False stories, misleading ads and suspicious mailers are an unfortunate feature of most modern political campaigns.
But there is another type of misinformation to worry about Tuesday: the type that strikes on Election Day, requiring voters to wade through rumors, hoaxes and misleading information on their way to the polls.
We break down six of the most common types of Election Day misinformation, as well as some tips for spotting and avoiding it.
Polling place hoaxes
In 2016, several false rumors cropped up around behavior at polling stations.
One false rumor, which spread primarily on Twitter and right-wing blogs, claimed that poll workers in Nevada were wearing “Defeat Trump” shirts, despite being forbidden by election law from wearing partisan apparel. The photo, it turned out, was actually taken at a union event days earlier.
Another false rumor in 2016 used doctored photos to claim that agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were arresting voters at the polls. The rumor, which was accompanied by threatening language, was meant to intimidate Latino voters.
ICE has addressed similar rumors spreading ahead of Tuesday’s election by clarifying that immigration officials will not be patrolling polling stations.
Remote voting options
In 2016, false information circulated on social media — including some that was spread by Russia-linked accounts — that told voters they could cast their ballots by text message, e-mail or over the internet.
These rumors may circulate again in 2018, and again, they will be false. Except for certain overseas absentee voters who qualify under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, no state allows ballot submission over the internet, and no state offers a vote-by-text option.
Text messages are the breakout technology of the 2018 campaign, and many campaigns have been using peer-to-peer texting apps to encourage voters to turn out Tuesday.
If you are on a campaign or party committee’s voter list, you may receive legitimate text messages on Tuesday encouraging you to vote, offering you a ride to the polls, or telling you where your polling place is.
But beware any text messages that tell you that voting hours or locations have changed, that new forms of voter ID are required, or that your voter registration is not valid.
Voters across Indiana who filed absentee ballots last month have been receiving text messages purporting to be from President Donald Trump — and claiming their votes have not been registered. The texts included a link to a Republican National Committee website that asks users to enter their names, addresses and phone numbers and then provides information about their polling locations.
“This is President Trump,” read one message received by a voter in Elkhart County, Indiana, who had voted by absentee ballot. “Your early vote has NOT been RECORDED on Indiana’s roster.”
Voters in Georgia, Kansas and Michigan have reported receiving similar messages from “President Trump.” Voters have also reported receiving texts from Democratic organizations, telling them that their absentee ballots have not been returned.
Rumors of voting machine malfunction
Reports of broken, rigged or technically compromised voting machines are common on Election Day. You may even see videos of malfunctioning voting machines going viral on social media. Unless you have rock-solid evidence that the claims are true, it’s usually best to be skeptical.
On Election Day in 2016, a Pennsylvania woman posted a viral Twitter video that claimed that her voting machine was not allowing her to vote for Donald Trump. The video was shared thousands of times online, and set off fears of a rigged election. But it turned out to be user error, as ProPublica reported. Trump also spread voting machine-related misinformation on Election Day, falsely citing reports about isolated problems with voting machines in one Utah county as evidence that problems were being reported across the entire country.
There may also be accurate reports of troubles with voting machines. Several weeks ago, Texas’ election commissioner issued an advisory after some voters reported a problem with the state’s electronic voting machines. The machines switched the votes of some people who had selected a straight-party ticket but had also pushed another button on the machine before the screen had finished rendering. In the Texas case, only a handful of complaints were received, and all of the complaining voters were able to recast their votes, according to the Washington Post.
The best thing to do, in any case, is to take extra precautions. In states that issue a paper record of electronically submitted votes, check the paper record to make sure that your choices are accurately reflected. And in the five states that provide no paper trail of votes — Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, New Jersey and Delaware — double- or triple-check your choices before submitting them. If you believe your voting machine is malfunctioning, notify a poll worker.
Misleading photos and videos
The 2016 election gave rise to an influx of doctored and mislabeled photos, and this year’s Election Day could be a repeat. Voters could be shown photos of long lines at polling places to discourage them from voting, or could be shown manipulated videos of malfunctioning voting machines. (This happened in Brazil last month, when a doctored video showing a voting machine automatically casting votes for a left-leaning candidate went viral on social media.)
Social networks have tried to combat the spread of false and misleading information about voting. Facebook set up a “war room” to coordinate responses to suspicious activity on Election Day, and has set up a channel where state election officials can send the company examples of voting-related misinformation they find, according to the Washington Post. Twitter has teamed with state election officials and built a portal to handle reports of voting-related disinformation on Election Day, The Post reported.
Still, it’s likely that someone will try to mislead voters through manipulated photos or videos on Election Day, so it’s best to be prepared to give extra scrutiny to everything you see.
False voter fraud allegations
During the 2016 election, Trump claimed without evidence that widespread voter fraud would occur. After he won the presidency but lost the popular vote, he claimed, again without proof, that millions of immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally had cast ballots.
In the real world, voter fraud is exceedingly rare, but you can expect rumors to fly on Election Day anyway. In Brazil, which held its presidential election last month, viral rumors and hoaxes on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp claimed to show evidence of widespread voter fraud.
These hoaxes are often meant to undermine an election’s integrity and delegitimize the winners. Unless you witness indisputable evidence of voter fraud, it’s best to ignore these claims.
Tips for checking misinformation, and what to do if you spot some
Your job on Tuesday is not to debunk misinformation, it’s to vote! Still, there are things you can do to quickly check the authenticity of any information you find.
Whenever possible, it’s best to rely on official government websites for voting-related information. (Look for the .gov at the end of the website address.) The New York Times published a guide to figuring out how, where and when to vote Tuesday. There are also several sites, including Vote411 and BallotReady, that provide independent and nonpartisan voter information.
Before sharing a viral story on Election Day that looks suspicious, check a fact-checking website such as Snopes or FactCheck.org first, to see if it has been debunked. If it is a photo, try doing a reverse image search using a website like TinEye to see if the photo is old or mislabeled, or if it has been manipulated.
If you witness voter intimidation, you can tell a poll worker, or report it via the Election Protection Hotline, which is administered by the nonpartisan group Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: 1-866-OUR-VOTE or 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (in Spanish). You can also report it to the Justice Department’s voting rights hotline: 1-800-253-3931.
And if you do find misinformation online that has the potential to mislead voters, you can take it directly to social media platforms through their reporting tools, or send it to the New York Times.