Your guide to following the election on social media

From misinformation to fast-changing maps, here’s how to understand election results and navigate social media.

Your guide to following the election on social media

From misinformation to fast-changing maps, here’s how to understand election results and navigate social media.
(Washington Post illustrations; iStock)

The experts agree: The best way to accurately track election results, and avoid falling for misinformation between now and Election Day, is to avoid too much social media. Stick with a handful of reputable news sources, and check their sites, apps or print versions directly. Or, heck, turn off your smartphone and immerse yourself in a book or craft project until after Election Day.

Unfortunately, the pull of instant analysis and speculation, lively conversation and experiencing history together as a community is too much for many of us, especially when so much is at stake.

The second-best way to follow the election results is to follow these tips and know what every social media site is doing to try to manage the problem. We spoke to misinformation experts and asked the companies about their latest plans to help you follow along.

Understand your social media options

If you’re going online to follow the election, pick a reliable news source or know what to look for on each social media or news aggregation site. Facebook, Twitter, Google search and Apple News will attempt to have special information boxes on the top of their respective sites and apps to counter the misinformation that might spread below.

These company-created modules should be clearly labeled and easy to identify. Similar to the information boxes on the novel coronavirus and voting that sites have added in recent months, they will attempt to focus on the simplest, most official information. For many sites, that means turning to sources such as the Associated Press and Reuters for any official results instead of taking a chance with a broad range of news outlets.

While the tech companies all have patchwork policies for handling posts or stories that contain misinformation or that purposefully try to create confusion around election results, they can be confusingly deployed and marked. Especially when it comes to misinformation directly from candidates.

If you don’t want follow the results but can’t shake social media altogether, try limiting your use of it to non-newsy purposes. This could mean ranking the networks you check by how political posts tend to be.

For example, if you follow only friends and family members on Instagram, you might find it’s a better place to waste time than Facebook. TikTok can be a soothing break from reality if you follow the right accounts and avoid the children of political figures. (There’s still misinformation on these sites, so use your best judgment). If you’ve somehow created a Twitter feed for yourself that avoids jumping on every morsel of breaking news, then spend time there.

Know what to expect on election night

You may have mailed in your ballot weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean it has already been counted or will even show up in the election night tallies. Each state has different policies for when it processes (opening, organizing and confirming signatures on the ballots) and counts votes (actually tallies them up). Some states, such as Pennsylvania, only start processing ballots on Election Day. Other jurisdictions, such as Arizona, start processing and counting ballots before Election Day.

What that means for people following results closely is that a state can look one way on election night and an entirely different way in the days after. Some surveys indicate more Democrats could vote by mail than Republicans, leading to maps going red in early tallies and blue in subsequent days.

“The challenge is to prepare people for the possibility of not knowing, and the possibility of the proportions [of votes] changing,” says Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington.

Check out this interactive graphic for more details on different election night scenarios.

The takeaway for election-night watchers is not to jump to any conclusions before a race is called by an official outlet, no matter how it looks on a news or social media site’s official map.

Look out for these narratives

Election misinformation isn’t always as simple as an obviously made-up news story on some untrustworthy site. It thrives on a combination of truth and lies to spread. So why do these stories exist at all, and who is behind them? There is usually a purpose to things such as misinformation or conspiracy theories, and knowing why some stories are being pushed can help you better understand, and be skeptical, of them.

For example, at the time of the first presidential debate, misinformation started circulating that Joe Biden was going to wear an earpiece, including in ads from the Trump campaign.

Researchers are watching the ocean of misinformation on social media closely, and right now they are paying attention to a few potential scenarios.

Before the election, social media could be used to magnify and spread real and fake threats of violence at voting locations to scare people out of voting. Or it could contribute to actual voter intimidation, by urging people show up armed at patrol polling places to monitor for voter fraud.

The false narratives about voter fraud serve another purpose, say experts: They could be used to try to undermine confidence in the process. That uncertainty and distrust in the results could be politically helpful to some parties in the case of a close election.

Not all misinformation will spread on Election Day. So far, Twitter and Facebook have already labeled posts from President Trump that claimed mail-in ballots could lead to election fraud.

One of the biggest concerns is a candidate prematurely declaring victory on or just after Election Day. Because of the record number of absentee and mail-in ballots, it could take days or even weeks before races are called. That leaves a vacuum during which a side could try to call the election for themselves, sowing confusion and possibly setting the groundwork for a legal battle.

Finally, there could be a conclusive result but one party could still deny the outcome of the election, aided by all the misinformation that came before.

Research your news sources

Avoiding news on social media is not the same as avoiding news. Samuel Woolley, program director of propaganda research at the University of Texas’s Center for Media Engagement, teaches seniors how to recognize misinformation. He recommends choosing a few sources that you can trust. Look to nonprofits such as ProPublica, wire services such as the AP or Reuters, and the major outlets of record in the United States, such as The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, says Woolley. For local and state results, check the local news outlets that are following those races closest.

When it comes to individual news stories, start by looking up the source. You’ll want a domain name that starts with https over just http, and don’t assume something is true just because it sounds and looks legitimate. Google the name of the source, or if you’re still unsure, check a known ranking of news sites such as the Global Disinformation Index, or a fact-checking site such as Snopes or PolitiFact.

Know each site’s election-night plan

Here is what each of the major sites has planned so far. We will update this with tech companies’ changing plans:

Twitter says its official U.S. election page will not declare races until they are called by state election officials or two or more pre-chosen national news sources. Any tweets that prematurely call a race will get a label and a link back to the main Twitter election page. It is also adding features to try to slow the spread of viral posts, including asking people to add a comment to any retweets before sharing and adding more information to trending topics. If a candidate prematurely declares victory, it will label and possibly remove their posts.

The site has started showing two warnings to all users ahead of the election, on top of the feed and in relevant searches. One says that there may be misleading information about voting by mail, and the other warns that there could be a delay getting final election results. Both link to pages with more information.

Facebook and Instagram will show a notification on top of their apps and sites when the polls close that say “Votes are still being counted” or “Too early to call” until Reuters and the National Election Pool declare races. The notifications will link to an information page with breakdowns of votes and an electoral map of the United States. Facebook is using a system to flag posts that could go viral to check them and slow misinformation from spreading. Posts that question the legitimacy of the election will get an informational label, Facebook says. It will also stop running political ads, but not until after polls have closed. If a candidate prematurely declares victory, the platform will label their post to note that votes are still being counted.

Google search will display an in-depth information panel above relevant search results, which will relay election information from the AP. It will include a U.S. map and the ability to view results for state races and ballot measures. The company will ban all ads related to the U.S. election after polls close Nov. 3, and it expects the ban to last at least a week. The ad rule is part of the company’s “sensitive events” policy and will cover any ad that mentions a candidate, a political party or an election, among other election-related content.

Google will not be taking additional measures on any organic search results that might include misinformation, such as prematurely declaring victory for one candidate, relying instead on its existing system for surfacing reliable results.

Google News will not show election results or have its own election information box. Like search, it will not take any additional steps against news stories that prematurely call the election, such as labeling or removing them. Instead, like Google’s organic search results, the company will rely on its existing algorithms for showing more-authoritative sources. Google News does have a topic page for the 2020 election that just displays election-related news stories.

YouTube will not add an information panel on its home page, but it will show one that includes election results from the AP when searching for election-related terms. It will also appear under election-related videos and link back to the main Google election page. More than a quarter of adults get news on YouTube, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, though results often include videos from “independent” channels not linked to an established news organization. To minimize disinformation, the site prioritizes results from official news outlets and organizations in searches and recommendations for important topics such as voting by mail.

Apple News is working with news and polling-analysis site FiveThirtyEight on content and will use the AP as its official source for election results, all of which will appear in its election hub. It also uses human editors to do things such as manage the results page and choose the top five stories shown in the News app. If any of its publishing partners do publish misinformation, Apple News can limit their visibility but does not typically remove stories from the app.

TikTok will also have a special election-information page, but it won’t be pinned to the top of the app for everyone to see. Instead, it will show up under any election-related content or on top of relevant searches. On Election Day, the page will include a map and real-time election results from the AP. Any disinformation confirmed to be false by its fact-checking partners will be removed, and any premature claims of victory will be made harder to find. TikTok does not allow political advertising.

Snapchat’s Discover page, which includes content only from partners such as news organizations and approved public figures, will not allow posts that include election misinformation or share, without context, news of a premature declaration of victory.

Think before you share stories

“One of the things that happens is when we are experiencing a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, that makes us vulnerable to hearing misinformation and spreading misinformation,” Starbird says.

Before sharing an article or social media post, do something radical: Make sure you actually read it. Click on a link instead of just relying on the headline and description. Research the source and check the URL to make sure it’s not misleading.

As for taking part in conversations around the election, think about what you have to gain and the likelihood of changing anyone’s mind. If you see someone you know spreading misinformation, you can try telling them in a direct message or leaving a link to correct information in the replies, but avoid attacking them, as some research shows that makes people more likely to dig in. If you’re tempted to leave a combative reply, stand up and walk away from your device.

“You’re probably not going to sleep on it, but you definitely should take five minutes before you make the post,” says Woolley.

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