For The Good of Our Democracy, Please Don’t Spread Unverified Election Rumors

A simple request as we head into a potentially scary period

It goes without saying that tomorrow is going to be a long, strange day — and that the strangeness could extend for quite some time. In addition to all the standard messiness of American democracy, we’re faced with the very odd, menacing situation of a sitting president broadcasting, right out loud for everyone to hear, that he’s willing to declare victory well before it is clear he has actually secured 270 electoral votes.

The reason he can do so is that different states have different rules pertaining to the processing of ballots. We are much more likely to find out who won some states (like Florida) tomorrow night than others (like, sigh, Pennsylvania). FiveThirtyEight has published two crucial articles on this: “When To Expect Election Results In Every State,” which everyone should have at hand as the results begin arriving tomorrow night, and “Why Pennsylvania’s Vote Count Could Change After Election Night,” which explains that there could be a profound difference between how the Pennsylvania vote count looks Tuesday night and where it eventually ends up. 

Because of partisan differences in early voting versus day-of voting and Pennsylvania’s rather slow system for processing and counting ballots, Geoffrey Skelley explains, there are realistic scenarios where Donald Trump is up an imposing 16 points in Pennsylvania as Election Day is drawing to a close, but where later-counted votes swing things allllllllllll the way back to the current polling average of Biden +5 of so. Note that this doesn’t involve anything unusual: This is how Pennsylvania, under Pennsylvania law, processes and counts it ballots.

Pennsylvania and other late-reporting states like it provide Trump with an opportunity to sow chaos and uncertainty. Some Americans might not understand that it’s perfectly standard for these states to not deliver definitive results Election Night, and they might be sympathetic to his claims that these are “late votes” or that there is “voter fraud” going on, even in the complete and utter absence of any evidence supporting these claims.

Now, Donald Trump’s Twitter account is not magical. If he is up in Pennsylvania at 12:36 a.m. November 4th and there are close races elsewhere and he tweets “THE GREAT STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA HAS PUT US OVER 270. #MAGA # MAGA #MAGA,” it goes without saying that this tweet, on its own, has no real power. I have faith in the fact that the countless people doing the invisible, vital work of processing and counting the ballots, whether Republicans or Democrats or independents, are not going to say, “Well, Trump said he won so I guess that’s that — we can go home.” 

But if this scenario, or another one like it, does come to pass, it will spark a scary moment absolutely unprecedented in recent American history. Because the weirder things get, the weirder things can get. The less the election hinges on simply counting the ballots and seeing who won, and more on presidential tweet-proclamations and arcane court decisions at the county level (or whatever) and other stuff beyond the normal boundaries of the American electoral system, the more imperiled our democracy becomes.

Which brings me to my main point, which might seem like a bit of a sudden left turn from what I’ve said so far: Please, for the love of God, do your best to not spread misinformation about the election between now and when it is settled. I know, I know — I sound like a nerd. I’ve gone from discussing the real world to Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, though, we’ve reached a point where these pernicious platforms can whip up a great deal of fear and misinformation in mere minutes, and my concern is that there is a direct correlation between the level of confusion and uncertainty and in-the-streets-chaos Election Day and the probability Donald Trump will be particularly bold in his efforts to steal the election if the polls are right and he appears headed for defeat.

I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency, among some people with big platforms who might otherwise criticize Trump for spreading fake news, and who in other contexts extol the virtues of reason and evidence, to instantly retweet anything that reinforces their prior political beliefs. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of video: a few out-of-context seconds of some sort of confrontation where it is hard to know exactly what happened or who is more at fault. If a video like this were presented as evidence that your husband or your brother or your best friend had done something wrong, you would want to know more, and you would think it unfair that people were jumping to conclusions on the basis of such limited evidence. But these standards seem to fly out the window when it comes to video of people we think we hate or are suspicious of.

All else being equal, the more emotionally aroused people are, and the more they feel beset by threat and uncertainty, the more likely they are to spread unfounded rumors. I just hope that between now and when it is clear who the next president is, people understand the potential consequences of this behavior. It might feel right, in a moment, to share a video of, for example, what appears to be activists intimidating voters waiting in line. But unless you are completely positive that is, in fact, what you are looking at, you should consider the risk that you are increasing the overall temperature of the situation, helping to amp up all the suspicion and hate and distrust, for nothing (you might also be falling into a trap set by people intentionally seeking to seed and stoke misinformation). And when enough people believe false rumors, they take action in response, and then the other side takes action in response to that action, and things can quickly spiral out of control.

Gun to my head, I think Biden will win and there will be a peaceful transfer of power. But there are so many things that can go wrong, and we really are at a precarious moment. Many aspects of civic life have gotten markedly worse over the last four years, and it does feel like, online at least, there has been a real degradation of certain vital norms pertaining to fairness and fact-checking and context — not just among the randos and radicals who have always fallen short in this department, but among many individuals who absolutely should know better. This doesn’t make them bad humans: It’s just that these platforms really are quite bad, and really are designed to profit off of human frailty. And there has been such a siege mentality in the Trump years — exacerbated, every step of the way, by Trump’s own utterances — that people have lost their minds a bit. Which, during as important an event as an election, makes everything more dangerous.

A final note: I’m focusing on the possibility of Trump trying to cheat his way to a victory because he and his aides have quite literally said that this option is on the table. No ‘objective’ or ‘unbiased’ analysis of the election should ignore this fact. It’s remarkable and terrible. But even if you think this particular risk is overstated, all of the above applies. The more chaos and confusion and mistrust there is tomorrow, the greater the chances of something other than a smooth transition or continuation of power occurring. So nothing I’m saying here is dependent on your sharing my worries about the Trump camp trying something dictator-ish.

So please, please think before you share. Always, but especially between now and the end of the election.

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Questions? Comments? Gonzo rumors for me to spread without checking them? I’m at or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The image of an American flag in front of a blue sky with some clouds is from Aaron Burden on Unsplash.