WEST CHESTER, Pa. — Disinformation has long been a feature of American politics. Mudslinging, smear campaigns, dirty tricks. Yet wading through the muck ahead of this year’s midterm elections in one fiercely contested state, Pennsylvania, shows just how thoroughly it now warps the American democratic process.
In July, a tweet made the rounds spreading a falsehood about voting. “BREAKING: Pennsylvania will not be accepting mail-in ballots,” declared someone using an account called the Donald J. Trump Tracker.
In September, mysterious letters began arriving in mailboxes in Chester County, on the old Main Line west of Philadelphia, falsely telling people that their votes might not have been counted in the last election.
No, the Democratic candidate for United States Senate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, does not have tattoos of the Crips, the notorious street gang from Los Angeles, as Newt Gingrich said on Fox.
contentious primaries, Pennsylvanians have experienced a deluge of false or misleading posts, photographs and videos on social media, as well as increasingly partisan, bitter and at times unhinged claims on television, radio and live streams to a degree that no one recalled seeing before.
“I’m not saying the politics was ever, you know, perfect,” Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 to 2016, said in an interview, lamenting the seemingly bottomless depth of the problem.
“I think what’s changed is you go back 100 years and you’d have had to put a whole lot more effort into spreading lies,” he said. “Now, you can just push a button.”
A lot of attention has focused on a stroke that Mr. Fetterman suffered in May, just as he clinched the Democratic nomination. The stroke left him with an auditory processing disorder, a condition that affects the brain’s ability to filter and interpret sounds, which Republicans have said makes him unfit for office. His speech has also become more halting, and he stumbles over his words, as he did multiple times in the debate last week against his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, the television personality known as Dr. Oz.
Opponents used his verbal gaffes in misleading ways. A video montage by a Republican campaign operative, Greg Price, exaggerated the effects of the stroke, while a Twitter account impersonating BuzzFeed falsely claimed that Mr. Fetterman had apologized for urinating on a campaign staffer. Mr. Price did not respond to requests for comment.
Other false claims have, again, questioned the machines that count votes, while a recent flurry of posts on Telegram, the app created in Russia, have incorrectly accused the state’s top election official of not complying with legal rulings about mail-in ballots. ActiveFence, a cybersecurity company, said that these claims have spread across platforms, garnering tens of thousands of impressions.
Jill Greene, the state representative for Common Cause, the national good-government organization, said that the many unfounded and untruthful claims posed a challenge for voters.
pledged to remove or marginalize false posts ahead of the midterms.
A doctored post on Facebook, to cite one of scores of examples, showed Mr. Oz kneeling to kiss the star of Donald J. Trump along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (In the original, he was kissing his own star.)
being repeatedly told that the American election process is deeply corrupted.
In fact, Mr. Mastriano’s candidacy has from its inception been propelled by his role in disputing the 2020 presidential election lost by Mr. Trump.
county by county, but election experts say they do not reflect factors as benign as changes in addresses.
“They’re in search of solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Kyle Miller, a Navy veteran and state representative for Protect Democracy, a national advocacy organization, said in an interview in Harrisburg. “They are basing this on faulty data and internet rumors.”
Some Republican lawmakers have leaned on false claims to call for changes to rules about mail-in ballots and other measures intended to make it easier for people to vote. Several counties have already reversed some of the decisions, including the number and location of drop boxes for ballots.
Mr. Miller, among others, warned that the flurry of false claims about balloting could be a trial run for challenging the results of the presidential election in 2024, in which Pennsylvania could again be a crucial swing state.
In Chester County, a largely white region that borders Delaware and Maryland that is roughly split between Republicans and Democrats, the effort to sow confusion came the old-fashioned way: in the mail.
Letters dated Sept. 12 began arriving in mailboxes across the county, warning people that their votes in the 2020 presidential election might not have counted. “Because you have a track record of consistently voting, we find it unusual that your record indicates that you did not vote,” the letter, which was unsigned, said.
The sender called itself “Data Insights,” based in the county seat of West Chester, though no known record of such a company exists, according to county officials. The letters did include copies of the recipients’ voting records. The letters urged recipients to write to the county commissioners or attend the commission’s meetings in the county seat of West Chester, in September and October. Dozens of recipients did.
The county administrator, Robert J. Kagel, tried to assure them that their votes were actually counted. He urged anyone concerned to contact the county’s voter services department.
Even so, at county meetings in September and October, speaker after speaker lined up to question the letter and the ballot process generally — and to air an array of grievances and conspiracy theories.
They included the discredited claims of the film “2000 Mules” that operatives have been stuffing boxes for mail-in ballots. One attendee warned that votes were being tabulated by the Communist Party of China or the World Economic Forum.
“I don’t know where my vote is,” another resident, Barbara Ellis of Berwyn, told the commissioners in October. “I don’t know if it was manipulated in the machines, in another country.”
As of Oct. 20, 59 people in Chester County had contacted officials with concerns raised in the letter, but in each case, it was determined that the voters’ ballots had been cast and counted, said Rebecca Brain, a county spokesman.
Who exactly sent the letters remains a mystery, which only fuels more conspiracy theories.
“It seems very official,” Charlotte Valyo, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party in the county, said of the letter. She described it as part of “an ongoing, constant campaign to undermine the confidence in our voting system.” The county’s Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Disinformation may not be the only cause of the deepening partisan chasm in the state — or the nation — but it has undoubtedly worsened it. The danger, Ms. Valyo warned, was discouraging voting by sowing distrust in the ability of election officials to tally the votes.
“People might think, ‘Why bother, if they’re that messed up?’”
On the morning of July 8, former President Donald J. Trump took to Truth Social, a social media platform he founded with people close to him, to claim that he had in fact won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Barely 8,000 people shared that missive on Truth Social, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of responses his posts on Facebook and Twitter had regularly generated before those services suspended his megaphones after the deadly riot on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.
And yet Mr. Trump’s baseless claim pulsed through the public consciousness anyway. It jumped from his app to other social media platforms — not to mention podcasts, talk radio or television.
Within 48 hours of Mr. Trump’s post, more than one million people saw his claim on at least dozen other media. It appeared on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
gone mainstream among Republican Party members, driving state and county officials to impose new restrictions on casting ballots, often based on mere conspiracy theories percolating in right-wing media.
Voters must now sift through not only an ever-growing torrent of lies and falsehoods about candidates and their policies, but also information on when and where to vote. Officials appointed or elected in the name of fighting voter fraud have put themselves in the position to refuse to certify outcomes that are not to their liking.
a primary battleground in today’s fight against disinformation. A report last month by NewsGuard, an organization that tracks the problem online, showed that nearly 20 percent of videos presented as search results on TikTok contained false or misleading information on topics such as school shootings and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
continued to amplify “election denialism” in ways that undermined trust in the democratic system.
Another challenge is the proliferation of alternative platforms for those falsehoods and even more extreme views.
new survey by the Pew Research Center found that 15 percent of prominent accounts on those seven platforms had previously been banished from others like Twitter and Facebook.
F.B.I. raid on Mar-a-Lago thrust his latest pronouncements into the eye of the political storm once again.
study of Truth Social by Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media monitoring group, examined how the platform had become a home for some of the most fringe conspiracy theories. Mr. Trump, who began posting on the platform in April, has increasingly amplified content from QAnon, the online conspiracy theory.
He has shared posts from QAnon accounts more than 130 times. QAnon believers promote a vast and complex conspiracy that centers on Mr. Trump as a leader battling a cabal of Democratic Party pedophiles. Echoes of such views reverberated through Republican election campaigns across the country during this year’s primaries.
Ms. Jankowicz, the disinformation expert, said the nation’s social and political divisions had churned the waves of disinformation.
The controversies over how best to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic deepened distrust of government and medical experts, especially among conservatives. Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election led to, but did not end with, the Capitol Hill violence.
“They should have brought us together,” Ms. Jankowicz said, referring to the pandemic and the riots. “I thought perhaps they could be kind of this convening power, but they were not.”
In 2011, Catherine Engelbrecht appeared at a Tea Party Patriots convention in Phoenix to deliver a dire warning.
While volunteering at her local polls in the Houston area two years earlier, she claimed, she witnessed voter fraud so rampant that it made her heart stop. People cast ballots without proof of registration or eligibility, she said. Corrupt election judges marked votes for their preferred candidates on the ballots of unwitting citizens, she added.
Local authorities found no evidence of the election tampering she described, but Ms. Engelbrecht was undeterred. “Once you see something like that, you can’t forget it,” the suburban Texas mom turned election-fraud warrior told the audience of 2,000. “You certainly can’t abide by it.”
planting seeds of doubt over the electoral process, becoming one of the earliest and most enthusiastic spreaders of ballot conspiracy theories.
fueled by Mr. Trump, has seized the moment. She has become a sought-after speaker at Republican organizations, regularly appears on right-wing media and was the star of the recent film “2,000 Mules,” which claimed mass voter fraud in the 2020 election and has been debunked.
She has also been active in the far-right’s battle for November’s midterm elections, rallying election officials, law enforcement and lawmakers to tighten voter restrictions and investigate the 2020 results.
said in an interview last month with a conservative show, GraceTimeTV, which was posted on the video-sharing site Rumble. “There have been no substantive improvements to change anything that happened in 2020 to prevent it from happening in 2022.”
set up stakeouts to prevent illegal stuffing of ballot boxes. Officials overseeing elections are ramping up security at polling places.
Voting rights groups said they were increasingly concerned by Ms. Engelbrecht.
She has “taken the power of rhetoric to a new place,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of voting rights at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s having a real impact on the way lawmakers and states are governing elections and on the concerns we have on what may happen in the upcoming elections.”
Some of Ms. Engelbrecht’s former allies have cut ties with her. Rick Wilson, a Republican operative and Trump critic, ran public relations for Ms. Engelbrecht in 2014 but quit after a few months. He said she had declined to turn over data to back her voting fraud claims.
“She never had the juice in terms of evidence,” Mr. Wilson said. “But now that doesn’t matter. She’s having her uplift moment.”
a video of the donor meeting obtained by The New York Times. They did not elaborate on why.
announce a partnership to scrutinize voting during the midterms.
“The most important right the American people have is to choose our own public officials,” said Mr. Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz. “Anybody trying to steal that right needs to be prosecuted and arrested.”
Steve Bannon, then chief executive of the right-wing media outlet Breitbart News, and Andrew Breitbart, the publication’s founder, spoke at her conferences.
True the Vote’s volunteers scrutinized registration rolls, watched polling stations and wrote highly speculative reports. In 2010, a volunteer in San Diego reported seeing a bus offloading people at a polling station “who did not appear to be from this country.”
Civil rights groups described the activities as voter suppression. In 2010, Ms. Engelbrecht told supporters that Houston Votes, a nonprofit that registered voters in diverse communities of Harris County, Texas, was connected to the “New Black Panthers.” She showed a video of an unrelated New Black Panther member in Philadelphia who called for the extermination of white people. Houston Votes was subsequently investigated by state officials, and law enforcement raided its office.
“It was a lie and racist to the core,” said Fred Lewis, head of Houston Votes, who sued True the Vote for defamation. He said he had dropped the suit after reaching “an understanding” that True the Vote would stop making accusations. Ms. Engelbrecht said she didn’t recall such an agreement.
in April 2021, did not respond to requests for comment. Ms. Engelbrecht has denied his claims.
In mid-2021, “2,000 Mules” was hatched after Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips met with Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative provocateur and filmmaker. They told him that they could detect cases of ballot box stuffing based on two terabytes of cellphone geolocation data that they had bought and matched with video surveillance footage of ballot drop boxes.
Salem Media Group, the conservative media conglomerate, and Mr. D’Souza agreed to create and fund a film. The “2,000 Mules” title was meant to evoke the image of cartels that pay people to carry illegal drugs into the United States.
said after seeing the film that it raised “significant questions” about the 2020 election results; 17 state legislators in Michigan also called for an investigation into election results there based on the film’s accusations.
In Arizona, the attorney general’s office asked True the Vote between April and June for data about some of the claims in “2,000 Mules.” The contentions related to Maricopa and Yuma Counties, where Ms. Engelbrecht said people had illegally submitted ballots and had used “stash houses” to store fraudulent ballots.
According to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a True the Vote official said Mr. Phillips had turned over a hard drive with the data. The attorney general’s office said early this month that it hadn’t received it.
Last month, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips hosted an invitation-only gathering of about 150 supporters in Queen Creek, Ariz., which was streamed online. For weeks beforehand, they promised to reveal the addresses of ballot “stash houses” and footage of voter fraud.
Ms. Engelbrecht did not divulge the data at the event. Instead, she implored the audience to look to the midterm elections, which she warned were the next great threat to voter integrity.
TikTok’s design makes it a breeding ground for misinformation, the researchers found. They wrote that videos could easily be manipulated and republished on the platform and showcased alongside stolen or original content. Pseudonyms are common; parody and comedy videos are easily misinterpreted as fact; popularity affects the visibility of comments; and data about publication time and other details are not clearly displayed on the mobile app.
(The Shorenstein Center researchers noted, however, that TikTok is less vulnerable to so-called brigading, in which groups coordinate to make a post spread widely, than platforms like Twitter or Facebook.)
During the first quarter of 2022, more than 60 percent of videos with harmful misinformation were viewed by users before being removed, TikTok said. Last year, a group of behavioral scientists who had worked with TikTok said that an effort to attach warnings to posts with unsubstantiated content had reduced sharing by 24 percent but had limited views by only 5 percent.
Researchers said that misinformation would continue to thrive on TikTok as long as the platform refused to release data about the origins of its videos or share insight into its algorithms. Last month, TikTok said it would offer some access to a version of its application programming interface, or A.P.I., this year, but it would not say whether it would do so before the midterms.
Filippo Menczer, an informatics and computer science professor and the director of the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University, said he had proposed research collaborations to TikTok and had been told, “Absolutely not.”
“At least with Facebook and Twitter, there is some level of transparency, but, in the case of TikTok, we have no clue,” he said. “Without resources, without being able to access data, we don’t know who gets suspended, what content gets taken down, whether they act on reports or what the criteria are. It’s completely opaque, and we cannot independently assess anything.”
SAN FRANCISCO — For years, Twitter was a runner-up social media company. It never grew to the size and scale of a Facebook or an Instagram. It simply muddled along.
Then, Elon Musk, a power user of the service, stormed in. He offered $44 billion to buy Twitter and declared that the company could perform far better if he were in charge. He disparaged Twitter’s executives, ridiculed its content policies, complained about the product and confused its more than 7,000 employees with his pronouncements. As Mr. Musk revealed the company’s lack of business and financial prospects, Twitter’s stock plunged more than 30 percent.
Now, as Mr. Musk, a billionaire, tries to back out of the blockbuster deal, he is inexorably leaving Twitter worse off than it was when he said he would buy it. With each needling tweet and public taunt, Mr. Musk has eroded trust in the social media company, walloped employee morale, spooked potential advertisers, emphasized its financial difficulties and spread misinformation about how Twitter operates.
set to sue Mr. Musk as soon as this week to force a completion of the deal. The court battle is likely to be protracted and immense, involving months of expensive litigation and high-stakes negotiations by elite lawyers. A resolution is far from certain — Twitter might win, but, if it loses, Mr. Musk could walk away by paying a breakup fee. Or the two sides could renegotiate or settle.
On Monday, the damage that Mr. Musk, 51, has inflicted was evident. Twitter’s stock plunged more than 11 percent to one of its lowest points since 2020 as investors anticipated the coming legal battle. Since Twitter accepted Mr. Musk’s acquisition offer, on April 25, its stock has lost over a third of its valueas investors have grown increasingly skeptical that the deal would get done on the agreed terms. (In contrast, the tech-heavy Nasdaq index was down about 12.5 percent in the same period.)
Twitter declined to comment on Monday. In a letter to Mr. Musk’s lawyers on Sunday, the company’s lawyers said that his move to terminate the deal was “invalid and wrongful” and that Mr. Musk “knowingly, intentionally, willfully and materially breached” his agreement to buy the firm. Twitter would continue to provide information to Mr. Musk and to work to close the transaction, the letter added.
cited the number of fake accounts on Twitter’s platform as the reason that he cannot buy the company, tweeted a picture of himself laughing at the situation.
the best it could obtain, suggesting it saw no way to reach that price on its own.
Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s chief executive, said in a memo to employees in May that the company had not lived up to its business and financial goals. To address the issues, he pushed out the heads of product and revenue, instituted a hiring slowdown and began an effort to attract new users and diversify into e-commerce. In April, the company stopped providing a forward-looking financial outlook to investors, pending the acquisition.
That trajectory is unlikely to change as uncertainty over the deal discomfits advertisers, the main source of Twitter’s revenue.
“Twitter will have trouble in the near future reassuring skittish advertisers and their users that they’re going to be stable,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of the watchdog group Media Matters for America.
In what was an implicit dig at Twitter’s top executives, Mr. Musk said he could have done way better with the company. In a presentation to investors in May, he said he planned to quintuple the company’s revenue to $26.4 billion by 2028 and to reach 931 million users that same year, up from 217 million at the end of last year.
letter filed to the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday. The company’s “declining business prospects and financial outlook” had given him pause, his lawyers wrote, especially considering Twitter’s recent “financial performance and revised outlook” on the fiscal year ahead.
Mr. Musk, who has more than 100 million followers on Twitter, has also jackhammered the product, saying it is not as attractive as other apps. He has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that Twitter is overrun with more inauthentic accounts than it has disclosed; such accounts can be automated to pump out toxic or false content. (The company has said fewer than 5 percent of the accounts on its platform are fake.)
His barbs about fake accounts have weakened trust in Twitter, just as the company prepares to moderate heated political discussions about an upcoming election in Brazil and the midterm elections this fall in the United States, misinformation experts said.
In another criticism of Twitter and the way it supervises content, Mr. Musk vowed to unwind the company’s moderation policies in the name of free speech. In May, he said he would “reverse the permanent ban” of former President Donald J. Trump from Twitter, allowing Mr. Trump back on the social network. That riled up right-wing users, who have long accused the company of censoring them, and renewed questions about how Twitter should handle debates over the limits of free speech.
Inside the company, employee morale has been battered, leading to infighting and attrition, according to six current and former employees.
Some of those who remain said they were relieved that Mr. Musk seemed to have decided against owning the company. Others shared nihilistic memes on the company’s Slack or openly criticized Twitter’s board and executives for entertaining Mr. Musk’s offer in the first place, according to internal messages viewed by The New York Times. The mood among executives was one of grim determination, two people with knowledge of their thinking said.
illustrated the mood with a cartoon that showed a shattered company that had been bumped off a shelf by Mr. Musk’s careless elbow. His caption: “You break it, you buy it!”
Ryan Mac and Isabella Simonetti contributed reporting.
To fight disinformation, California lawmakers are advancing a bill that would force social media companies to divulge their process for removing false, hateful or extremist material from their platforms. Texas lawmakers, by contrast, want to ban the largest of the companies — Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — from removing posts because of political points of view.
In Washington, the state attorney general persuaded a court to fine a nonprofit and its lawyer $28,000 for filing a baseless legal challenge to the 2020 governor’s race. In Alabama, lawmakers want to allow people to seek financial damages from social media platforms that shut down their accounts for having posted false content.
In the absence of significant action on disinformation at the federal level, officials in state after state are taking aim at the sources of disinformation and the platforms that propagate them — only they are doing so from starkly divergent ideological positions. In this deeply polarized era, even the fight for truth breaks along partisan lines.
a nation increasingly divided over a variety of issues — including abortion, guns, the environment — and along geographic lines.
a similar law in Florida that would have fined social media companies as much as $250,000 a day if they blocked political candidates from their platforms, which have become essential tools of modern campaigning. Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures have proposed similar measures, including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Alaska.
Alabama’s attorney general, Steve Marshall, has created an online portal through which residents can complain that their access to social media has been restricted: alabamaag.gov/Censored. In a written response to questions, he said that social media platforms stepped up efforts to restrict content during the pandemic and the presidential election of 2020.
“During this period (and continuing to present day), social media platforms abandoned all pretense of promoting free speech — a principle on which they sold themselves to users — and openly and arrogantly proclaimed themselves the Ministry of Truth,” he wrote. “Suddenly, any viewpoint that deviated in the slightest from the prevailing orthodoxy was censored.”
Much of the activity on the state level today has been animated by the fraudulent assertion that Mr. Trump, and not President Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. Although disproved repeatedly, the claim has been cited by Republicans to introduce dozens of bills that would clamp down on absentee or mail-in voting in the states they control.
memoirist and Republican nominee for Senate, railed against social media giants, saying they stifled news about the foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
massacre at a supermarket in Buffalo in May.
Connecticut plans to spend nearly $2 million on marketing to share factual information about voting and to create a position for an expert to root out misinformation narratives about voting before they go viral. A similar effort to create a disinformation board at the Department of Homeland Security provoked a political fury before its work was suspended in May pending an internal review.
In California, the State Senate is moving forward with legislation that would require social media companies to disclose their policies regarding hate speech, disinformation, extremism, harassment and foreign political interference. (The legislation would not compel them to restrict content.) Another bill would allow civil lawsuits against large social media platforms like TikTok and Meta’s Facebook and Instagram if their products were proven to have addicted children.
“All of these different challenges that we’re facing have a common thread, and the common thread is the power of social media to amplify really problematic content,” said Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel of California, a Democrat, who sponsored the legislation to require greater transparency from social media platforms. “That has significant consequences both online and in physical spaces.”
It seems unlikely that the flurry of legislative activity will have a significant impact before this fall’s elections; social media companies will have no single response acceptable to both sides when accusations of disinformation inevitably arise.
“Any election cycle brings intense new content challenges for platforms, but the November midterms seem likely to be particularly explosive,” said Matt Perault, a director of the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina. “With abortion, guns, democratic participation at the forefront of voters’ minds, platforms will face intense challenges in moderating speech. It’s likely that neither side will be satisfied by the decisions platforms make.”
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, made securing the 2020 U.S. election a top priority. He met regularly with an election team, which included more than 300 people from across his company, to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network. He asked civil rights leaders for advice on upholding voter rights.
The core election team at Facebook, which was renamed Meta last year, has since been dispersed. Roughly 60 people are now focused primarily on elections, while others split their time on other projects. They meet with another executive, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive has not talked recently with civil rights groups, even as some have asked him to pay more attention to the midterm elections in November.
Safeguarding elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s top concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot have underlined how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.
2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commenters said they expected election fraud this year and warned against using mail-in voting and electronic voting machines.
$44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested that he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.
barred Mr. Trump from its platforms after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has worked over the years to limit political falsehoods on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a Meta spokesman, said the company had “taken a comprehensive approach to how elections play out on our platforms since before the U.S. 2020 elections and through the dozens of global elections since then.”
recently raised doubts about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia are also holding elections in October.
“People in the U.S. are almost certainly getting the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to any integrity on any platform, especially for U.S. elections,” said Sahar Massachi, the executive director of the think tank Integrity Institute and a former Facebook employee. “And so however bad it is here, think about how much worse it is everywhere else.”
Facebook’s role in potentially distorting elections became evident after 2016, when Russian operatives used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the U.S. presidential election. In 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.
banning QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.
Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund poll workers, pay for rental fees for polling places, provide personal protective equipment and cover other administrative costs.
The week before the November 2020 election, Meta also froze all political advertising to limit the spread of falsehoods.
But while there were successes — the company kept foreign election interference off the platform — it struggled with how to handle Mr. Trump, who used his Facebook account to amplify false claims of voter fraud. After the Jan. 6 riot, Facebook barred Mr. Trump from posting. He is eligible for reinstatement in January.
Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistle-blower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election safety features too soon after the 2020 election. Facebook made growth and engagement its priorities over security, she said.
fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel “Ready Player One.”
The future. Many people in tech believe the metaverse will herald an era in which our virtual lives will play as important a role as our physical realities. Some experts warn that it could still turn out to be a fad or even dangerous.
Mr. Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those focused on election security, said the four employees, though he receives their reports. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.
Several civil right groups said they had noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t involved in discussions with them as he once was, nor are other top Meta executives, they said.
“I’m concerned,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who talked with Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s chief operating officer, ahead of the 2020 election. “It appears to be out of sight, out of mind.” (Ms. Sandberg has announced that she will leave Meta this fall.)
wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and the chief executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They called for them to take down posts about the lie that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and to slow the spread of election misinformation before the midterms.
Yosef Getachew, a director at the nonprofit public advocacy organization Common Cause, whose group studied 2020 election misinformation on social media, said the companies had not responded.
“The Big Lie is front and center in the midterms with so many candidates using it to pre-emptively declare that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, pointing to recent tweets from politicians in Michigan and Arizona who falsely said dead people cast votes for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop enforcing against the Big Lie.”
Ahead of the 2020 elections, Connecticut confronted a bevy of falsehoods about voting that swirled around online. One, widely viewed on Facebook, wrongly said absentee ballots had been sent to dead people. On Twitter, users spread a false post that a tractor-trailer carrying ballots had crashed on Interstate 95, sending thousands of voter slips into the air and across the highway.
Concerned about a similar deluge of unfounded rumors and lies around this year’s midterm elections, the state plans to spend nearly $2 million on marketing to share factual information about voting, and to create its first-ever position for an expert in combating misinformation. With a salary of $150,000, the person is expected to comb fringe sites like 4chan, far-right social networks like Gettr and Rumble, and mainstream social media sites to root out early misinformation narratives about voting before they go viral, and then urge the companies to remove or flag the posts that contain false information.
“We have to have situational awareness by looking into all the incoming threats to the integrity of elections,” said Scott Bates, Connecticut’s deputy secretary of the state. “Misinformation can erode people’s confidence in elections, and we view that as a critical threat to the democratic process.”
Connecticut joins a handful of states preparing to fight an onslaught of rumors and lies about this year’s elections.
ABC/Ipsos poll from January, only 20 percent of respondents said they were “very confident” in the integrity of the election system and 39 percent said they felt “somewhat confident.” Numerous Republican candidates have embraced former President Donald J. Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election, campaigning — often successfully — on the untrue claim that it was stolen from him.
Some conservatives and civil rights groups are almost certain to complain that the efforts to limit misinformation could restrict free speech. Florida, led by Republicans, has enacted legislation limiting the kind of social media moderation that sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can do, with supporters saying the sites constrict conservative voices. (A U.S. appeals court recently blocked most aspects of the law.) On the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security recently paused the work of an advisory board on disinformation after a barrage of criticism from conservative lawmakers and free speech advocates that the group could suppress speech.
“State and local governments are well situated to reduce harms from dis- and misinformation by providing timely, accurate and trustworthy information,” said Rachel Goodman, a lawyer at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan advocacy group. “But in order to maintain that trust, they must make clear that they are not engaging in any kind of censorship or surveillance that would raise constitutional concerns.”
Connecticut and Colorado officials said that the problem of misinformation had only worsened since 2020 and that without a more concerted push to counteract it, even more voters could lose faith in the integrity of elections. They also said they feared for the safety of some election workers.
“We are seeing a threat atmosphere unlike anything this country has seen before,” said Jena Griswold, the secretary of state of Colorado. Ms. Griswold, a Democrat who is up for re-election this fall, has received threats for upholding 2020 election results and refuting Mr. Trump’s false claims of fraudulent voting in the state.
Other secretaries of state, who head the office typically charged with overseeing elections, have received similar pushback. In Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who certified President Biden’s win in the state, has faced fierce criticism laced with false claims about the 2020 election.
In his primary race this year, Mr. Raffensperger batted down misinformation that there were 66,000 underage voters, 2,400 unregistered voters and more than 10,350 dead people who cast ballots in the presidential election. None of the claims are true. He won his primary last week.
Colorado is redeploying a misinformation team that the state created for the 2020 election. The team is composed of three election security experts who monitor the internet for misinformation and then report it to federal law enforcement.
Ms. Griswold will oversee the team, called the Rapid Response Election Security Cyber Unit. It looks only for election-related misinformation on issues like absentee voting, polling locations and eligibility, she said.
“Facts still exist, and lies are being used to chip away at our fundamental freedoms,” Ms. Griswold said.
Connecticut officials said the state’s goal was to patrol the internet for election falsehoods. On May 7, the Connecticut Legislature approved $2 million for internet, TV, mail and radio education campaigns on the election process, and to hire an election information security officer.
Officials said they would prefer candidates fluent in both English and Spanish, to address the spread of misinformation in both languages. The officer would track down viral misinformation posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, and look for emerging narratives and memes, especially on fringe social media platforms and the dark web.
“We know we can’t boil the ocean, but we have to figure out where the threat is coming from, and before it metastasizes,” Mr. Bates said.
Twitter, which went public in 2013, has also had a tumultuous corporate history. It has repeatedly dealt with board dysfunction and drama with its founders, and was courted by other interested buyers in the past, including Disney and Salesforce. In 2020, the activist investment firm Elliott Management took a stake in Twitter and called for Jack Dorsey, one of its founders, to resign as chief executive. Mr. Dorsey stepped down last year.
“This company is very much undermonetized, especially compared to other platforms and competitors like Facebook,” said Pinar Yildirim, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. “If you look at it from a point of pure business value, there’s definitely room for improvement.”
In a statement, Bret Taylor, Twitter’s chairman, said that the board had “conducted a thoughtful and comprehensive process” on Mr. Musk’s bid and that the deal would “deliver a substantial cash premium” for shareholders.
Regulators are unlikely to seriously challenge the transaction, former antitrust officials said, since the government most commonly intervenes to stop a deal when a company is buying a competitor.
The deal came together in a matter of weeks. Mr. Musk, who also leads the electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket maker SpaceX, began buying shares of Twitter in January and disclosed this month that he had amassed a stake of more than 9 percent.
That immediately set off a guessing game over what Mr. Musk planned to do with the platform. Twitter’s executives initially welcomed him to the board of directors, but he reversed course within days and instead began a bid to buy the company outright.
Any agreement initially appeared unlikely because the entrepreneur did not say how he would finance the deal. Twitter’s executives appeared skeptical, too, given that it was difficult to discern how much Mr. Musk might be jesting. In 2018, for example, he tweeted that he planned to take Tesla private and inaccurately claimed that he had “funding secured” for such a deal.
“And almost without exception, these influencers feel that they have been wronged by mainstream society in some way,” Mr. Brooking added.
Dr. Malone earned a medical degree from Northwestern University in 1991, and for the next decade taught pathology at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Maryland. He then turned to biotech start-ups and consulting. His résumé says he was “instrumental” in securing early-stage approval for research on the Ebola vaccine by the pharmaceutical company Merck in the mid-2010s. He also worked on repurposing drugs to treat Zika.
In extended interviews at his home over two days, Dr. Malone said he was repeatedly not recognized for his contributions over the course of his career, his voice low and grave as he recounted perceived slights by the institutions he had worked for. His wife, Dr. Jill Glasspool Malone, paced the room and pulled up articles on her laptop that she said supported his complaints.
The example he points to more frequently is from his time at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. While there, he performed experiments that showed how human cells could absorb an mRNA cocktail and produce proteins from it. Those experiments, he says, make him the inventor of mRNA vaccine technology.
“I was there,” Dr. Malone said. “I wrote all the invention.”
What the mainstream media did instead, he said, was give credit for the mRNA vaccines to the scientists Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, because there “is a concerted campaign to get them the Nobel Prize” by Pfizer and BioNTech, where Dr. Kariko is a senior vice president, as well as the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Weissman leads a laboratory researching vaccines and infectious diseases.
But at the time he was conducting those experiments, it was not known how to protect the fragile RNA from the immune system’s attack, scientists say. Former colleagues said they had watched in astonishment as Dr. Malone began posting on social media about why he deserved to win the Nobel Prize.
The idea that he is the inventor of mRNA vaccines is “a totally false claim,” said Dr. Gyula Acsadi, a pediatrician in Connecticut who along with Dr. Malone and five others wrote a widely cited paper in 1990 showing that injecting RNA into muscle could produce proteins. (The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work by injecting RNA into arm muscles that produce copies of the “spike protein” found on the outside of the coronavirus. The human immune system identifies that protein, attacks it and then remembers how to defeat it.)