms in helping drive the mobilization for the Jan. 6 insurrection. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey admitted to the premise.

And on top of this, of course, ongoing events like the Arizona audit are being widely propagandized by other right wing media outlets, which are doing this by treating its hearings as legitimate exercises, as Media Matters documents.

Ultimately, what makes the combination of the Arizona audit and online disinformation particularly terrible is that it signals how much worse all this will get. Its real toxicity comes down to the fact that the sort of disinformation generated around the Arizona audit is designed to metastasize and live on endlessly, making it uniquely well suited to breed and thrive in the online disinformation environment.

And at bottom, the Arizona audits and their copycats are really forward-looking in nature. They are dry runs at manufacturing fake uncertainty about future electoral outcomes, with an eye toward concocting phony pretexts for overturning them by whatever means are available.

Which makes it even more sobering to contemplate what the consequences will be in future elections, if social media platforms don’t get a handle on this before long.

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