The Free Internet Project

2020 election

Public Service Announcements: Tips to Avoid Election Misinformation and Fake Election Results

The Free Internet Project makes the following public service announcements to provide the public with information and tips to avoid election misinformation, including the potential for fake election results and fake news of voting irregularities to delegitimize the election. We plan on sharing these public service announcements on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. We invite you to share them as well.  You can download all the Public Service Announcements by visting this page.

Reason for The Free Internet Project's Public Service Announcements on Election Misinformation

Social media companies including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, Reddit, and other companies have content moderation policies that prohibit election misinformation and voter suppression on their platforms in anticipation of the 2020 U.S. elections. These companies fear a repeat of the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. As the bipartisan U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported in thousands of pages of its report on "Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election," the Russian operative group Internet Research Agency used American-based social media platforms to interfere with the 2016 election. "Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government's covert support of Russia's favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election." (Vol. 2, p. 3).

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media companies are now working hard to protect American voters from the same kind of fake news and fake content exploited by the Russian operatives in the 2016 election. But no social media platform is entirely immune from such foreign interference or attacks. On September 22, 2020, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a public service announcement to warn Americans of a new kind of worry for the 2020 election: "the potential threat posed by attempts to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 elections." 

Our goal at The Free Internet Project is to help Americans avoid election misinformation and fake election results. We provide basic information explaining what election misinformation is, give several examples of fake ads and fake accounts used by Russian operatives in the 2016 election, and offer several tips for people to protect themselves on social media. 

Explanation of The Free Internet Project's Public Service Announcements on How to Avoid Election Misinformation

1.  Definition of election misinformation

We first define "election misinformation": "Election misinformation is false, deceptive, or inaccurate information related to the election." It can come in the form of fake news, fake accounts, fake election results, or other misleading content intended to suppress or change your vote, or to discredit the election process. Americans should understand that some election misinformation may expressly include false or misleading claims about the candidates, the voting process, mail-in ballots, voter fraud or purported irregularities in voting, or the election results (who won). But some election misinformation doesn't even mention the election itself, but instead comes in the form of fake content posted from fake accounts on social media intended to make you believe they share your views. These fake accounts pose as Americans supporting particular and often popular causes, such as racial justice, Second Amendment gun rights, support for the police, and LGBTQ rights. In the 2016 U.S. election, Russian operatives used these kinds of fake American accounts to sow discord in U.S. and polarize voters. Volume 2 of the bipartisan Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election: Russia's Use of Social Media with Additional View, especially pp. 32-71, is the best source to read for examples of the Russian operatives' extensive election misinformation. This year, the FBI and CISA have special concern about foreign interference that may seek to spread fake election results and fake news about voter fraud or other purported irregularities in voting, in order to cast doubt on the verified election results from the states. We discuss this concern in No. 4 below. The key to remember is that election misinformation comes in many forms--possibly even new forms that won't be easy to recognize or detect. Beware.

2.  Stop: Don't rely on or share unverified sources on social media. They can be fake accounts, manipulated videos, and other misleading content intended to suppress or change your vote, or to delegitimize the election.


In their Sept. 22, 2020 public service announcement, "the FBI and CISA urge the American public to critically evaluate the sources of the information they consume and to seek out reliable and verified information from trusted sources, such as state and local election officials." Social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, have set up voting or election information centers for their users that contain trusted sources identified by those companies. One of the safest practices for social media is to rely only on sources that you know are verified trusted sources. Some companies verify users with a check mark inside a blue circle, but just because users have that symbol does not mean that they are a trusted source of news or election information.  Another safe practice is to rely on multiple trusted sources before you reach any conclusions about a news report.

3.  Caution: Be cautious with "friends" or "followers" on social media you don't know. They might be fake accounts trying to make you believe they are on your side. They aren't.

Many Americans may not realize that, in the 2016 election, Russian operatives posed as Americans on social media and acted like they shared your political views on both sides of the political spectrum. The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Report described in Volume 2, p. 3:  "Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government's covert support of Russia's favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election." We have used examples of posts from the fake accounts run by Russian operatives in the 2016, which were analyzed by the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as HPSCI Minority Open Hearing Exhibits. These examples show that the Russian operatives tried to trick Americans into believing they were on your side, so they could manipulate Americans. As the Senate Intelligence Committee explained in Volume 2 at p. 32-33: "In practice, the IRA's influence operatives dedicated the balance of their effort to establishing the credibility of their online personas, such as by posting innocuous content designed to appeal to like-minded users. This innocuous content allowed IRA influence operatives to build character details for their fake personas, such as a conservative Southerner or a liberal activist, until the opportune moment arrived when the account was used to deliver tailored 'payload content' designed to influence the targeted user. By this concept of operations, the volume and content of posts can obscure the actual objective behind the influence operation. 'If you're running a propaganda outfit, most of what you publish is factual so that you're taken seriously,' Graphika CEO and TAG researcher John Kelly described to the Committee, '[T]hen you can slip in the wrong thing at exactly the right time.'" In other words, your "friends" on social media may be your enemies trying to trick you.

4.  Caution: The FBI warns don't fall for fake election results or fake news about voter fraud or irregularities in voting.

In their Sept. 22, 2020 public service announcement, the FBI and CISA warn that foreign actors and cybercriminals may attempt to spread disinformation about the 2020 election results or other false information "to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions. Given the pandemic, this year's voting may have increased use of mail-in ballots that may require greater time to tabulate. "Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy." We offer several tips drawn from the FBI and CISA public service announcement: 

How to avoid fake election results or fake news of voting problems. 

  • “For information about final election results, rely on state and local government election officials."

  • "Verify through multiple reliable sources any reports about problems in voting or election results, and consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing such information via social media or other avenues.”

  • When you are waiting for election results: “Seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials; verify who produced the content; and consider their intent.”

​How to report election misinformation to social media companies or election crimes to the FBI.

  • “If appropriate, make use of in-platform tools offered by social media companies for reporting suspicious posts that appear to be spreading false or inconsistent information about election-related problems or results.” (See the next section below.)

  •  “Report potential election crimes—such as disinformation about the manner, time, or place of voting—to the FBI. The FBI encourages victims to report information concerning suspicious or criminal activity to their local field office"

5.  Go: These safe practices protect everyone on social media.

6.  Go: Vote!

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. Many states have early voting and mail-in ballots. The U.S. Election Assistance Committee provides a collection of state voting resources at

Sources for the Public Service Announcements

We have studied the available information from U.S. government sources on the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and on the current threat of foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election. We have also reviewed the community standards of the major social media companies and their announced efforts to combat election misinformation and foreign interference. The primary sources of our public service announcements come from the following: 

  1. FBI and CISA, Public Service Announcement, "Foreign Actors and Cybercriminals Likely to Spread Disinformation Regarding 2020 Election Results," Sept. 22, 2020. 
  2. Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election, Vol. 2: Russia's Use of Social Media with Additional View 
  3. U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, HPSCI Minority Open Hearing Exhibits 
  4. We have also reviewed the community standards of all the major social media companies, as well as news reports of their ongoing efforts to stop election misinformation. 
  5. We also reviewed the Department of Homeland Security's "Homeland Threat Assessment October 2020." which warns: " Threats to our election have been another rapidly evolving issue. Nation-states like China, Russia, and Iran will try to use cyber capabilities or foreign influence to compromise or disrupt infrastructure related to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, aggravate social and racial tensions, undermine trust in U.S. authorities, and criticize our elected officials." (at 5)

Where you can report election crimes

Where you can report election misinformation on social media

Our Commitment to Nonpartisanship

The Free Internet Project is a Section 501(c)(3) organization. We steadfastly abide by the requirement of avoiding any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office. We believe that, in our democracy, every citizen's right to vote their preference should be respected. We have relied on U.S. government sources, including the current FBI and CISA, and the bipartisan Report of the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, to provide verified information. Our public service announcements are intended as a voter education guide, similar to the Sept. 22, 2020 public service announcement by the FBI and CISA. Nothing in our public service announcements should be interpreted as an endorsement or opposition to any candidate for any public office.  


Facebook enlists independent researchers and Social Science One to study how Facebook, Instagram affect 2020 US elections

On Aug. 31, 2020, Facebook announced a new research initiative it started with Social Science One committee chairs, Professors Talia Stroud of University of Texas at Austin and Joshua Tucker of New York University. The researchers will examine "examine the impact of how people interact with our products, including content shared in News Feed and across Instagram, and the role of features like content ranking systems." The research projects conducted on Facebook or via data from Facebook will start soon and end in December, after the November 2020 election. Facebook "expect[s] between 200,000 and 400,000 US adults may choose to participate in the study, which could include things like taking part in surveys or agreeing to see a different product experience. We will also study trends across Facebook and Instagram – but only in aggregate."

Interestingly, Facebook believes that the research projects will not affect the outcome of the U.S. elections: "With billions of dollars spent on ads, direct mail, canvassing, organizing and get out the vote efforts, it is statistically implausible that one research initiative could impact the outcome of an election. The research has been carefully designed to not impact the outcome of the election or harm participants. The sample of participants represents approximately 0.1% of the entire US eligible voting population spread across the US. By better understanding how people use our platform during an election, we can continually enhance the integrity of the platform moving forward." 

Facebook seems to gloss over the fact that a few swing voters in key swing states or precincts could ultimately determine the outcome of some of the elections. Without knowing the details of the various research projects, it's hard to evaluate the potential effect they may have on voters. 

The independent researchers are: 

  • Hunt Allcott, New York University 
  • Deen Freelon, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Matthew Gentzkow, Stanford University
  • Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, University of Pennsylvania
  • Andrew Guess, Princeton University
  • Shanto Iyengar, Stanford University
  • Young Mie Kim, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • David Lazer, Northeastern University 
  • Neil Malhotra, Stanford University
  • Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College
  • Jennifer Pan, Stanford University
  • Jaime Settle, William & Mary
  • Talia Stroud, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Emily Thorson, Syracuse University
  • Rebekah Tromble, The George Washington University
  • Joshua A. Tucker, New York University
  • Magdalena Wojcieszak, University of California, Davis; University of Amsterdam

Facebook describes the scope of research projects as follows:

The independent academics are collaborating with Facebook researchers to design a diverse set of studies to analyze the role of Facebook and Instagram in the US 2020 election. To collect the information for the study, we are partnering with NORC at the University of Chicago, an objective, non-partisan research institution that has been studying public opinion since 1941. NORC possesses deep expertise in survey research, policy evaluation, data collection, advanced analytics and data science. The study was approved by NORC’s Institutional Review Board.

For people who have explicitly opted in to the study, we plan to combine multiple research methods, including surveys and behavioral data analysis, along with targeted changes to some participants’ experiences with Facebook and Instagram. For example, participants could see more or fewer ads in specific categories such as retail, entertainment or politics, or see more or fewer posts in News Feed related to specific topics. Other participants may be asked to stop using Facebook or Instagram for a period of time. A subset of participants may be asked to install an app on their devices – with their permission – that will log other digital media that they consume. This will allow researchers to understand more comprehensively the information environment that people experience. 

How Russian Interference May Target Black Voters and Foment Racial Discord in U.S.

Russia is reportedly continuing its U.S. election interference tactics that it deployed in 2016, in particular targeting race as a method to depress minority voters and turnout. Russia stoked anger and fear through the spread of disinformation in the U.S. to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, as a bipartisan report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found [Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4]. Russia's primary method of disinformation used social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A March 10, 2020 article in the New York Times reports that, in the 2016 election, Russian "operatives tried to stoke racial animosity by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups and spreading disinformation to depress black voter turnout." Russia is now expanding its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. elections. Russia’s current goal, according to multiple intelligence officials, is to create chaos within the United States by using racial discord as a wedge. American officials have noted several ways that Russia has tried to spread disinformation, create fear, and stoke anger. According to the NYT article, the two primary methods are (1) incentivizing white nationalist groups to spread more hate and (2) manipulating black groups by infiltrating them to create more divisions and fear. Race is being weaponized by Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. election. 

In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, black voter turnout was down. It is clear from Russia's 2016 disinformation campaign targeting minority voters, particularly black voters, that Russian interference is highly sophisticated and advanced. As noted in the New York Times article, many of the accounts on Instagram targeting a black audience dated back to January 2015. The Russian interference on the African American community goes beyond Facebook and Twitter voter disinformation. It is on Instagram and other platforms.  

With regards to the 2020 election, direct action is being taken now in contrast to 2016. The FBI has a Foreign Influence Task Force to investigate election interference. According to the NYT, "[t]he F.B.I. is scrutinizing any ties between Russian intelligence or its proxies and Rinaldo Nazzaro, an American citizen who founded a neo-Nazi group, the Base." A VOA article dives into efforts being made to decipher false information on social media.  Being aware of the role of Russia in the suppressing of minority and particularly black votes changes things. Various advocacy groups are taking actions to combat the disinformation and hold both social media platforms and government official accountable. "Social media companies pledged new security measures aimed at finding and removing coordinated manipulation campaigns before they spread fake content," VOA reported.

Many African American voters get their political news through the use of social media (50% in 2014). That is why it is imperative that they be made aware of Russia’s role in disinformation and also the ways in which they are being targeted. In an interview with NPR, Charlene Oliver of the Equity Alliance talks about how groups like hers plan to get out the black vote and the impact that knowing Russia’s role in 2016 has on their work. For many people, the effectiveness of Russia’s interference in 2015 came as a surprise. Now groups like the Equity Alliance are using the lessons from 2016 to drive their voter protection efforts for this year’s election. Oliver mentions that voter information is essential to combat online disinformation meant to suppress the vote. With advocacy groups working for direct voter education, others are working to hold government officials accountable.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, asked to be informed about the steps the United States Justice Department is taking or has taken to address the ongoing Russian interference on the election. In the letter they note how Russia has evolved in their spread of disinformation. The attacks have moved to areas of the web that are less monitored such as private groups on social media platforms and also private chat groups. In these groups Russia attempts to stoke racial tensions in America and evoke fears in an effort to keep voters away from the polls. The NAACP is asking Attorney General Barr to prohibit voter suppression efforts through the use of the Voting Rights Act and also through executive action to promote election security. They also note that African American voters must both contend with domestic and international voter suppression efforts, so it is imperative that policy action be taken. 

According to some legal experts, however, Barr seems to be protecting President Donald Trump, whose campaign benefited from the 2016 Russian interference. Barr is investigating the origin of the federal investigation into Russian interference, in an apparent attempt to discredit the Mueller Report and the entire U.S. investigation into Russian interference. In an op-ed, Emily Bazelon and Eric Posner list the questionable actions of Barr, "an attorney general whose loyalty to a president stands ahead of his fidelity to the rule of law."

With the awareness of the role of Russia in 2016, the spread of information in the 2020 election is being watched closely. As noted in the NAACP letter to Barr, Russia will not use all of the same election interference methods they used in 2016. New methods will be created. That is why greater safeguards should be adopted by both the U.S. government and by social media companies. It is unclear how the nationwide and international protests of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutal killing of George Floyd, along with the separate killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in Georgia and Kentucky, will change the dynamics of the 2020 elections. It is possible that, instead of depressing voter turnout, the protests will lead to greater voter turnout, with more people civically engaged and demanding accountability.

-written by Bisola Oni

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